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Texas Graveyards

[ Regional/Texas ]

Texas Graveyards

A Cultural Legacy

By Terry Jordan

This book not only marks the distinct ethnic and racial traditions in burial practices but also preserves a Texas legacy endangered by changing customs, rural depopulation, vandalism, and the erosion of time.

1982

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Paperback

7 x 10 | 160 pp. | 128 b&w photos

ISBN: 978-0-292-78070-5

Where more poignantly than in a small country graveyard can a traveler fathom the flow of history and tradition? During the past twenty years, Terry G. Jordan has traveled the back roads and hidden trails of rural Texas in search of such cemeteries. With camera in hand, he has visited more than one thousand cemeteries created and maintained by the Anglo-American, black, Indian, Mexican, and German settlers of Texas. His discoveries of sculptured stones and mounds, hex signs and epitaphs, intricate landscapes and unusual decorations represent a previously unstudied and unappreciated wealth of Texas folk art and tradition. Texas Graveyards not only marks the distinct ethnic and racial traditions in burial practices but also preserves a Texas legacy endangered by changing customs, rural depopulation, vandalism, and the erosion of time.

  • Acknowledgments
  • 1. The Truth about Cemeteries
  • 2. The Southern Folk Cemetery in Texas
  • 3. Traditional Southern Grave Markers
  • 4. The Mexican Graveyard in Texas
  • 5. The Texas German Graveyard
  • 6. A Legacy Squandered?
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Map of Texas Counties

My attraction to Texas cemeteries does not rest upon a fascination with death. I am not in the least thanatophilic and have instead long entertained, even nurtured, a healthy fear of death. Nor was I drawn to these landscapes of the dead, as so many are, by genealogy or the loss of loved ones. Death remained a stranger throughout my researches, never touching those close to me. Rather, my first visits to the cemeteries of Texas occurred as a result of a project I undertook to chart the spatial distribution of ethnic and cultural groups in the state, in particular the Germans. I compiled the resultant map, in no small part, from surname counts of tombstones in hundreds of rural and small-town graveyards across Texas. During these early years of cemetery tramping, I gradually became aware of four noteworthy truths about traditional burial grounds.

Necrogeography

First, and most important from my perspective as a cultural geographer, I learned that many characteristics of traditional Texas cemeteries differ greatly from one ethnic group to another, from one district to its neighbor. I found, for example, along the boundary between German-settled areas and neighboring regions occupied by southern Anglo-Americans, that more than mere surnames differed from one side to the other. Instead, the whole material culture of death clearly reflected the presence of the boundary. Soon I was able to distinguish German from Anglo cemeteries even before I had approached near enough to read surnames or other inscriptions. And when, as often occurred, some Mexican graves were included in these dominantly Anglo and German cemeteries, I found that they, too, could easily be distinguished from a distance, their specific ethnicity revealed by rough wooden crosses and elaborate floral decoration.

Subsequent cemetery tramping in the Midwest, New England, and Europe reinforced my realization that major regional/ethnic variations existed in graveyard types; that a vivid "necrogeography," or regionality of burial practices, awaited description, classification, and analysis. Before I was finished with my ethnic map, I had become convinced that the traditional cemeteries of Texas provide one of the best indices to the cultural diversity of the state. Nowhere else, perhaps, is the imprint of Texas' multiple peopling still so sharp and clear as in the places we set aside for our dead.

The Living and the Dead

The second truth about cemeteries may sound trite or even absurd. Graveyards, I learned, are not primarily for the dead, but for the living. My initial forays into rural cemeteries were clouded by a sense of guilt at disturbing the dead. I felt like an intruder and trespasser in an afterworld where I did not belong, and I hastily snatched the desired surnames before fleeing back to the domain of the living. Only gradually through observation, did I come to regard the cemetery as a proper place for live people. Graveyards, after all, reflect the customs, beliefs, handicrafts, and social structure of the survivors. At certain times of the year, such as "decoration day," they even provide the setting for valued, important social events. One rural cemetery in Southeast Texas even has a "Welcome" sign attached to the fence. Indeed, painted messages to the living abound in Texas folk graveyards. "Your Donations Keep This Cemetery," proclaims a sign alongside the gate at rural Trinity Cemetery near Denton, and another communication in nearby Collin County establishes the graveyard's ownership of the pecans produced by trees within its bounds. Visitors to Moss Hill Cemetery in Tyler County are advised that "All Graves Must Be Placed by the President— Law." At aptly named Friendship Cemetery in Milam County, the startling presence of a rural mailbox atop a post in the burial ground is explained by a sign requesting that "visitors register here." Sure enough, a registry book and pencil are inside the mailbox. The Salado town cemetery offers a handpowered pump, covered by a shed, to provide water for the thirsty visitor and the floral decorations. Many graveyards, even those not adjacent to churches, have a board privy for the convenience of the temporary visitor.

The living, singly and in groups, are frequent visitors. They come to commune with the dead, to associate with friends and neighbors, to manicure and beautify the grounds, to record biographical data concerning their ancestors, to make rubbings of fine old tombstones, to vandalize and destroy and even to study traditional material culture. In many Texas cemeteries, lawn chairs for visitors are placed alongside some graves. Researchers in one Boston urban cemetery observed twenty-two categories of human activity, ranging from frisbee tossing, jogging, bicycling, and model airplane flying to berry picking, card playing, sleeping, playing hide-and-seek, and voyeurism. Even at that, the Boston researchers probably missed quite a few activities. If you wait and watch long enough, you will eventually witness living humankind display in the graveyard, its gamut of behavior, from base to noble. I believe that cultural geographer Yi-fu Tuan erred in implying that cemeteries are "landscapes of fear." Clearly they are not—at least not during daylight hours.

Too, I found that the rural folk do not distinguish so sharply between life and death as do we from the cities and universities. Death is, for them, intertwined so tightly with life as to be inseparable. They converse with the dead and leave favorite foods for the departed to consume. Life, death, and afterlife merge in the folk culture of the burial ground. The living have every right to be there.

Conservatism

A third truth concerning traditional Texas cemeteries was more difficult to perceive. After years of observing the highly diverse material traits of southern, German, and Hispanic rural graveyards, I came to regard the traditional burial ground as an extremely conservative aspect of the respective cultures. Folkways survive better there than in the world at large. Perhaps rural cemeteries preserve archaic customs and practices better than do other facets of the culture because many people are superstitious about death and the dead. Time-tested techniques for laying the dead to rest and calming the spirits of the deceased tend to persist for centuries, even millennia, and the practitioners are reluctant to tamper with them. James Deetz, who knows well the rural graveyards of New England, reminds us that "religious institutions and their artifacts are known to be the most conservative aspects of a culture, resisting change." He would likely also agree with me that cemeteries constitute the most conservative aspect of religious institutions. Geographer Fred Kniffen echoes these sentiments, noting that "since there is a special reluctance to disturb graveyards, they often lie surrounded by bustling urban activities, preserved for study longer than might normally be expected of an outmoded folkway." Likewise, folklorist John M. Vlach concluded that, for black culture in America, the cemetery represents "the strongest material demonstration of African-inspired memories."

In our rural burial grounds we find one of the last viable refuges of folk culture, with all the antiquity, timelessness, and continuity implied by that term. For, as John Stilgoe tells us, the traditional Christian graveyard is the work "of laymen seeking to objectify the most meaningful elements of a folk religion grounded in paganism." Indeed, venerable practices, some of which long antedate Christianity, abound in many Texas cemeteries. Nowhere else, I maintain, is it possible to look so deeply into our people's past. No better place exists to ponder questions of culture history and ancient ancestral cultural hearths. In more ways than one, we are closer to our forefathers when treading upon the ground where they lie buried.

Change

The fourth truth about rural and small-town graveyards may seem to contradict the third or, at the very least, to present a paradox. Change is occurring. In spite of the conservatism inherent in the cemetery institution and regardless of the native conservatism of most Texans—Anglo, black, Mexican, and German alike—the traditional graveyards are endangered. Few unaltered folk cemeteries survive in Texas; most burial grounds today reveal departures from the ancient, traditional material culture that prevailed a century ago. Rural depopulation, "perpetual care," and acculturation have already taken a heavy toll, and the rise of an all-pervading popular culture, represented by the modern commercial cemetery (the necrological equivalent of a fast-food joint), will likely obliterate most distinctive elements of the traditional Texas graveyards by the end of this century. In this sense, the cemetery can be regarded as a microcosm of southern folk culture. All traditions face an early demise, and landscapes of the past give way to cultural homogenization. Regionalism and provincialism fade; national culture ascends.

Folk burial practices are still to be seen, but generally the searcher must seek out remote graveyards in economically depressed districts to find the best surviving examples. Even there, the greatest rewards are found in the older sections of the cemeteries, away from mass-produced commercial tombstones and plastic flowers that speak of the twentieth century. Our present generation may be the last to have access to the incredibly rich material culture of the folk cemetery

Two personal examples of this change illustrate what is happening: one from a rural Texas setting, the other from the suburbs of a great city. My maternal grandmother lies buried at Mount Zion Cemetery in rural Panola County, East Texas. She always believed, in common with the folk of the Deep South, that all grass should be hoed out of graveyards, leaving the bare earth exposed. Grass growing on a grave was a sign of disrespect for the dead, she thought. Traditionally, Mount Zion reflected her belief and preference—grass was banished from its fenced enclosure. No doubt my grandmother expected that, when her time came to join the departed ancestors at Mount Zion, her grave would be similarly tended. Today thirty years after her death, a lush green carpet of carefully manicured St. Augustine grass covers the entirety of Mount Zion, her grave included.

A mile or so from my boyhood home in North Dallas, atop a windy blackland prairie hill, a pioneer family long before my time, established its private clan cemetery. In the early years, the small graveyard no doubt reflected the folk burial customs of Dallas County's farm people. By the 1940s, though, this simple graveyard had become the nucleus of one of Dallas' first commercial cemeteries, complete with mausoleum, funeral chapel, radio commercials, and professional gardeners. Folk and popular culture had clashed there amid the Johnson grass pastures on the northern outskirts of Dallas, with a predictable outcome.

Graveyard Scholars

Persuaded of these four truths—that traditional cemeteries in Texas displayed pronounced regional variation, a necrogeography offering a useful index to cultural identity and ethnicity; belonged properly to the domain of the living; preserved in refuge some truly venerable material culture, providing a potential key to antecedence and diffusion; and faced extinction in the immediate, foreseeable future—I began tarrying longer in these places, not merely recording the ethnic affiliation of the deceased but carefully noting, cataloging, and photographing the diverse, intriguing material culture. What appeared at first glance to be a chaotic, meaningless mixture of symbols and customs proved, upon close analysis, to contain fascinating clues to questions of cultural origins and spread. I redoubled my field research, acquired some modest funding to support my madness, delved deeply into libraries to discover what other scholars had learned from and about cemeteries, and sent some of the best among my students out to experience what I had and to help me learn. I found, in the libraries, that I was by no means alone in my morbid interests. A great variety of scholars, among them archaeologists, anthropologists, folklorists, sociologists, and fellow cultural geographers, had preceded me. Prehistorians have long found graves and tombs rich sources of knowledge, though their practice of excavating and altering as they learned and preserved left me with a vaguely distressed feeling. Too, their interest was in long-dead cultures of the distant past, while mine concerned ways of life still extant, at least in vestige. From the archaeologist I could learn of the Classical Greek or prehistoric Celtic cemetery, but not much about the burial places of present-day rural Texans. True, some historical archaeologists have recently worked on grave sites in the American South, generally as part of the preparation of environmental impact statements, but their reports are as yet relatively few in number and diffficult of access.

Anthropologists have also traditionally viewed cemeteries as worthy of study. Physical anthropologists excavate graveyards in order to measure and classify the racial and skeletal characteristics of the deceased. Perusing their professional literature, I could learn, for example, that the Icelander's average height decreased steadily between about A.D. 12OO and 1800, coincident with a climatic deterioration in the North Atlantic. While worthy their scholarly concerns were unrelated to mine. The cultural anthropologists, too, have been frequent visitors to folk cemeteries. Preponderantly, though, their research has been carried out in remote lands among non-Western peoples. From them I could find out much about the burial practices of African pygmies, Indochinese hill tribes, and Pacific islanders but relatively little about those of the present inhabitants of rural Texas.

Sociologists have approached cemeteries asking questions relevant to their discipline, questions concerning the functioning of society, social status, and the symbolism that pervades human life. Material culture is not their domain or concern and, understandably they devoted little attention to it. They did not have the answers I sought.

American folklorists, amateur and professional alike, I discovered, had devoted considerable study to the death lore of the American South and Mexico. Even so, their interests were still not precisely mine. Their attention usually focused on nonmaterial culture, on the lore surrounding death rather than the physical entity of the graveyard. They wrote of people who covered mirrors when death occurred, of ghosts lurking along the Cumberland and on the Brazos, of banning cats from rooms where corpses lay, of traditional funeral oratory. But, with a few notable exceptions they did not teach me about the material culture of the cemetery.

Even journalists have occasionally visited and written about Texas cemeteries. They are usually attracted by strange or even bizarre elements of graveyard material culture—eyegrabbing features that testify to the general insanity of humankind. One of my students, ever seeking to please, once brought me such a newspaper clipping, now yellowed with age in my files. Regrettably, I cannot determine which paper or year it came from, since the student neatly scissored away the identifying dateline, frustrating my instinctual desire to footnote. In any case, the headline reads "Odd, Strange, and Curious," beneath which is a photograph of a massive tombstone shaped like a king-sized bed, complete with an imposing headboard and a two-poster footboard. "Man rests in peace in double bed," reads the caption, further explaining that the "unknown Texan wanted to take at least one of the comforts of home with him on his final journey." While individualism on this scale is commendable and perhaps reflective of Anglo-Texan idiosyncrasies, it tells me little about what is ordinary and typical of the folk culture. In my academic geographical training, I was taught to observe the commonplace and to ignore the freakish. Following journalists around, I concluded, was not going to teach me what I needed to know.

Instead, I found my true kindred spirits exactly where I should have expected them—among the small but hardy band of fellow cultural geographers. The seminal work was done by Fred Kniffen, the acknowledged founder and father figure of American folk-geography. Kniffen's intellectual roots reached deep into the "Berkeley school" of cultural geography, developed by the late Carl O. Sauer at the University of California in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1967, while I was still snatching surnames, Professor Kniffen published a stimulating call for research on traditional cemeteries, pointing out the great potential value of such studies. "Formal disposal of the deceased," he wrote, "is a universal practice" and "should be an essential consideration in individual or comparative study" of the human occupance pattern. The cemetery "reflects traditional values, religious tenets, legal regulation, economic and social status, and even natural environment. Evolution, invention, and diffusion are as nicely exemplified here as with any other cultural phenomenon." In sum, said Kniffen, "there can be few other subjects as untouched or as promising as the geographical study of burial practices." A number of Kniffen's students have carried out research on traditional cemeteries in the decade following his appeal for study.

In the same year that Kniffen's article appeared—1967—another cultural geographer of the Berkeley persuasion, David E. Sopher, lent vitality, impetus, and respect to the geographical study of religious faith through the publication of the first book in the English language on this subject. Sopher's The Geography of Religions was widely read and stimulated a great deal of discussion and research. Seemingly deriving his inspiration from French geographer Pierre Deffontaines' "geography of the dead," Professor Sopher devoted a short section of his book to differing burial customs. My own work clearly belongs in the tradition developed by Kniffen, Sopher, and their students. In a broader sense, it belongs in the growing interdisciplinary field of "folklife" studies, in which cultural geographers play a major role.

The Present Volume

In all, my cemetery tramping has occupied the better part of twenty years, the latter decade of which involved a systematic study of traditional material culture. During that period, only my closest friends, next-of-kin relatives, and most devoted students, if anyone, retained full confidence in my sanity and well-being, but then cultural geographers are by nature eccentric. From time to time in that latter decade, I read papers at professional meetings and published the tentative findings of my research, seeking advice, criticism, and encouragement from my peers.

The present book is the culmination of my lengthy research. It deals with three distinct Texan geographies of death: southern, Hispanic-American, and German. These three represent, respectively, the numerically and spatially dominant host culture and two major ethnic minorities in the state. The southern folk cemetery tradition crosses racial lines to be shared by blacks, southern Anglod Americans, and Alabama-Coushatta Indians. As such, it embodies the ancestral burial customs of well over half of the rural Texas population and is clearly the prevalent traditional type in the state. I have, accordingly, devoted two chapters to the southern graveyard. With southern whites and blacks joined in a single cemetery culture, a fitting union since their dead cohabit many an East Texas burial ground, the Hispanic and German traditions represent the next two largest population groups in the state. One chapter is devoted to each of these two major ethnic minorities.

By omitting consideration of the numerically lesser ethnic groups, I do not mean to imply that they lack worthy and distinctive cemetery traditions. Czechs, Norwegians, Cajun French, Poles, Jews, and Swedes, among others, practiced their own venerable burial customs. Viewing a remarkable 1854 Gothic folk tombstone in the Norse cemetery in Bosque County for example, can conjure up images of newly Christianized Vikings dwelling along the fjords of Norway. Rather, my omission of these smaller minorities reflects the shallow depth of my own knowledge concerning their cultures and my inability to read their ancestral languages. Perhaps my book will stimulate better qualified persons to investigate and record the morbid material legacy of these numerous smaller groups. In the meantime, I content myself with a simple thanatological trisecting of Texas. Since the southern folk cemetery is the prevalent traditional type, I will begin with it.

 

A sixth-generation Texan, the late Terry G. Jordan held the Walter Prescott Webb Chair in History and Ideas in the Department of Geography at the University of Texas at Austin.

"...throw away your inhibitions, forget the ghost stories, and travel with Terry Jordan through the fascinating world of tombstones and epitaphs, the departed, the remaining, and the odd, revealing ways in which we honor the dead.... Jordan treats his subject with respect in both words and pictures."

—Southern Living

"...Jordan's wonderful Texas Graveyards is a tour of Texas history in quite a unique way.... the book is a genuine masterpiece."

—El Paso Times