Grave Importance

Old cemeteries rarely die. They just get buried under weeds, development and indifference.

With donated materials, Ruben and two friends, Savino Marin and Albert Baldez, erected the chain-link fence. Ruben painted signs. He even erected a skinny flagpole; from it, he flew an American flag.

Ruben and Chris proudly show off the cemetery: the impressive monument for John Linton, a 26-year-old cowboy killed by lightning; the flat, brick-size stones used for babies; and the grave of Eliza Williams, who died in 1913, six days after her 15th birthday.

Linton's stone is carved with a poem; others show the emblem of the Masonic lodge. But many show simply a name and dates of birth and death. Some, made of sandstone, have crumbled so much that they refuse to yield even those scraps of information. Other markers are completely missing -- stolen, or made of wood that rotted, or perhaps still sunk into the gumbo soil. Oddly, lilies planted by mourners have outlasted many of the headstones.

Ruben Muñoz has done most of the work to reclaim this cemetery.
Deron Neblett
Ruben Muñoz has done most of the work to reclaim this cemetery.

Here and there, silk flowers adorn some headstones. The flowers, Ruben says, are left by a Hispanic woman. She lives too far away to visit her own relatives' graves. Sometimes she stops here instead and hopes that back home someone is likewise honoring her dead.

Every now and then Ruben's voice turns bitter. He says that after he cleared the lot, his landlord raised his rent by $200 a month -- in part because the beautified cemetery had increased the neighborhood's property values, and in part because the landlord assumed that Ruben was somehow making money off his work. But Ruben isn't paid by anyone. Not by the state, or the county, or the city --none claims responsibility for the maintenance of abandoned cemeteries. And not even by the Harrisburg-Jackson Cemetery Association, a volunteer group that appears more interested in the cemetery's history than its upkeep. Ruben lights a Marlboro and waves dramatically toward the graves. All this unpaid work, he says, makes him feel like a slave.

But a few minutes later Ruben, Chris and I are driving to other abandoned cemeteries. Ruben declares that he'd be willing to help tend another cemetery if a group would repair the burned-out engine on one of his mowers; he'd need a working mower stored on the site. And he couldn't do all the work himself, he hastens to add. But for a minute he looks cheerful at the prospect of reclaiming another graveyard.

It is possible to revive an abandoned cemetery, and even to secure its long-term prospects. Not far from Harrisburg-Jackson is a case in point: Evergreen Cemetery, off Harrisburg Boulevard, covers 15 acres with 16,000 graves, including those of Confederate soldiers. Trevia Wooster Beverly, generally described as Harris County's "cemetery lady," had a special interest in Evergreen: Some of her relatives were buried there. But like Harrisburg-Jackson, Evergreen had fallen into ruins, covered by weeds and at the mercy of vandals. In '86 Beverly helped found Evergreen Friends, an energetic, hyperorganized group composed largely of senior citizens. The Friends gathered for twice-monthly Saturday cleanups; they published a newsletter and raised money through yard sales, grants and appeals to people whose ancestors were buried at Evergreen.

After six years the Friends cleared away the last of the brush, and for a while they continued their every-other-week schedule of mowing and maintenance. But, as Beverly explains, "We're not young chickens." Eventually the Friends took advantage of a state law, sponsored by Representative Garnet Coleman, that allowed nonprofit groups to claim abandoned cemeteries and allow new burials in available plots. The Friends struck a deal with Santana Funeral Homes: Santana now buries people at Evergreen and, in return, cares for the entire cemetery.

But this afternoon Chris, Ruben and I are not touring success stories. Chris gives me directions to Evergreen Negro Cemetery in the Fifth Ward. It's a very different place from the white Evergreen.

About 20 Buffalo Soldiers lie buried at Evergreen Negro, and it's the final resting place of A.K. Kelley, an emancipated slave-turned-businessman who helped found the cemetery in the late 1890s.

By the 1950s Evergreen Negro had been abandoned, and in 1960 the city removed 490 graves to turn a path through the cemetery into a full-fledged street. Now Lockwood Drive plows right through the cemetery's center. On the west side of Lockwood, a local history group, the Texas Trailblazers, has mowed the grass and trimmed branches off a fallen tree; Pat Prather, the Trailblazers' leader, blesses the help she has received from juvenile probationers sentenced to community service. But on the east side, the cemetery appears entirely abandoned. High weeds hide the graves, and another fallen tree lies undisturbed, dead leaves still clinging to its branches. The east side makes me sad, but Ruben seems undaunted. Harrisburg-Jackson, he says, once looked a lot worse.

Chris directs me down West Dallas, near swanky new loft developments on Shepherd. "Turn there," he says, as I nearly cruise past an open gate. College Memorial Park Cemetery started sometime in the early 1900s; its 4,400 inhabitants are mostly black, plus a smattering of Hispanics, and they include the former slave Jack Yates, who became the first pastor of Antioch Baptist Church. The dates on graves near the entrance surprise me: People were buried here as late as the 1970s.

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