Okay, I admit it. I’m a graveyard junkie.
While other people collect antiques, postcards and coffee mugs, I spend much of my spare time in East Texas cemeteries looking for oddball tombstones, unique inscriptions and other reminders of people who left behind more than just a nondescript piece of rock to mark their passing.
My favorite tombstone inscription covers a woman’s grave in the Garden of Memories at Lufkin: “See, I told you I was sick. P.S. I knew this would happen. I just didn’t know it would happen so soon.”
A century ago, malpractice lawsuits were unknown, so tombstones were sometimes used by surviving relatives to castigate doctors for their faults. In the Coldspring Cemetery, one such tombstone bears this inscription: “In memory of my darling child, Edith E., youngest daughter of Robert and S.C. Smith. Born Nov. 1, 1854, Died a victim to an experiment in surgery by Dr. Warren Stone of New Orleans, May 18, 1872.”
In Paris (the one in East Texas), I’ve always had an affinity for a large stone Jesus marking the resting place of cowboy Willet Blalock, who died in 1884 and was buried in a local cemetery. True to Blalock’s character, Jesus is wearing cowboy boots. If Blalock had been around today, he probably would have had Jesus wearing Nikes.
Charlie Ratliff of Jasper is one of only two people I know with two gravestones. When the 80-year-old man lost his right arm to cancer, he had it buried in Little Hope Cemetery with a marker bearing a carving of an arm and hand. When Charlie died four years later, the rest of his body was buried beside the arm.
The same thing happened to Winnie Jones, who lost a leg and had it buried in St. Luke’s Cemetery in San Augustine County with the inscription: “Here lies Winnie Jones’ leg.” When Winnie died, she was buried near her leg with the notation: “Here lies Winnie Jones.”
In Mount Hope Cemetery near Chester, a 10-foot shaft sometimes called the “history marker,” tells the story of pioneer farmer James Barnes’ family. Chiseled into the four-sided base are 218 words, 18 historical dates, and 13 individual names. The stone bears the names of Barnes’ ten children and their birthdates.
A similar four-sided monument is in Bodan Cemetery near Pollok. On three sides are the names of Mr. and Mrs. J.T. Scott and Mrs. M.E. Chancy, who died from pneumonia on the same winter day in 1899. The weather was so cold that a bonfire was built over the grave to thaw out the earth. The fourth side bears the name of Thomas Chancy, who died 15 year later.
Oak Grove Cemetery in Nacogdoches--which ironically is the dead end for Hospital Street--contains rows and rows of magnificent tombstones, including those for four signers of the Texas Declaration of Independence.
But I particularly like the tombstone of Oscar L. Holmes, a county clerk who had an extract of his will chiseled on his marker. Knowing what he knew about records that sometimes disappear, he probably wasn’t taking any chances with his bequeath.
My favorite grave in Tyler isn’t even in a cemetery. It’s the resting place of Shorty the Squirrel whose little monument sticks out of a flowerbed on the downtown square. Shorty skipped and bounced across the square for 15 years, becoming one of Tyler’s best known citizens. When he died in 1963, the victim of old age, the whole town mourned his passing.
Another animal’s grave is almost as well known at Lufkin. Ottie the Horse, owned by the Humason family, pulled an ice wagon and led funeral parades in Lufkin in early-day Lufkin. When she died, she was buried outside Glendale Cemetery, but when a utility line was built across her grave, her tombstone was relocated inside the Humasons’ family plot.
In Williams Cemetery, near Fair Play, is a little wooden marker covered by a white shed. It's the grave of Sarah Jane Northcutt, reportedly a member of a wagon train who died among strangers in Panola County in 1855. As the years passed, Fair Play's residents have tended the grave as if it belonged to one of their own.
Another favorite tombstone marks the resting place of Texas' second governor, George T. Wood. When he died in 1858, his wife ordered him interred in a small family plot, reportedly to fulfill Wood's wish that he be "buried close to home." Stuck away in the dense forests of San Jacinto County, it's a strange place for the grave of a Texas governor, but Wood himself was a little strange, too. He seldom wore socks and often rode from his home near Coldspring to Austin on the back of a mule.
In contrast to Governor Wood's isolated grave, Riggs Cemetery south of Cleveland is probably the most visible in East Texas. It straddles the median between the north and south lanes of U.S. 59, one of the busiest highways in Texas. The Texas Highway Department tried to relocate the little graveyard when it made 59 a superhighway, but the descendants of those buried there wouldn't budge.
If asked to name my favorite cemeteries, I would have to include in the list Scottsville Cemetery near Marshall, which is filled with priceless Italian marble sculptures marking the graves of the Scott and Rose families.
(Bob Bowman of Lufkin is the author of over 50 books about East Texas. He can be reached at bob-bowman.com)