Few first-time visitors to Galveston realize the cemetery they pass on their way to the beach is a collection of seven cemeteries. Built over the span of nearly two centuries, four are city-owned, and three are private; known collectively as the Broadway Cemeteries, they’re rich in history, and a magnet for photographers and artists during the spring wildflower bloom.
Only some of the cemeteries allow flowers to flourish, but where they do, Coreopsis tinctoria runs rampant, mixing primarily with firewheel (Gaillardia pulchella) and lazy daisy (Aphanostephus skirrhobasis).
Given the cemeteries’ location, it can be hard to photograph the flowers without including the surrounding homes, tire shops, fast food restaurants, and skateboarding teenagers, but every year I enjoy giving it a try.
One of my favorite images from this spring made use of elevation differences between the sidewalks and the burial plots to allow framing the Coreopsis against the sky.
On a cloudy, gray day, the contrast between the flowers and some of the older graves pleased me.
Visible graves at some of the cemeteries represent only the most recent layer of burials. Stones occasionally were lost during three grade raisings, so plots were resold and new graves placed above the old. Occasionally, only the top of a gravestone is visible, while the rest of the structure remains buried.
Unfortunately, vandalism isn’t unknown. In November of last year, many historic stones were broken and otherwise damaged. The perpetrator was caught, and some markers have been repaired, but many history lovers still grieve the losses. Here, a stone knocked from its base leans against a tree.
In some cases, nature seems to be consoling the broken markers.
While my favorite angels weren’t significantly damaged, they now stand closer to one another.
Unwilling to close the cemeteries to the public, the city did install new fencing and lighting. There are rumors that concerned citizens occasionally patrol the property as unofficial guards.
A different and more pleasant kind of history abounds in the cemeteries. Here, the Willis family mausoleum in the Episcopal cemetery remains stately and attractive. Peter James Willis, born in Maryland in 1815, moved to Texas and established a dry goods store at Washington-on-the-Brazos; eventually, P. J. Willis and Brother became one of the largest mercantile establishments west of the Mississippi.
A daughter, Magnolia, married George Sealy, one of her father’s business associates, on May 12, 1875; Galveston’s John Sealy Hospital is perhaps the best-known reminder of the family’s influence.
Their luxurious home, Open Gates, became a center of Galveston business and social life. Magnolia engaged the New York architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White to build the mansion, thought to be the only building in the South designed by Stanford White, and the home’s elaborate carriage house was designed by preeminent Galveston architect Nicholas Clayton.
Galveston’s ethnic heritage is rich and complex. Italians, Germans, English, Swedish, and Dutch share space in the cemeteries. Here, a reminder of the Celtic tradition stands tall.
As for the pace of life in a cemetery, it might best be represented by the snails I discovered on several graves. I’d not noticed them in the past, but when I read that snails will climb rocks to obtain minerals needed for shell-building, their presence on stone markers made perfect sense.
Beyond that, it occured to me: even when life moves slowly, it’s still life.