Resurrecting Texas’ Long Lost Tradition
Chris Schlak interviews attorney Ray Dunn over the history of private family burial in Texas and his family.
A few weeks ago, The Texas Horn received a news tip from someone interested in a local story involving the burial of a family member on one’s own property. Finding it intriguing, I reached out to the man mentioned in the story, Ray E. Dunn.
Dunn planned on dedicating a cemetery on his property almost fifteen years ago. Dunn, being an attorney, researched all laws concerning cemeteries and contacted multiple state agencies that oversee cemeteries. He found that there is no law in Texas against living on the same property as one’s own cemetery.
So, he had his cemetery dedicated as an official cemetery in 2014 by the Texas Department of State Health Services, which allowed him to disinter his mother’s remains from Sunset Memorial Park and transfer her remains to the Dunn Family Cemetery.
Many might see this practice as strange, but Dunn knows that this is no novelty. Dunn is the descendant of Zadock Woods, who is one of the Old Three Hundred in Texas. They are some of Texas’ first Anglo-American settlers before the establishment of the Republic of Texas. Ray Dunn has done extensive research on Zadock Woods, finding that he built a fortified home that included a cemetery on his property. According to Texas history, the act of interring one’s family members on one’s property was a common tradition before the practice began to disappear about a century ago.
Now, Ray Dunn is doing his best to resurrect Texas’ bygone tradition. The following is an interview I conducted with Ray Dunn about his family history on April 20th.
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Chris: Can you talk about your family?
Ray: Yeah, so let’s see how I could summarize all this. This started way back. It was 2005. It was really important for my family to be buried like our ancestors. Like the Old Three Hundred, for example, it was important for them to live together, die, and be buried together on the same property. I think the biggest point I can drive home here is that this is not unique. If people are aware of their ancestry, especially people who’ve been in the US since at least the 1800s, then you already know this happened. It even continued all the way into the early 1900s. This is what everybody was doing. The thing is, though, most people aren’t well aware of what their ancestors did. This predates funeral homes. When a relative died, people would find something, usually a table, and dress the table in preparation to lay the deceased person in anticipation of family and community visitors. If a table of the right size were not readily available, they would use anything of the right dimensions (e.g., a door), elevate it, lay the deceased on it, and put it in the parlor (which is the front of the house), and family and the community would come to pay their respects to the deceased. It was a communal and societal thing where there was a social norm to do that. This is a part of our history that we have lost touch with. Again, this isn’t unique to my family. This is what everybody was doing in the 1800s–and obviously further back–and also into the 1900s. Some larger cities, which were few and far between, may have had a city cemetery. If you were near a church, it may have been possible to be buried in what they called the “churchyard.” Most people then seemed to prefer to be buried among their own family, on their own land. It even still happens today throughout the US and in various parts. You just don’t normally hear about this. People today assume that we always have had funeral homes. People today believe that funeral homes have always been an option; they don’t realize that not very long ago their own ancestors were buried where they lived. So speaking of my own individual circumstance, my mom passed away in 1988, dying pretty young from cancer. Her remains were interred in San Antonio at what’s called a perpetual care cemetery. This was all bought by my dad. He had a space–obviously–for her but also next to her was his space. The tombstone reflected that both of them were going to be buried there. So, in the early 2000s, my dad did not marry, let’s say, a good person and decided that he no longer wanted to be buried next to my mom. He was going to be buried at Fort Sam so he could be buried with his then-wife. So, you know, being the son, I obviously was opposed to this, but I didn’t say anything at the time. I was hoping he would change his mind and decide against doing that. But, in the meantime, I began establishing and operating my own cemetery because my conscience would not allow me to have people walking by my mother’s gravesite, seeing the tombstone indicating that someone was going to be buried next to her, and, after we all had passed, wonder what happened to her husband. Why is he not buried here? I just couldn’t tolerate that. That’s when I began planning and establishing all the details for operating my own cemetery. That’s essentially what came to pass. I chose a name, I had an idea of a well-designed tombstone, and I had the epitaph planned out. Also, what’s your religious tradition?
Chris: I’m Catholic.
Ray: Okay, so you can easily connect with a lot of this stuff. Did you take Latin or anything in school?
Chris: No, I never took Latin. I took Spanish.
Ray: I took Spanish also, but you know, these are all Romance languages. I’ve learned through my profession and beyond just some basic Latin words and phrases, but I wanted to make sure her own headstone reflected our Catholic tradition. I don’t know if you’ve heard of the term, as far as my title goes, I call myself a sacristan. That derives from the Latin word Sacristanus, which literally means custodian of sacred objects. So, I got a translation way back for the epitaph on her new headstone, I think the first time I got it was around 2007. I attended 12 years of Catholic school. I went to a Latin teacher at my high school a few years after and got her interpretation of how to say it. Finally, I went to a classics professor at UT. I wanted to make sure I absolutely had the right translation for her epitaph on her headstone. So, I did all this planning for operating the cemetery way back then, but there was a lot of other prep going on in the background during those years. It was expensive. You know, doing all this, she had been buried in a vault that weighed more than 3000 pounds. Both my parents worked for the federal government and that was actually one of their benefits. So, arranging transport was not easy. I talked to the perpetual care cemetery where she was interred at the time, and I talked to a Catholic cemetery in San Antonio. They both had assured me that we were looking at about 1000 pounds for transport, but, when we got down there on the day of disinterment, the vault had like a 60-year warranty on it. So, there was a representative there from the company to make sure that the vault wasn’t damaged. He said that the vault easily weighs more than 3000. We were not prepared, and the funeral home wasn’t prepared for anything that could transport that much. Later that day, the company that delivers those vaults dropped off one for a prominent San Antonio person who had died. They had one ready for his gravesite. The funeral director hired this driver to transport my mom’s vault back to Austin. We got back here that evening just around dusk. That was around the sixth of January 2015. But there was a lot of planning, preparation, and getting everything up and running for the cemetery during all those previous years. One of the last things I had to get was a disinterment permit, which was the government approval to transfer remains from one cemetery to another. The Texas Department of State Health Services approved the transfer and the new location.
Chris: Can you talk about how common caretakers at cemeteries were?
Ray: Sure. I found that not only here in Travis, but all throughout the US and close by to Travis County, I found caretakers all over the place. During lockdown, the public could not access the Austin History Center. As a result, volunteer interns would research matters for you. Fortunately, the interns were very interested in this subject matter and found quite a lot of records for local cemeteries and caretakers for the past 100 years. What’s also interesting is that if you go back about 100 years, the caretakers were called “sextons” in all the newspapers. And that’s actually the equivalent of the Catholic word ‘sacristan.’ You can see in everyday use 100 years ago that someone taking care of a cemetery is referred to as a sexton. However, if you go out today and talk with people, I guarantee almost no one has ever heard that word before. But the interns did a lot of research and found that there were a lot of caretakers here in Travis County during the past century, which was the scope of the research. I got tons of research over the past 100 years of all the caretakers who were living on cemeteries and working here in Travis specifically.
Chris: Can you go into the history of burial in your family?
Ray: I’ll try to keep this a little condensed. I’m by no means an expert, but I’ve learned a lot because I’m fascinated by the history of this within the family and also in general since I began my research. Zadock Woods was apparently born in Massachusetts. His family thereafter moved to Vermont where he met his wife, Minerva Cottle, and they married there. Then they moved from Vermont to the frontier in modern-day Missouri, and I think this was around the time of the war of 1812. So one of the things he did during his time in Missouri was build what’s called a fortified house. It was basically a fort that he built. I mean, it was mainly used to protect the colonists who lived in that area against Indian raids. They were mostly fighting off Indian attacks. One of our presidents, I believe it’s Taylor, before becoming president, was actually using the Zadock Woods fort as a base of operations during those battles against the Indians. Zadock was a fighter in its truest form, and that’s one of the things I really admire about him. If there was a war somewhere, he was there to go fight it. Not only in Texas during the battles for the Republic, but also in The War of 1812, and all these other things that were going on everywhere. But he built a fortified home in Missouri, and, at some point, Stephen F. Austin and the rest came down to look at the land that was under the control of the Mexican government. Zadock’s pioneer spirit brought him to Texas in 1824. He fell in love with Texas, and eventually died for the Republic. The Mexican government had promised these huge leagues (4,228 acres), not only to the parents but also to the children. There were varying requirements for what you got, how big it was, and who could get land by rivers. So, there were these great bargains for people to come down here. And that’s when Stephen Stephen F. Austin and Zadock and his family came to Texas. I think they got here in 1824, right around Christmas. He repeated what he had done in Missouri. He built another fort or a fortified home, and it was primarily meant to withstand attacks by Indians. So, all the families in his area would go to his place if there was an Indian raid for protection. He had everything and was fully protected. It said that there was a stone wall with another wooden wall on the outside. It was also a cemetery, and most of these people at the time had burials at their homes.
Chris: That’s interesting.
Ray: As a side note, quite a sizable number of US presidents are buried at their family homes or childhood homes: Washington, FDR, LBJ, and Jefferson for example. The first thing Jefferson did at Monticello was he planned the cemetery where his childhood best friend was first buried under a large oak, way before he started the plans and construction of Monticello. It fascinated me that so many presidents wanted to be buried in their homes. So anyway, back to Zadock. He built the fortified home and the cemetery on the same property. And, not by choice, he actually is not buried there. His wife, Minerva, predeceased him in the 1830s, and I can’t find her cause of death. She and other relatives are interred there. Anyway, Zadock died fighting the Mexican army at the Battle of Salado Creek, which is now in San Antonio. He was just shy of 70 years old when he was fighting there with two of his sons. He was with Norman, who’s my direct ancestor, and also brother. His brother was named Henry Gonzalvo, but everyone I know from my family called him ‘Gon,’ his nickname was ‘Gon.’ And Gon was one of the two people to escape that battle. A Mexican cavalryman charged Gon with a lance. Gon was able to get hold of the lance, pull the soldier from his horse, and escape on that horse through the Mexican lines holding the lance. I have not confirmed this, except I have been told that this lance is on display in The Alamo. The Mexican army was on retreat from the Texan army. They were heading south back to Mexico, and it was this small group of Texans who got caught behind enemy lines while the Mexican army was retreating to Mexico. They got trapped on the opposite side, caught by the Mexican army heading south, got surrounded, and shot up by cannons and everything else. That’s where most of them died. One account I read was that Zadock was shot in the head, and he fell dead over Dawson, who was the commander. Another account I’ve read said that he was shot, and he fell over Norman — his son who also is my direct ancestor. And so I don’t know which of those is correct. Some accounts say Zadock was 80 during this battle; more likely that is an exaggeration, and he was about 70 years of age. But so when that happened, Norman had been shot in either the hip or the upper leg. And so he was out of commission. And Gon ran over there to both of them. And the first thing Norman did was, make him swear, “you’ve got to take care of my wife and kids,” because he knew he was going to be captured. Norman was captured, and they transported him back to Mexico. And he was transported all over the place. At first, he was somewhere near, I think, Mexico City, but ultimately he ended up in what’s called Perote Prison, which is literally a castle with a moat in the eastern part of Mexico. And that’s where they held him and other Texans who were in that battle. Some of those people escaped from the castle, but he couldn’t. All I know is that he was a very large man, and he couldn’t fit through what they were trying to escape through. Norman died there about a year later. I think he died from yellow fever. But then Gon kept his word and he took care of the wife and the kids, and he raised them as his own. I think Gon’s wife had died, and then he ultimately married my third great-grandmother. He brought his own kids from his previous marriage into it. I wish we had pictures of Norman and Zadock. This is where it gets a little disappointing. There are photos of these people. And I’ve met a lot of the descendants. They have a big annual gathering, usually during September. So Minerva Cottle Woods is buried over at the original cemetery there at Zadock Woods’ fort, but Zadock, because he was a Texas war hero, he and others are buried at what’s called Monument Hill in La Grange, Texas. And I’ve been out there. I was trying to see if there was any trace of the Woods fort. I didn’t see anything as far as impressions on the land that would give any indication of where it was actually located. But the cemetery itself and the relatives from then are still buried at this cemetery he included with the Woods fortified home. There is a plaque erected by the Texas Historical Commission in honor of this site of original Texas settlers.
Chris: So yeah, that’s fascinating. I did see some pictures of him online, but I don’t know if that’s the actual Zadock Woods.
Ray: So here’s my understanding. And I mean, it’s worth exploring further. To me, it’s embarrassing that this wasn’t maintained better as far as the records go. So every year in September, there is this official ceremony for all the war heroes at Monument Hill in LaGrange. They have a twenty-one gun salute and fire a cannon. There are official military honor guards there and there are speakers. It’s kind of a big deal. So oftentimes direct family descendants go to this big ceremony in September, but they also have a family barbecue or something a few weeks later, and I only went to it once. And one of the guys who gave a speech said that there are photos of these people from that era. But what they didn’t do is they didn’t label the photos. And so you look at photos, and you don’t know who’s who. And it just drives me crazy. I was asking questions like, are there no newspapers from that time, any sort of records, or periodicals that would have had any sort of photos of these people? But as far as I know, there’s nothing that’s been found that actually identifies who is who. One other thing about Norman is he died a year later imprisoned at Perote Castle. And what they did then is they would bury people in the moat in unmarked graves. And I do plan eventually to go down there to visit. I want to see if they have any records and possibly any photos, but I doubt it because these people were prisoners. But I just want to pay my respects at some point and go down there to visit the castle where he was imprisoned until he died. But yeah, you read Zadock’s history, as far as when he came to his last battlefield, people wanted to retreat from the battle. And it’s clear from history that because of his love for the Republic of Texas, Zadock did not want to retreat until they fought the Mexican army to the end. Zadock historically is a famous example, but he is one of several ancestors who throughout the generations maintained the tradition of keeping the family living next to where dear ones were buried at death. I got quite a few ancestors who were doing the same thing on their property. And everyone’s ancestors most likely did the same thing on their property. It’s just that this has been lost to history, and people aren’t aware of it. And so when you tell somebody about this nowadays, they just don’t understand. It just strikes them like, can you do that? Is that even possible? Yet, there’s no law that says you can’t do this any longer (in Texas, there are laws that apply inside, or within certain distances of, municipalities of varying sizes). And so I’ve just recaptured our tradition and resurrected it. [Editor’s Note: For further reading on the Woods family history, click here.]
Chris: Is there anything else that you would like to talk about?
Ray: Yeah, let’s see. From all the research, I know of other cemeteries where caretakers or sextons lived. There’s one from just the past few years, who was at Texas State Cemetery. He now works in the cemetery department for the City of Austin. I do have photos of the Barnes family who lived at Texas State Cemetery for nearly four decades, thanks to their daughter, Viola. And, I know all these other people who definitely were there living and working for multiple decades on cemeteries. But I do have photographic evidence of the Barnes family specifically. Photos of other families have proven elusive. The photos I have show Ernest Barnes and his family, including seven children, both living and working in the Texas State Cemetery. And if you ever drive by Austin Memorial Park Cemetery, that structure, out there to the right of the entrance, was the caretaker’s home. It was constructed in 1927. It was constructed a year before the first burial, which was in late April of 1928. And online you’ll find a city of Austin cemetery master plan, showing about five or six cemeteries that the City of Austin operates. You’ll find photographs there of the original residence, like at Austin Memorial Park cemetery. And you’ll see all this stuff I’m telling you, as far as when the first burial was for the Austin Memorial Park, the construction of the home, photographs of the original home. It’s the original, but the outside changed in appearance since it was built in 1927. There was a caretaker home at Evergreen Cemetery. I haven’t found any photographic evidence of that, however, we do have an architectural plan of the design of that home, and where it was located at Evergreen. Finding pictures of these caretakers is nearly impossible, along with finding people who know anything about them. One thing I do know about the caretakers from the past century is apparently they loved their jobs because almost all of them stayed at their respective cemetery often for decades, living their lives and doing their jobs. But the Barnes family is the only one I’ve got photos of. And they were there at Texas State Cemetery for nearly 40 years. I’ve got photographs of all of them living and working on this cemetery.
Chris: Yeah, I remember you sent me an article on the Barnes family.
Ray: Yeah, there was an article about the family in the Austin American-Statesman. If you read the article, it says there are 75 photos of the Barnes family on their cemetery, and I used an open records request. There are about 10 of them that they, for some reason, won’t release. Also, I’m thinking that they are possibly not releasing photos from inside the home because they don’t want anyone to see the private interior of the home where they lived. But I don’t know why there are about 10 that they won’t release to the public; maybe they’re personal pictures. Viola Barnes, daughter of the caretaker, Ernest Barnes, is actually buried at Texas State Cemetery, and I’m assuming it’s because of all the information she provided to them in their search for historical data about the cemetery.
Chris: Well, thank you for your time, Ray.
Check out some historical photos, recovered by Ray Dunn, of the Barnes family on Texas State Cemetery, which they used solely as their single-family residence for almost forty years:
Originally published at https://www.thetexashorn.com on May 1, 2022.