It’s welcome news the city is working to improve the appearance of, and deter vandals at, one of Galveston’s and Texas’ most prominent historic cemeteries.
The cemetery, bounded by Broadway, Avenue L, 40th and 43rd streets, is important in that it’s the final resting place of people’s relatives and friends, perpetuating the memories of the deceased. That in itself is enough to advocate for its care and preservation. But cemeteries are something more to people and cities who value history.
“Cemeteries are important keys to Texas’ past,” according to the Texas Historical Commission. “They are reminders of settlement patterns and reveal information about historic events, religion, lifestyles and genealogy.”
Names on grave markers serve as a directory of residents and reflect the unique population of an area, according to the commission.
“Cultural influence in grave-marker design, cemetery decoration and landscaping contribute to the complete narrative of Texas history.”
Unfortunately, historic cemeteries are increasingly threatened by development pressures, encroachment, vandalism and theft.
It’s hard for most people to understand why anyone would vandalize a cemetery. But some people do.
The city of Galveston is installing decorative lights to discourage vandals, while removing corroded and damaged fencing to improve appearances.
It’s interesting to note that cemeteries haven’t been around for long and their futures are in question as more people get cremated and families become more mobile, making tending graves of loved ones increasingly difficult.
The Galveston cemetery was originally set aside by town charter in 1839, according to historic records.
Galveston at the time was following a fairly new U.S. trend that came about when America’s cities were struggling to find places to bury the dead.
“In the early 19th century, as cities like Boston grew, inner-city burials were no longer cutting it,” according to Tate Williams in an article for American Forests that examined how U.S. cemeteries can serve as peaceful green spaces the public could enjoy.
“Land prices were rising and the small church burial grounds were overcrowding,” Williams wrote. “Storms would flood the grounds, with gruesome results. Outbreaks of diseases like cholera and typhoid fever had communities fearing urban burials.”
But in 1831, a group of horticulturists in Massachusetts had a solution — Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, which became the first modern U.S. cemetery, Williams wrote.
Cemeteries also became the nation’s first parks. They were extremely popular among locals and visitors alike, becoming regular gathering places for strolling and picnicking, he said.
“Other cities began to follow suit, dedicating rolling, scenic tracts of land on the outskirts of town to honor the deceased. This ‘rural cemetery,’ or ‘garden cemetery,’ movement not only temporarily solved the problem of where to put the dead, but it also gave us the nation’s very first parks.”
The city should continue its efforts to preserve the Broadway Historic Cemetery District for the benefit of the occupants of that cemetery and for the living.
Cemeteries, after all, are places where “life meets death, nature meets city, present meets past,” as Williams put it.
• Laura Elder