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4 "Cemetery Rules" by Sherril Pool Elizondo

photo by Ken Rudine
"Genealogists often jokingly refer to their endeavors as "digging up their ancestors." At some point in their research, locating cemeteries becomes a given. The term graveyard was once an acceptable and widely used term for the place where dearly departed loved ones were laid to rest. Had I known how commonplace this word once was, I could have explained to my mother my misunderstanding of using that word when I was a child. I probably heard the term early in life when television entered our homes and everyone was watching all those Westerns.
People were always dying on those shows and ended up at the graveyard. Today, as I do genealogy research, I smile when I come across the word graveyard instead of cemetery. Some are still referred to as graveyards in the county records and many are preceded by a family name. Many of the old graveyards were family plots on private land or near a church. Later, due to health codes and other reasons, public land was set aside for burials and the more acceptable name for this place became cemetery.

Mother was determined to create literate and socially acceptable children. Proper respectfulness and usage of words played an important role in our upbringing. When my brother and I were kids, we went with our parents to some cemeteries. One of the very first cemeteries I remember going to was Lamar Cemetery on Goose Island not far from Rockport, Texas. It had to have been in the late 1950's. At that time, there was only a dirt road that went past it and the cemetery was difficult to spot. We found it by accident and the whole family had to climb up wooden steps to get over the fence. It was not well maintained at that particular time and was weed infested. Still, we were able to see very old grave sites and some I now know are of historical importance. Now remember, my brother and I had some preconceived notions about cemeteries because we were so educated by TV! One of us just mentioned the word graveyard and Mom proceeded to set us straight on how we should never use that word. Graveyard was simply not the acceptable nomenclature to be used in polite company. Other etiquette rules were soon to follow. For one thing, we were supposed to be very quiet in the cemetery....sort of like being in a library I assumed. We were also told that we must pay attention to where we stepped. Heaven forbid one should accidentally step on a grave. Sort of like "step on a crack you break your mother's back" I probably thought as a kid. I wondered in later years why there couldn't be more sidewalks or stepping stones to clearly mark the graves so you could avoid feelings of guilt and sometimes jumping like a snake was at your feet if you accidentally made a grave mistake.....no pun intended. When I was much older, I discovered that it is not a good idea either to wear high heeled shoes to a graveside service especially after a good rain.

I accompanied my mother once to an old Jewish cemetery (one of those ancient and spooky cemeteries.) It had become surrounded by a rundown and unsavory neighborhood. As a teenager, I thought the area was scary and probably dangerous. Mother explained to me that the people who lived nearby would never ever bother anything in those cemeteries. Apparently they all had too much respect for the dead along with a few unfounded fears and superstitions. So I believed, at least then, that we were safe and so were all the flowers that people brought to the graves. I sure was relieved to know that no one would be lurking around. My knowledgeable mother gave me insight into the notion that there are those who felt that death and cemeteries could be shrouded in mystery as well as a place to honor the dead.

I came from a family that believed that visiting "departed" relatives was a given. Going with my parents was one thing but, as an adult,I made a rule to never go alone to a cemetery for safety reasons and my belief now that maybe one should not be alone with ones' grief and thoughts. Years ago I learned that a childhood friend had taken her own life. I could not believe such a thing happened and could not fathom the reasons why. I wanted to go alone to the cemetery to see for myself something I could not believe. I felt that I might not find anyone who had the time or inclination to go with me. So, I set off across Houston to visit the cemetery where I was told she was buried. Not a living soul was there on a weekday. A gentleman in the office told me exactly where to go to find my friend's grave site. I stood looking at the headstone for several minutes, when I felt a presence standing nearby. I looked and was somewhat relieved to see the man from the office. I know it was an act of kindness or a curiosity on his part to walk over to me, but I was startled and felt alone, sad, and vulnerable and just wanted to leave immediately. As I was driving away, I passed in front of the funeral home where a hearse was parked with the driver behind the wheel. He turned to me as our vehicles passed and I felt a strange uneasiness as our eyes met for a brief moment. A sudden chill passed through my body. My thoughts were ridiculous I told myself but at the moment I saw that hearse and saw the stare from the driver I prayed that God would not take one of my family members. Some would say that I had experienced a premonition, as two weeks later a close relative died in a tragic accident. Intellectually I knew I had not been sent a sign, but the encounter in that cemetery has stayed with me.

One year, while visiting Austin on a business trip with my husband, we stayed at a hotel which was in walking distance of the state cemetery. This had not been planned, but we could not book a room in another hotel that weekend. So, I was stuck for part of a day in an inconvenient location and then thought that I would walk over to the office of Parks and Wildlife and maybe a computer could be found that could tell me the place where an aunt was buried. The office was closed. Out of curiosity and noticing a few graves nearby, I was interested in seeing this place where so many early settlers and prominent people of Texas had been buried. I had just walked about a block into the cemetery when I stopped cold in my tracks. Reluctantly I knew it was probably best to return to the front gates. I really felt no fear of the spirits that might be out and about, although I did notice an ancient crypt that looked like something out of a horror movie. Rather, I felt angrily compelled to leave because of safety reasons. For all I knew there could be a drugged crazed lunatic lurking about or someone waiting to rob me. I had already read of one case of someone's wallet being stolen out of a car in a cemetery. Of course I came to realize that my aunt would not be buried in this area of town and I proceeded to pass by a place where headstones were manufactured. I inquired in the office if I could find the cemetery where she was buried and someone went to a computer and found what I needed to know. I had never known this woman and had only seen pictures of a beautiful little girl who I had been named after(my middle name) and who had died at a young age. I also knew that all of her other family members were buried elsewhere in the state and that made me feel sad for her. Through my work in genealogy, I already knew the birth and death years, circumstances of her death and more. I found this all on my own, as my father and my mother never talked about her. While my youngest son was attending UT, he finally drove me to Memorial Park Cemetery and I was able to pay my respects to a woman I never got a chance to know but whose name was bestowed to me-a matter of family history with a picture of headstone taken by my son.

Since that time, after more extensive genealogy research, I found out where my paternal great great grandparents were buried along with their son who had been a sheriff and died in the line of duty...killed by a "desperado" according to newspaper accounts. The cemetery was located in Milam County. It was a long drive for me and I stopped first in Buckholtz, Texas where my grandfather and other relatives had once lived long ago. The cemetery had a name and was not referred to as a graveyard. It is called Corinth. I got out and found the family members and read the headstones and started taking pictures as quickly as possible. I had forgotten what I had vowed never to do and that was never to go alone to a cemetery! It was just me and cattle in nearby fields and silence.......not too smart! Maybe on a weekend it would have been different. It is doubtful my cell phone would have helped if I had been in any danger which turned out to be happily not the case. I left quickly and received by mail much better pictures from a fellow researcher who was writing a book along with others on our family. That is the last time I have gone to a cemetery alone.

I made some rules for myself when the time comes to visit a cemetery for genealogy or other reasons. If I take a camera, I will be sure that no one nearby will be disturbed by my actions. I will be as respectful as Mama taught me to be. I would then have pictures of the headstones that will, hopefully, have words that have not disappeared to the passing of time or neglect. I will remember to be quiet and try not to accidentally step on a grave. I will certainly be wearing sensible shoes and I won't be alone. I will try not to think about superstitions concerning the dead and cemeteries. I will try to banish thoughts of my own mortality and contemplate on the people who went before me and hope that they had lived mostly good and worthwhile lives even though there were some rascals among them! I want to see where they were all laid to rest in what were once called graveyards."



Sherril, I grew up much the same way, in the '50's, taught the same things & yes, I have learned to be cautious, too. By the way, the wooden stairs to the Lamar Cemetary is called a "stile", rhymes with smile. Now that dates me & makes me "real country"! Kathy Pyeatt - Wimberley, Tx, soon to be moving to Rockport!


Thank you for posting a comment. I enjoyed seeing it. Now, I know the term for those wooden stairs. I hope that it was the Lamar Cemetery I was referring to, as I believe there is only one cemetery on Goose Island. Wimberly is a nice place but so is Rockport! Sherrill


You always have such insightful memories from your youth. I enjoy the stories so much as they always somehow link up with my youth as well. Thanks for the reminders.


Shirley, Thank you for leaving a comment. I am glad that my stories are similar to other people's experiences and memories and that they can relate to them. Sherrill

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