Cayley Birchfield, Texas Historical Commission – R.I.P. Guardian Program

The Texas Historical Commission’s RIP Guardian program serves to educate, consult and assist volunteer groups in preserving historic cemeteries as important cultural resources. The initials R.I.P. are interpreted as the Texas Historical Commission’s cemetery survey initiative: Record, Investigate and Protect. Understanding these key concepts along with the requirements for application provide focus for the overall outcome shared by all persons involved with the preservation of a cemetary.

For my internship with the RIP Guardian Program, it was my job to research and help write the “Significance” chapter of the master plan for the San Pedro cemeetary. A Master Plan Document, compiled by the RIP Guardian Program, links cemetery association volunteers with state and local resources to ensure ongoing preservation of their cemetery. The San Pedro Cemetery Association met the requirements for the RIP Guardian Program and is actively involved in the research required for the master plan document. The process of compiling information for this Master Plan exemplifies the importance of understanding the goals for various stakeholder organizations, agencies and individuals associated with the preservation of historic cemeteries.

The Significance section of the master plan encompasses the heritage and culture of the people associated with the cemetery and serves to highlight local customs and traditions. Understanding the history of San Pedro Cemetery, researching similar cemetery customs, and interviewing various sources helped to formulate topics and questions to include within the master plan. As an internship student, my keeping the goals of the cemetery association and the Texas Historical Commission in mind were necessary to allow for a successful master plan. Meanwhile, understanding the heritage and culture associated with the cemetery was crucial for formulating research questions.

Prior to conducting any stakeholder interviews, it became clear that fully grasping the history of the site and people associated with San Pedro Cemetery would lead to formulating open ended questions about community, burial customs, religious affiliations, grave decorations, marker types and historic fencing. Documentation about San Pedro Cemetery is found in various locations including the Application for Historic Designation sent to the Texas Historical Commission, the Cemetery Research Project conducted by Dr. Ana Juarez of Texas State University, newspaper articles about vandalism that took place in 2003, and research collected by fellow intern Jillian McCoy. The process of understanding this big picture helped to pull all of the previous research together and became the foundation for my field notes.  Relating what was already available to topics set forth in the Significance section of the master plan provided a basic outline for further research of similar cemeteries and development of interview questions. One example involved the topic of community. By reading through all the available data on San Pedro Cemetery, I was able to learn about the original founders of the cemetery. Learning their names and positions helped to show a genealogical link to the current board members. This generational dedication shows a community of families who continue to volunteer their time to ensure the future of San Pedro Cemetery. I included this information in the master plan sent to the Texas Historical Commission.

During my internship, it became clear that understanding the history of any project helps to put focus on field notes and avoid repetitious questions during the interview process. For instance, interviews of local agencies and association members reveal a variety of cultures in San Pedro Cemetery. The previous history of the site focused on the Hispanic heritage of the cemetery and the people associated with the cemetery. A significant example of Hispanic culture I observed includes several relacaritos and nichos used to house statues, candles, crucifixes and small momentos for the remembrance of loved ones; and, researching the meaning of relacaritos and nichos in other Hispanic cemeteries reinforced their existence as a Hispanic tradition in San Pedro Cemetery. However, through interviews and further research it became clear that the topics of burial customs, marker types and grave decoration show a mergure of Hispanic tradition with Anglo customs. The abundant display of The Virgin Mary and The Virgin of Guadalupe would suggest a predominantly catholic influence on burial customs, but interviews with board members and funeral homes contradicted this assumption and stated that several religious denominations are found in the cemetery. Grave decorations include a variety of flowers, shells, small flags and toy items likewise showing Anglo and Hispanic customs. Similarly, previous assumptions about the abundance and similarity of multi-colored tiled markers related their existence to a local artist. Through interviews, though, it was discovered that the tiled markers were not the work of one artist but an example of family tradition and socio-economic factors at the time of death.

The previous examples all provide insight into the importance of fieldwork in proving or disproving previous assumptions in the process of research. The burial customs associated with San Pedro Cemetery include catholicism and a variety of different religious practices mixed with Anglo and Hispanic customs. Grave decorations provide an opportunity for each family to express unique aspects of their culture and their variety reveals the existence of Hispanic and Anglo culture in San Pedro Cemetery. Revisiting field notes gathered through photographs, interviews and scholarly documents was a process repeated several times to provide the examples stated above. Therefore, as an intern, it is crucial to keep clear and concise field notes to enhance the outcome of any research project.

Being involved with the San Pedro Cemetery Association enhanced my belief in cemetery preservation. Looking at historic cemeteries with respect to anthropology gave me an opportunity to use different methods of research, while the internship process gave focus to me for any future plans with cultural or heritage agencies.