Texas Cemeteries 101
Texas has at least 35,000 and probably closer to 50,000 cemeteries and burial grounds. Whatever the exact number, it is definitely more than any other state.
Indian burials, dating back 10,000 to 14,000 years or more, are scattered throughout the 254 counties in Texas. In 1973 the Texas Highway Department (now known as TxDOT, the Texas Department of Transportation) discovered the site of an Indian camp during their initial survey for the extension of Ranch Road 1431 east of Interstate 35 and northwest of Round Rock. The routine core samples revealed an early Indian culture had once occupied the area but was buried under, many feet below the surface.
The Archeology Division of the Highway Department was charged with the task to survey and possibly excavate the site. On December 29, 1982, a female Indian skeleton was uncovered in what appeared to be a family burial ground. It was apparent that care had been taken for her burial. Buried with her was a grinding stone and a shark's tooth. She was in a fetal position with her head cradled in her arms. Examination revealed her collarbone had been broken prior to her death. The woman, now called the "Leanderthal Lady," was between 20 and 30 years old.
The Leanderthal Lady dates back to the Pleistocene Period, around 10,500 years ago. Her remains are at the J.J. Pickle Balcones Research Center of the University of Texas at Austin. Certainly this person cannot be reinterred, as many archaeologists recommend: the area is under a road. Museums do not generally have remains on view, although it used to be common. What to do with this type of skeletal Indian remains is not fully answered.
Although some cemeteries and burial grounds predate the 1821 arrival of empresario Stephen F. Austin and his first Anglo settlers, known as "The Old 300," most of even our earliest cemeteries did not start until the Republic of Texas was established in 1836 following the Battle of San Jacinto.
As a Texas historian, the decade of the Republic of Texas, April 21, 1836 to February 19, 1846 -- the day the Lone Star flag was lowered by Dr. Anson Jones in Austin, and he proclaimed "the Republic is no more" -- is my favorite era of history. It is indeed sad that the burial locations of those important people who blazed the frontier trail are lost forever!
We have not done a very good job of caring for and preserving our Texas cemeteries.
In the 1800s, most of the Texas population was rural. Thousands of families that lived on farms and ranches started their own private cemeteries. Obviously in the 19th Century, with horse and wagon transportation, people did not often transport their deceased very far for burial. Of course, every town and city had at least one cemetery and many churches; both rural and urban areas had cemeteries.
The attitude of the 19th Century folks was indeed reverent. Families then took responsibility! For instance, a land owner with a cemetery on their property rarely went to the courthouse and officially "set aside" the cemetery in their deed. To have it surveyed was almost never done. It did not occur to those folks, who worked so hard for their land, that the property would go out of the ownership of the family. Thus, today we have thousands of formerly "private family" cemeteries on land now owned by people or corporations that view them as a nuisance at the least, and something to be destroyed at worst!
After 1900, with the Industrial Revolution, two World Wars and the Depression, families began to move. We became more urban and less rural. No one was left to take responsibility for cemeteries. I believe as a whole, Texas cemeteries are not much better off than they were in 1900.
So as we venture into the 21st Century, what is the forecast for our Texas cemeteries?
The law only defines two types of Texas cemeteries: public and private. So every cemetery must be one of those two types, public or private.
As I understand it, for a cemetery to still be "private," all the folks buried there must be "kin" by blood or marriage. No neighbors, travelers, hired help, or ranch hands -- all from one family. And the land where the cemetery is located must be still owned by the family buried in the cemetery. If the family cemetery does not meet these specifications, it cannot still be a private family cemetery, but under Texas law it is now a public/family cemetery.
Save Texas Cemeteries estimates that 90-95% of all 35,000+ cemeteries in Texas are now public. And yes, believe it or not, that public identity can be good. Government funds can indeed be spent on public cemeteries, or even private ones where it is in the interest of the public. The next time a county commissioner or city official says he or she cannot spend public money on a cemetery, give me a call because yes, indeed, counties, cities, etcetera can spend money on cemeteries -- and of course, we believe they should!
Cemeteries are a vital part of our heritage. They are interwoven in that rich tapestry that is Texas History. A cemetery can tell the history of a community as well as a book, but instead of reading pages you have to read inscriptions, tombstones, art work, plants, fencing, trees, gates, out-buildings, location and language. Some of Texas' earliest communities have vanished except for a cemetery.
Since Texas has over 267,000 square miles, the 1800s necessitated that burial be done fairly close by. People readily accepted the responsibility of cemetery maintenance and never dreamed their family would all die out or move away. But today, our rural cemeteries are in need of care and preservation. In fact, our urban cemeteries are not much better off; although thousands of cars might drive past a city cemetery in a day, that does not mean anyone will take responsibility.
For instance, the City of Round Rock has six cemeteries in its city limits, but none of them are city-owned. In the last couple of years, the City of Round Rock has taken on the maintenance of the Round Rock Cemetery (which is privately owned by an association) because of folks visiting the grave of Sam Bass. The city spends funds from tourism to keep it mowed and cleaned. Speaking as a Jollyville resident, we have over 210 cemeteries in Williamson County, and most of them are in need of care.
So, what can we do? Since under Texas law, no one is responsible for cemeteries, we must take that responsibility. Usually someone does not get interested in a cemetery until they find some of their own kin buried there. But I believe we must think of our cemeteries as a major part of our Texas History, and certainly we all want to preserve our special heritage!
Each cemetery is different, but these guidelines would apply to most of them. In no particular order, here are some necessary steps to take to preserve our cemeteries:
You can contact us at Save Texas Cemeteries for more detailed information about these suggestions. The saying goes, there are many ways to skin the cat. Likewise for old cemeteries, there is more than one way to approach the project. Here is another, ground-level way to look at the challenge.
Still, all of these steps withstanding, the number one problem with cemeteries today is accessibility! If we can't get into a cemetery, how can we save it? To aid in accessibility, Save Texas Cemeteries, Inc., sponsored a Texas Senate and House of Representatives resolution to officially designate the first Sunday in April and October of every year as "Bridge to the Past: Cemetery Visitation Days." This is a small step, but an important one when trying to get into a cemetery behind the locked gates of a property owner who does not want to let you in, although the law says you can visit.
Let's stand up and be counted among those who want to preserve our cemeteries through site documentation, public awareness and education.
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