Cemetery in bloom

A blanket of yellow coreopsis cover the grounds of the Broadway Cemetery in Galveston on Friday, May 6, 2016.

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

 Laura Elder: 409-683-5248; laura.elder@galvnews.com

(7) comments

Carlos Ponce

Most don't know there are 7 cemeteries between Broadway, Avenue L, 40th and 43rd streets. Those which are along Broadway Street are The Old City Cemetery (40th Street), Oleander and Evergreen nee Cahill (43rd Street). Those along Avenue L are Trinity Episcopal (40th Street), Old Catholic, New City (aka Yellow Fever Yard and Munincipal) and Hebrew Benevolent Society (43rd Street). See map at: http://www.galvestontx.gov/DocumentCenter/View/1854/Broadway-Cemetery---Aerial-with-Labels-PDF And what we see is the top layer of the cemetery. There is the original layer, the filled in after 1900 Storm layer, and the layer we now see when filled in again in the 1920s. Kathleen Maca, author of "Galveston's Broadway Cemeteries" said "The cemeteries have been raised two or three times in different areas, and when the stones were lost during the raisings, they just resold the plots and did another burial on top," Maca said there are an estimated 12,000 grave markers visible in the cemeteries, but that figure is believed to only be a quarter of the bodies buried off Broadway. https://www.click2houston.com/news/the-grave-history-of-galvestons-cemeteries From the Galveston Daily News November 26, 1920 page TEN we read that the regrading of the Cahill Cemetery is progressing. "It is estimated that it will take about three months to complete the work, and when it is completed the result will be a very handsome cemetery and a credit to the community, Mr Key [B.W. Key -president of the Cahill Cemetery Association] said. The grade is to be raised to a level with the grade east of Thirty-Ninth Street. It is estimated that the work will cost $30,000 or $40,000. The grade is to be raised four or five feet, with a handsome brick fence placed on a reinforced concrete foundation. All walks throughout the cemetery are to be cement concreted with each lot to be curbed and filled with sand and mudshell. Large brick pillars are to be constructed at the four corners of the cemetery and at the gates. A receiving vault and restroom to be of brick of the same kind as will be used for the fence with a green tile roof, will also be built. After the work is completed a sexton will be placed in charge and the grounds will be kept in perfect condition no distinction being made as to the care of the different lots, it was announced."

Bailey Jones

I love cemeteries, especially the old ones. The reverence, the peace and quiet, the feel of the stones - cool to the touch, rough or smooth depending on the age and the type of stone used, the often ancient trees, fences, benches, etc. Loved ones insulated in the bosom of the earth from the day to day craziness of this world . It's like picking up an old family Bible and reading the genealogy page at the back. And they're not just memorials and parks, but also art and history museums. I remember as a child walking through an old cemetery and noting the unusual number of headstones for 1918, and then learning later in life about the great flu epidemic. So much of interest - the old stone carvings and statues, the Masonic, Woodmen, etc., iconography, the emotional loss wrought literally in stone. (I was raised in the funeral business and may have been over-exposed as a child.) [whistling] I wonder if anyone has published a walking map of the old cemetery?

Jose' Boix

One quick reference to check: https://www.galvestontx.gov/DocumentCenter/View/1855/Cemetery-List---City-Owned-and-Privately-Owned---Includes-Contact-Info-PDF

Steve Fouga

I couldn't agree more, Bailey. Galvestonians are fortunate to have some very accessible ones, readily available for a stroll. i especially like coming across the tiny, sometimes overgrown, cemeteries out in the countryside, attesting to the former presence of some little community long-since gone or absorbed into a nearby city...

Bailey Jones

My dad's family founded the tiny town of Floyd in Hunt County back in the 1870s. Some of them are buried in the Hopewell Cemetery there. It's in a wooded area and overgrown to the point of being almost inaccessible. There just aren't enough people left there to take care of it.

Carlos Ponce

Robert Bear, 1956 graduate of Santa Fe High School, US Army Veteran and president of the Santa Fe Area Historical Foundation is restoring the Alta Loma Cemetery on Avenue M in Santa Fe. See "Historian works to ensure veterans are not forgotten" https://www.galvnews.com/profiles/citizens/article_66df236b-cacd-53d1-9cd2-7b1ae808c95d.html "Over the past year, he has cleaned and reset a total of 349 gravestones." “At first I was only looking to put flags on the graves of veterans, but it was kind of a chore because the gravestones were overgrown with algae and dirt and some had sunk into the ground,” Bear, of Santa Fe, said. "Eventually he was able to find the graves of 105 veterans from World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam and even Operation Desert Storm. After he finished the veteran graves, Bear started looking at the other monuments and decided someone needed to clean those, too, so he got to work. He leveled and reset 33 graves. He dug out the drainage ditches and trimmed the trees." His bout with poison ivy in the cemetery has not deterred him from trying to finish this latest project.

Jose' Boix

Another interesting reference to check: https://www.click2houston.com/news/the-grave-history-of-galvestons-cemeteries

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