While most of my immediate family have been laid to rest in one cemetery, my home community has many, many others, which hold not only my long-ago ancestors but also those of my friends and neighbors. Growing up, cemeteries were a part of life and close to home. A place to go and feel closer to past loved ones, to tend to their grave sites and spend a peaceful moment. There was nothing scary about cemeteries, and aside from the occasional spook-tacular fall hayride, they weren’t particularly amusing, either. They were just there. They were places of reverence, peace and community touchstones. I’m not even one for zombies or skeleton imagery. Even at Halloween, I prefer to decorate with things like black cats or silly monsters. There are a few reasons for this, but it’s mostly from being a realist. Because no one knows what our souls are capable of, but our bodies are where they are going to be. Once they’re interred, they’ll never sit on a bench, chase a teenager or hug a pumpkin again. (Sad, but true!)
Texas has many historic cemeteries, defined as “any cemetery 50 years or older that landmarks the presence of a family or community.” In my family story, I can think of at least eight, and I am sure there are more. The largest and most modern one is still in use, but we still visit and maintain the ones in the outlying areas, too. In many cases, the cemeteries are all that’s left of those communities. Some are named after the places they commemorate (such as Homer, Huntington, Rocky Hill) and some are named for families (Renfro, Durham.) The Texas Historical Commission is a great resource for learning more about and preserving these places in the state, and Saving Places from the National Trust for Historic Preservation has valuable information, too.
And there’s nothing morbid about researching, studying, or visiting them. These cemeteries and their place in my community have been very helpful in my creative genealogy projects and interest in Texas history.
Before I committed to an ancestry.com membership, I did a lot of research through Find a Grave, an online ancestry records search tool that is free and quite useful for genealogists, historians and family history search. Not only does it deliver results for names and locations of current and historic graves, it also publishes obituaries, along with names that the original record might be linked to. Here’s my grandmother’s record as an example. Lots of info, although she’d be incensed that a photo linked to her good name had an overturned plant in it. Who knows when this photo was taken or who the photographer is, but I feel like I should drive home immediately and check to make sure that plant has been fixed.
I also look at burial records in the ancestry.com portal. Here’s a page with best practices for finding death, burial and cemetery records in its database. Digital Vital Records, in the National Archives, are also helpful.
But, as with everything else, the best sources of information have been my family. As I mentioned before, I have been so fortunate to have had long-lived relatives, and few older folks who are living still. On my last trip home, I went to three East Texas cemeteries, two with my grandfather who happily pointed out his (and I suppose, my own) family members: grandparents; great-grandparents, aunts and uncles, and his infant brother who I had not known about before now. I visited the resting place of my great-uncle Sherman McBryde, saw his honor plaque, and learned that while he never married, he did have a sweetheart in Boston. That he was a kind and gentle person who my grandfather really loved. Some of these things I could learn by researching or reading, but for the best parts, as they say, you just have to be there. Or as close to being there as you can when you’re getting know family who lived generations before.
This “cemetery tour” covered my maternal grandfather’s side of the family. My dad has been making phone calls and setting up meetings for me and other family historians, and next time I’ll visit two cemeteries that hold his paternal ancestors. Later in the fall, when it is not boiling hot (just regular Texas hot), I’ll continue on to Renfro Prairie, Rocky Hill, and Mount Hope, if I can find it. Perhaps I’ll be able to circle back to the tiny and old McBryde Cemetery, but that will be more difficult because it’s on private property now.
And there’s another, not insignificant reason for my Texas cemetery tour. As I have spent the better part of last year looking through, learning about, and making art from these people’s lives, photos and personal documents, I realize that I owe them a great debt.
In the literal sense, I owe them my life, because who are we of, if not of our family? All the nice people and mean people, hard-workers and hucksters. The multitudes that they contain. Those who we find commonalities in interests, temperaments and hobbies and those who make us say “I would never!” Ancestors who gave us our pretty eyes or our hard-to-comb hair. Family who only our oldest relatives can remember and even those who are now names in stories, or even a database.
More personally, I owe them thanks for the gifts that the Pine Curtain Project has given to me. Through it, even those who are long gone are still helping their granddaughter, great-granddaughter, great-great-granddaughter, so on and so forth. They still have so much to share. It’s like a complicated group project with some really remote contributors who you can never align time zones with. But it works.
So, when I walk through a historic East Texas cemetery, I say “Thank You” to Beatrice, who loved me before I could really know her. To Charlie aka Grandy who lived long enough for his youngest great-grandaughters to fistfight at his feet and imperil his oxygen tank. To Paul aka Paw who I am more like than I realized in his lifetime. To Pete and Ernestine, for who, though they recently left after long and beloved lives, there are still not enough Thank Yous. I say “they never forgot you” to the infant who lived for a day in 1927; and “Well, you’ve certainly caused a stir” to the alleged backwoods Lothario from the 1800s. “I think I understand” to my great-great-uncle in the late 1930s whose story I am eager to tell when the time is right.
I say “none of you people ever threw anything away, and I have come from your future to vindicate you for that.”
How do you connect with a loved one? Go where they are, wherever they are. Above ground or below it. Maybe their only known place is in your heart. That’s okay, too. But go there and say “Thanks.” Say “I love you.” Say “I’m here.”