By LONN TAYLOR
I probably owe my affection for country cemeteries to my grandmother Taylor, who could not pass one without stopping. When I was a small boy she would take me on drives in her Studebaker Commander along the country roads around Fort Worth, and whenever a cemetery came in view she would say, “Let’s just stop and see who’s in there.” As near as I can remember she never knew any of the occupants. She just liked to tut over the dead babies and admire the roses on the graves.
As I grew older, the vegetation in country cemeteries became their main attraction for me. They are miniature nature preserves, set aside by their wrought iron fences as repositories of old varieties of plants that have been superseded by showier hybrids in urban gardens. They are the last refuge of the nineteenth-century daffodils, irises, crepe myrtles, pomegranates, fig trees, and rose bushes that were brought to Texas farmsteads from further east and then lovingly transplanted from dooryard to graveyard.
For a while, when I lived in the country in Fayette County, I was associated with a group of naturalists called the Brenham Rose Rustlers, who scoured old cemeteries for examples of nineteenth-century roses. I had a magnificent Duchesse de Brabant in my own dooryard, rooted from a slip that had been rustled from a bush in a cemetery near Frelsburg.
I knew a lady back then, a wealthy Houstonian, who bought a country place near La Grange. She liked old cemeteries and thought her place should have one, but the previous owners had neglected to bury anyone there. She was an observant person and she noticed that many of the cemeteries in the area had a mixture of older marble and limestone markers and newer red granite ones, but that the death dates on some of the granite markers were in the nineteenth century. She asked around and learned that Sonny Stoltz, who had the cemetery marker company in La Grange, had gone around the countryside in the 1950s urging families to replace their old grave markers with modern granite ones, and that he had a big pile of the old markers that he had replaced behind his shop. She bought a dozen of them and had Sonny set them up for her. She added some lengths of iron fence and bingo, she had an old family cemetery on her place. Someday it will drive a team of archaeologists crazy – the cult of the missing corpses.
I prefer my cemeteries to be real. Several years ago my wife and I were driving from Denton to Fort Davis on back roads. Somewhere between Jacksboro and Graham we passed a sign pointing down a dirt road that read “Dark Corner Cemetery.” That’s my kind of graveyard. Over the years I’ve encountered other cemeteries with memorable names. There is a Lonesome Dove Cemetery in Tarrant County, inspired, I think, not by Larry McMurtry’s novel and the subsequent television series but by the dove that Noah sent out from the ark. Over in East Texas there is a Little Hope Cemetery, possibly a comment on the heavenly aspirations of its residents. Near Austin there is a Nameless Cemetery, which serves a community called Nameless due to the inability of its first settlers to agree on a name.
The sentimental rhymed epitaph was in vogue around the end of the nineteenth century and tombstone-cutters kept books of these in their workshops. The Lanham Mill Cemetery in Somerville County, southwest of Fort Worth and a favorite stopping place of my grandmother’s, is chock full of these. I once copied down a few in a notebook. One reads, “A loved one from us is gone / A voice we loved is stilled / A place is vacant in our home / Which never can be filled.” Another is “Weep not oh! / Weep not kindred dear / For her whose last remains lie here / For Jesus she on earth did love / And now she dwells with him above.” An infant’s marker bears the inscription “Sleep on sweet babe and take thy rest / God called thee home he thought it best.” Over in the next county, at Acton, the inscriptions are more laconic. I recorded one there that simply read, “Well I must go home.” A finger pointing skyward over the words indicated where home was. The lingering presence of a loved one who has died is nowhere more poignantly captured than on a stone in the Macedonia Cemetery in Brazos County: “He is just around the corner a little out of sight.”
Austin raconteur Frank Oltorff used to tell about the Sunday afternoon walks his uncle Tom Bartlett would take his children and nieces and nephews on through Calvary Cemetery in their home town of Marlin, stopping at each grave and passing on to the young ones the history of its occupant. One concrete headstone was cast in the form of an electric light pole to commemorate a man who had met his death while replacing a faulty wire for the local utility company. Bartlett always said that this was a dangerous precedent, opening the way for markers in the shape of phallic symbols and whiskey bottles.
I never encountered any electric poles in my cemetery explorations, but I have found tombstones that had references to the deceased’s occupation on them. At High Hill in Fayette County several stones are ornamented with carpenter’s planes, chisels, hammers, and in one case, a blacksmith’s anvil. There is an extreme example in the cemetery at Seymour, where a rancher named W.H. Portwood is commemorated by a large marble bas-relief that depicts him approaching the Pearly Gates on horseback, leading a pack mule, with St. Peter standing nearby extending a welcoming hand. Portwood was a wealthy man, and the inclusion of the pack mule indicates that he intended to take at least some of it with him. The last word, however, is in the Florida Chapel Cemetery at Round Top, where the headstone of a schoolteacher who was known for her loquacity bears the inscription “She finally stopped talking.”
Lonn Taylor is a writer and historian who lives in Fort Davis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Story filed under: West Texas Talk