By Jenny McWilliams, THC Cemetery Program
If your cemetery, community, veterans group, or County Historical Commission is planning an event to memorialize the World War I centennial, the Texas Historical Commission’s (THC) Historic Cemetery Preservation Program provides the following suggestions for commemorative activities.
Adorning Graves with Flags and Poppies. Flags are usually the first thing that come to mind when honoring veterans buried in our local cemeteries. Placing the flags is an activity that can involve many different types of community groups, bringing welcome attention to your commemorative efforts.
If you choose to host this activity, be aware of any cemetery rules that limit the amount of time flags are left at the graves, as well as etiquette for removing flags at the appropriate time. The American Legion, for example, advises their posts to remove the flags as soon as possible after the holiday. Storms or wind may cause flags to become tattered or blown away from the gravesite, resulting in disrespect to both the deceased and the flag.
The idea of spreading poppy seeds at veterans’ graves is also occasionally suggested as a form of commemoration at individual gravesites. While this idea is intended to be respectful, it may not be appreciated in the future when tall poppies dot the cemetery lawn and make routine maintenance challenging. Another use of the seeds could be at the entrance to the cemetery or a dedicated poppy bed away from the graves.
Lasting Memorials. While flag displays and poppy blooms are fitting memorials, they have short lifespans. Consider other types of memorials that have a long-lasting impact, such as a sturdy sign or stone monument recognizing the veterans interred in the cemetery. Establishing a permanent fund or making a monetary contribution to a cemetery in honor of a veteran is another way to help ensure the cemetery can continue caring for the graves of these respected men and women for years to come. Other ideas are available on the Texas World War I Centennial Commemoration’s webpage.
Knowing the law. If you’re planning a commemorative event at a cemetery, you may need to be aware of cemetery access laws. While Texas law provides access for any individual to visit cemeteries, it does not provide permission to trespass.
If a cemetery is only accessible by crossing private property, permission must be acquired prior to visiting the cemetery. You can find the owner of the surrounding property through the county’s appraisal district. If you’re having difficulty accessing a cemetery landlocked by private property, you can negotiate or mediate disputes through the Texas Funeral Service Commission.
Even if the cemetery is publicly accessible, you may need permission from the cemetery’s owner or administrator to hold your event. This could be a city or county department, a church, or a cemetery association. Contact them early in the planning process to gain permission to hold your event and to make sure their rules allow for the type of activity you have planned.
Working with descendants, cemetery associations, and other caretakers. While the law allows us to access all cemeteries, holding an event is more intrusive. Your ideas and plans might not align with what descendants or other caretakers feel is appropriate. If you’re planning an event that involves a cemetery which you are not directly associated, be courteous when working with the association or caretaker.
Even if the cemetery appears to be abandoned, make every attempt to reach out to descendants or previous caretakers before planning your event. This is especially important if “cleaning up” the cemetery is part of your plan. Well-meaning but uninformed participants can easily cause irreversible damage to a cemetery by stripping it of meaningful cultural features mistaken for trash or nuisance vegetation.
Planning for logistics. A cemetery’s location, size, and condition could preclude certain types of events. Cemeteries are fragile resources and can be easily damaged by a large crowd, too many vehicles, and ceremonial props, so make sure you plan carefully to ensure the safety of your participants as well as the safety of historic or delicate cemetery features. Providing plenty of chairs, for example, will prevent the temptation to sit or lean on gravemarkers. Remember to have alternative plans in case of bad weather or in case a funeral must be scheduled at the same time as your event.
Thinking about a historical marker for a WWI grave or cemetery containing WWI graves? Keep in mind that THC’s Historic Texas Cemetery (HTC) designation is a prerequisite for a historical marker for a cemetery. Therefore, the HTC designation, which takes 6-9 months to process, must be completed before the application for a historical marker is submitted. The THC’s marker program accepts applications each fall for the following calendar year. You can check the THC’s Historic Sites Atlas to see if your cemetery already has a HTC designation.
Does the THC know about your cemetery? The THC’s Texas Historic Sites Atlas features over 300,000 site records, including almost 20,000 cemeteries. You can pan the interactive map to your area of interest, or search by name, keyword, or county to get instant access to the cemeteries. Statewide planners and researchers use the Atlas’ cemetery locations, so HTC staff have a strong incentive to make sure the Atlas is as inclusive as possible.