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Death Lore

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Death provides us with some of our very best folklore. Some fear it, some embrace it, and most have pretty firm ideas about what happens when we die. Although some people may not want to talk about dying, it’s the only thing that happens to all of us--and there’s no way to get around it. This Publication of the Texas Folklore Society examines the lore of death and whatever happens afterward. The first chapter examines places where people are buried, either permanently or temporarily. Chapter Two features articles about how people die and the rituals associated with funerals and burials. The third chapter explores some of the stranger stories about what happens after we’re gone, and the last chapter offers some philosophical musings about death in general, as well as our connection to those who have gone before.

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Preface by Kenneth L. Untiedt



I. Introduction



THE LORE OF DEATH by Kenneth L. Untiedt

Contrary to what Captain Kirk told us at the beginning of every

Star Trek episode, space is not the final frontier. Nor is the ocean, which many scientists believe warrants more research and promises more potential life-sustaining solutions for our planet than does any place outside our atmosphere. No, death is the real final frontier. It is the true unknown, and it is the only adventure everyone must ultimately face. A select few people have been to outer space, and their travels have been thoroughly documented. Each day scientists answer more of the questions we have about our material world and the universe in which we live. However, no one knows for sure what will happen when death occurs. The mysteries of death make the lore that surrounds it unique for two reasons. First, because death is universal and occurs without regard to culture, gender, social status, ethnic background, country of origin, or any other factor, it is the focus of more folklore than anything else.


II. “Final” Resting Places



"Life and Death in Old Bexar”



I’ll begin by explaining this is primarily a discussion of old burials and old cemeteries in and around Bexar—San Antonio—and not the NEW, commercial variety. You should realize that Bexar once covered approximately half of present-day Texas, so if I seem to go far afield, that might explain it.

Growing up, I was taught to fear cemeteries, and to avoid them, if possible. Now, I join many folks who seek out cemeteries for various reasons. We visit with the departed, meet kinfolk, exchange or collect genealogical information, and remember our departed ancestors. We may bring food or drink, erect monuments, maintain the grounds, or take rubbings of headstones. Thus do we continue many traditional public and private celebrations.

Genealogists study births, deaths, marriages, and children.

Graveyards are a great resource, as well as a powerful expression of culture. Long after some facets of a culture have disappeared, we can study changes within that culture, document practices no longer commonplace, and note physical evidence such as headstones, inscriptions, and decorations.


"The Past at Rest: Two Historic Austin Cemeteries”




The looks of disbelief and inevitable questions are remarkably similar year after year. “We’re going where?” Patiently I explain that classes next week will be held off-campus at the Texas State Cemetery on East Seventh Street and Oakwood Cemetery alongside

Interstate 35. “What,” my students ask, “do graveyards have to do with this course on Texas history?” “A great deal,” I respond, guaranteeing that our cemetery tours will bear physical witness to much that we have discussed in class. I promise to illustrate the remarkably different ways different cultures approach the burial ceremony, and to reveal the meanings of gravestone symbols stretching back thousands of years. Such visits are one of the more effective learning opportunities for those studying the state’s rich history and peoples.

The State Cemetery dates from Edward Burleson’s death in

1851. Wishing to honor the former vice-president of the Republic of Texas, state legislators arranged for his interment on land owned by Andrew Jackson Hamilton, himself a future governor. Three years later, the state purchased eighteen acres from Hamilton to serve as the final resting place for Texas heroes and high-ranking government officials. Based on the nineteenth century concept that cemeteries could serve as museums for the living as well as resting places for the departed, the Board of Control has managed the facility over the intervening years as the “Arlington of Texas.”


"Eden Cemetery”


EDEN CEMETERY by Margaret A. Cox

I grew up with a healthy respect for graveyards. My grandmother sold tombstones during the 1940s, and I have memories of visiting graveyards with her as a young child. She often took rubbings of monument designs to get ideas for her customers. When I first learned to read, I pronounced the word: “gravy-yard.” This was corrected very shortly. I remember my grandmother walking past graves, sighing and saying, “I love to walk among the bones of my ancestors.”

One grave in the Eden, Texas, cemetery has no headstone. The entire length and width of the grave is covered in a block of cement, about three feet high. I asked my grandmother about this grave, which looked like none of the others in the entire cemetery.

She said she thought the old judge had covered his wife so she couldn’t come out and haunt him later on. He said she had been a mean old thing in life, and he didn’t want to take any chances.

The cemetery in Eden was located near my grandmother’s home. We children could sit on the front porch and watch the funeral processions pass by. Some cousins warned us not to count the cars following the hearse, or we would be the next person to die. I always tried to avert my eyes when funerals were in progress after that.


"Buried in Texas: Any and Every Which Way”




Sandra Ilene West was accustomed to having her way. She took that stubbornness to the grave with her in one of the more unusual burials ever in Texas, not to mention it being the most spectacular.

The millionairess widow of ranch and oil heir Ike West, Jr. of Vanderbilt was buried on May 19, 1977, in San Antonio, wearing a favorite silver-colored lace nightgown and seated as she instructed in her expensive, powder-blue 1964 Italian Ferrari sports car. The seat was slanted comfortably, also according to her wishes.

Visiting the grave, as I did on a hot, dry, early August day in

1996, one finds it difficult to see just where she—and the car—is buried, there being only a slight rise in the surface near a modest flat tombstone with just her name inscribed, and the years of her birth and death: “Sandra West, 1939–1977.” More striking are the huge tombstones for some of the old stalwarts of the West family, including the first-generation Texas brothers Ike, Sol, and George, all of whom left their mark on the history of Texas ranching.


"There’s Something About Old Country Graveyards”




Memorial Day. Homecoming. Decoration Day. Or my personal favorite—All Day Singing and Dinner on the Ground. All the same? Not exactly, but close. Their common thread? They bring people to cemeteries.

I know that Memorial Day at Mt. Zion is not exactly the same as the national Memorial Day, but I explored the similarities. In 1966,

Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, New York, as the place of origin for Memorial Day. That community first decorated graves of

Civil War Veterans in 1865. Being from the South, Johnson should have known better. Southerners were doing it long before that.

In the old days, we would sing (all day)—and, of course, we would have dinner on the ground. When I was a boy, I always wondered if folks hadn’t meant to say dinner on the grounds, because we mostly ate off of tables, under a tabernacle, on the grounds of the church or cemetery. Only a few threw down old quilts and actually ate on the ground, but my folks said that was more common in the really-old days.


"Who Is Digging on My Grave? The Corps of Engineers?”





The opening of a new man-made lake is a wonderful occasion, especially for fishermen, water sports enthusiasts, city water managers, and homeowners who are lucky enough to own land somewhere along the shore. Not so happy are reluctant farmers who don’t want to give up their rich bottom land, and “stream” fishermen and canoeists who hate to see another virgin stream or river lost forever.

Nevertheless, once the decision is made to build a dam and flood an area, there is no going back to what life was like before the Corps of

Engineers moved in. The whole process is a long one, particularly if the federal government is involved. Even so, the process is carried out in a certain order with public hearings, land purchase and condemnation, clearing of trees and brush, removal of buildings, re-routing of roads, and building of the dam, spillways, and recreational areas.

One aspect of the whole process that many people do not often think about is the number of areas to be flooded by the proposed lake. In our society, while we often do not show much respect for the living, we at least still are pretty good about honoring the dead. Thus, the Corps of Engineers will contract with a private agency to remove all the bodies from the graves of affected cemeteries and re-bury them on higher ground at another site. This process is somewhat involved and not at all easy, as was the case in the building of Ray Roberts Lake northeast of Denton, Texas, between 1985 and 1991, when the lake was officially dedicated.


III. Getting There: Rituals, Ceremonies, and the Process of Dying



"Most People in Texas Don’t Die”


MOST PEOPLE IN TEXAS DON’T DIE by Mildred Boren Sentell

What was once a passing interest in newspaper obituaries has over the years become, for me, an abiding interest. I have observed that the obituaries, while reflecting passing tastes, more and more often concern younger and younger persons, many my age or even younger.

In almost all write ups of deaths, I find a reluctance—even a refusal—to employ the word “die” in referring to one’s transition from this vale of tears to whatever state of being comes next. In the

Lubbock Avalanche Journal, roughly two-thirds of deceased persons

“pass away,” “pass,” or “pass on,” or utilize some other means of transition; the remaining quarter to third of them (mostly Presbyterians and Catholics) may die. This is true in general for other newspapers around the state, unless one’s demise occurs in San Antonio, where no one dies; everyone, according to the paper, passes on. Perhaps even better, if one is to avoid actually dying, would be to meet one’s maker in Crane, Texas, where one Mr. Arnett, according to his obituary in The Crane News, “did not die; he just quit living.”


"Oakhill Cemetery”



We buried my mother, Thelma Alford McGeorge, in July of 2005, in Oakhill Cemetery outside of Hemphill in Sabine County. She was eighty-eight and had lived a long, mostly happy, very eventful life. She rests beside her mother in the same row as her father, a baby sister who died of diphtheria in 1913, both maternal grandparents, and several cousins, aunts and uncles. In the same cemetery are other people who knew her as a girl, and an ex-husband

(my father). The body of Kit Smith, a young man shot in the back by outlaw relatives in l883, is also there, but that is another story.

Oakhill Baptist Church and the small cemetery across a gravel lane are located about twelve miles south of Hemphill off Highway

87. Remote, totally surrounded by the Sabine National Forest, it is a quiet place. The old church is a one-room, hip-roofed structure with an adjoining newer fellowship hall. Tall cedar trees guard the chain-link gate of the cemetery. The gate is always unlocked.


"A Most Unusual Upbringing”



Most men stumble into their life’s role. A chance encounter sparks a flame, a career pursued; a birthright endows one a profession.

Some drift from trade to trade until something sticks. Others simply drift. My grandfather, Bab, labored as a ranch hand, then a butcher, until finding a life’s calling when he landed a job at a furniture store sometime around 1920. The owner operated a funeral parlor in the back of the store. Eventually, Bab became one of the first licensed morticians in the Lubbock area.

Until his mind became fogged with dementia, my father often recounted with nostalgia those days at the furniture store. As a boy, he was assigned the daily duty of dusting the furniture displays.

Often a call came in from a ranch or small community out on the

Staked Plains requesting the services of an undertaker. Bab loaded his equipment into a Model T Ford, Dad hopped into the passenger seat, and off they went across the prairie, there being few roads to their destinations. They traversed one property to another. At each fence line, Dad jumped out, opened the gate, then closed it after the old Ford passed through. Flats and breakdowns were commonplace, and ruts suddenly transformed to axle-deep loblolly should a thunderstorm strike. A forty-to-sixty-mile journey occupied most of a day.


"Funereal Humor”


FUNEREAL HUMOR by Kenneth W. Davis

Folk humor like most other traditional forms of humor depends heavily on incongruity. The unexpected at the wrong place and time often provides cause for laughter. Certainly, this principle is true regarding happenings at such solemn events as funerals and graveside services, or, to use the more uptown phrases: memorials, remembrance worships, or celebrations of life.

An example of humor in the midst of sorrow is a story told often in my misspent youth in Old Bell County. During the mid1930s the Depression forced many small farmers into bankruptcy.

Some went on relief while others moved to small towns to try to find jobs that would pay at least enough for the feeding of their families. One such farmer, a man of considerable accomplishments in farming and in begetting children—some with his wife and others in chance encounters—lost the farm where he and his wife and seven children (all under the age of twelve) had enjoyed a good enough life. The family moved into town where the man of the house soon had a prosperous barbeque stand going and was making more money than ever before in his life. He and his wife were blessed with two more children, and with another woman or two he fathered perhaps three other children. All seemed to be going well for this man and his family—legitimate or otherwise. But one afternoon he fell over dead while basting a couple of goats he was custom-barbecuing for a rancher’s daughter’s wedding feast.


"A Family Secret”


A FAMILY SECRET by Herbert H. Sanders

One of the most vivid memories of my young years is the Sunday meals at my grandmother and grandfather’s house. All of the girls were fantastic cooks and all wanted to show off their talents. The house smelled like Thanksgiving every Sunday. After the meal was over and the dishes were washed, it was time for visiting and the kids were excused to play in the yard until the noise level got so loud it was interfering with the talk in the house. That was usually a signal that it was time to go. All pots and pans and dishes had to be gathered and picked up by their owner. Goodbyes were said and plans were made for next Sunday.

On the way home Dad sometimes took Mother home, and then he and I would go into the black area of Oak Cliff to see an old black lady. She was nearly always sitting in a swing on the front porch seeming to be waiting for us. Her name was Flo and I was in love with her. She laughed all of the time, and she was so big that she laughed all over. She always got out of the swing and gave Dad and me a big hug.


"Death Behind the Walls: Rituals, Folktales, and True Stories”





Huntsville, a tiny dot on the map, marks the location of an East

Texas town of 35,000 residents. Motorists traveling seventy miles an hour on Interstate 45 could easily miss the exit sign about an hour north of Houston, but mention Huntsville to anyone in the state and there will almost assuredly be instant recognition. Go fartherafield—New York, Canada, England, or France—and many have heard of Huntsville.

Since 1924, death sentences for the State of Texas have been carried out in this East Texas town where incarceration and education are the twin pillars of the local economy. Mostly, the populace prefers not to be reminded that their town is sometimes called the execution capital of the world. In fact, the death ritual occurs so frequently—usually several times a month—that local citizens scarcely notice “routine” executions. Only when national or foreign media roll into town for a high-profile case does attention focus on the Huntsville Walls unit, site of more than 400 executions in the past twenty-five years alone. Although the prisoners’ families may mourn their passing, few in Huntsville grieve for the killers who meet their fate there. For the most part, Huntsville’s citizens, like Texans in general, unwaveringly support the death penalty despite recurring hints of wrongful convictions and corruption in the criminal justice system.


"Origins and Celebrations of El Día de los Muertos”



OF EL DÍA DE LOS MUERTOS by J. Rhett Rushing

Harvest time. The crops are in and the fields are torn and broken from giving their all. What has been nurtured and tended since the first warming winds of spring is now cold and dead and spent.

Ghosts roam here as the line between the living and the dead is blurred and any door separating them stands ajar. This is the liminal time of transition and uncertainty. This is Samhain.

In Northern European history when the ancient Celts farmed and struggled—before the Christians and even before the

Romans—Samhain was the end of the harvest time when farmers gave thanks for the bounty and prepared for the long winter to come. It was a time of celebration, but equally a time of caution.

The normal rules and behaviors were suspended and time seemed to stand still.

For agricultural peoples the world over, the fall equinox signaled the end of the year, the onset of the Harvest Moon (when many farmers worked by full moonlight to gather crops before the weather turned bad), and the beginning of winter. The symbolic


"From the Gallows: A Confession and Apology”



AND APOLOGY by Jerry B. Lincecum

One of Dr. Samuel Johnson’s more acerbic comments has often been quoted or paraphrased: “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Grayson County had its first legal hanging in Sherman on Friday, April 8, 1869, and a statement from the gallows by one of the men who was executed seems to confirm Dr. Johnson’s theory. In the fiftieth-anniversary edition of the old Sherman

Courier, on August 15, 1917, a lengthy account of the first legal hanging is given.

Before reviewing the document, however, let’s briefly consider the literary and folk tradition it fits into. In 1871, a London bookseller named Charles Hindley published a “large and curious assortment” of miscellaneous writings that he collectively entitled

“Curiosities of Street Literature.” A major portion of this collection consisted of “gallows literature” of the streets. These accounts of public executions, dying speeches, and confessions range from the execution of Sir John Oldcastle in 1417 to the trial and execution of F. Hinson, who was hanged at the Old Bailey in 1869.


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