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Meet You at the Cemetery Gates: San Jose Cementerio

A couple of weeks ago while running errands I found myself driving some backroads I don’t take on my normal route. Out in Montopolis, southeast of the center Austin, TX, I passed some unconventional cemetery gates which framed some severely overgrown grounds. Remnants of last year’s Dia De Los Muertos still apparent from the dried marigolds strewn from it’s gate. I had to find out more about San Jose Cementerio.

The crumbling cement cemetery gates of San Jose Cementerio. Someone had cut back the grass as best they could since the first time I had driven by. As you can see, it’s still overgrown with weeds.

Contributing to the death positive movement

After reading The Order of the Good Death’sThe Year of Action Resource Guide post earlier this year, I’ve been yearning to find a way I could contribute to the death positivity movement. But how could I do that? I can’t be a funeral director. Mortician? Death doula? Too much of a learning curve and emotional weight. One item stood out to me – cemetery preservation. This was something that didn’t involve working directly with the grieving or dying, which is an area I’m very hesitant to go into. Nothing like the gung ho death positivity girl blundering her way through comforting the grieving. I’m humble enough to know I’m in no position to provide guidance in such a trying time.  While I have an interest in mortuary science, I tend to find myself gravitating more towards the historical aspects of death and culture. I was surprised I had never thought about this route before.

San Jose Cemetery Northwest View
Another view of the grounds facing northwest. There were many cement borders graves with overgrown weeds in them.

I begin reading through the resources provided which included the following:

Saving Graves was particularly rich with helpful information surrounding the art of cemetery preservation and the best path forward if you want to form a coalition to help work on a local graveyard. However, I found none of these resources really lead me to where I could find resources on a local level. There was a registry of endangered gravesites but there was only one listing for Austin, TX. That couldn’t be right, could it? So I stalled out a bit.

But ask and ye shall receive! My drive back San Jose immediately presented my with an opportunity. I went home and googled it to see what other historical information I could find. I could only find one website, The Austin Genealogical Society, and one video, which had some helpful information. With the discovery of The Austin Genealogical Society’s website I uncovered a whole list of endangered graveyards! I was also able to find the Save Austin’s Cemeteries group which regularly holds events to document gravesites, clean the grounds, and repair stones. San Jose was the key to unlocking this information.

…I found none of these resources really lead me to where I could find resources on a local level…San Jose was the key to unlocking this information.

The history of San Jose Cementerio

Here’s what I uncovered about this graveyard’s history. The site is actually abandoned and has no formal caretakers. It’s flanked by two churches but neither are affiliated with the cemetery. While the gates you see in the photo above appear to be the main entrance to the site, the original entrance remains in the northeast corner. You can still see the cement pillars with deteriorating decorative gates.  It features a variety of grave marker and headstone styes – wooden crosses, cement stones with handcarved names and dates, tile decorated stones, to only funeral home markers. One of the most elaborate are the two gated family plots by the large oak tree which are encased by large ornate iron gates in the shape of stars.

Star shaped family plot in the center of the cemetery
One of the star shaped family plots with an obelisk marker.

There is no uniformity to the graves in terms of rows, which direction they face or even era. Most of the marked graves seem to date from the late 1800s to the 1950s. However, it’s clear there are many unmarked graves here due to the sunken uneven ground and misaligned stones. Many stones I came across were broken and barely visible. It’s easy to imagine other graves simply vanishing after a decade with no one even aware they existed.

Surrounding the people buried here and the history of the site, it’s one of many unclaimed Travis county cemeteries which is home to the early Mexican Americans in the area. If you can imagine this area was previously surrounded by fields filled with crops in a rural location. Currently it’s surrounded by homes, busy highways, and Mexican mom and pop shops. The areas was a popular spot for newly migrated Mexican Americans and became a vibrant spot for Mexican culture.

From its beginning the cemetery maintained a policy of free burial for any person of Mexican descent. The founders made a point of providing space, coffin, and religious rites for the burial of any Mexican transient that died in the area, claiming the bodies from the City of Austin to ensure appropriate burial. – San Jose Cemetery, Austin Central Library

Because of this policy, the grounds filled quickly, was expanded and even then, again, was filled. With no records of the burials or plot locations, it wouldn’t be uncommon to see multiple graves stacked one atop the other. This would also contribute to the uneven grounds and sparsely marked graves.

The grounds were originally founded by the Union Fraternal Mexicana in 1919. Thereafter, it received regular care up to the late 50’s but has sat in a general state of disrepair since then. Community members and state historical commissions contribute when able but there is no one responsible party. San Jose sits on it’s own.

Exploration and understanding

Upon my visit, I pulled up to the western side of the cemetery on Richardson Lane. I parked my care and began the trek into the grounds. While making my way in I noticed a neighbor by his fence peering my way, watching me probably assuming this goth girl is going to do something weird. Nevertheless, I continued.

I immediately noticed the grounds had it’s grass moved since my original drive by the site. I was prepared for at least knee high weeds and overgrowth. But who was tending to this? Perhaps an ally in my quest? A mystery to be solved! Upon further exploration I noticed the bizarre spacing of the stones. There were no rows and no general direction they were facing. It was a hodge podge of graves and markers. Nothing was uniform.

The most depressing observation was the state of the headstones and markers. Only a few remain standing with names and dates visible. Many lay broken in half or completely gone with just a base remaining. It broke my heart to see all of these people’s last remaining mark on earth just forgotten about. In Mexican culture its told once you’re forgotten by the living you truly die. Knowing this it made my exploration even more sombre.

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But amongst this sad backdrop were some truly majestic moments of beauty and grandeur. The most obvious is the beautiful oak tree in the center of the site, which can be seen at the top of this post. This thing is massive. If you’ve ever been down to Texas you know how amazing this type of tree can be. The canopy probably had a radius of around 30 feet. When you walk underneath it feels like you’re under mother nature’s outstretched arms and she’s protecting you while also embracing you. Every crackle of the branches in the breeze, tumbling leaf, and crunch under your feet makes you keenly aware of it’s life amidst a sea of the dead. Another equisite tree was found on the eastern side of the yard, old and gnarly, in stark contrast to the perfection of the live oak.

Giant live oak tree in the middle of the cemetery
Giant live oak tree in the middle of the cemetery.
Gnarled oak bordering the cemetery
Gnarled tree in stark contrast to the beautiful live oak.

A personal connection and mystery solved

As I concluded my exploration, I made my way back to my car on the west side of the yard. As I approached my car, I noticed the same suspicious neighbor eyeing me. I figured rather than hop in my car and drive away I’d introduce myself and ask a few questions.

I made my way over to the older gentleman, looking to be in his late 50s, and explained the reasoning for my walk around the cemetery. His sister and mother sat on the front porch of the house on a porch swing, looking onward. The yard was a sea of Texas bluebonnets. He explained that his family has lived in the same house for generations, with his mother growing up in the home. This meant that he was extremely familiar with the history of the cemetery across the street. He mentioned how when he and his siblings were younger they would play in the graveyard and even buried a few pets on the grounds.

Another tidbit of information he shared solved the mystery as to who was tending to the site. He pointed me in the direction of a couple up the street who  have been extremely passionate about the care of San Jose. The husband, who receives no payment for his services, makes it a point to drive his riding mower down to the site to do his part in keeping the grounds manageable. While not perfect, and still considered overgrown, you have to truly appreciate this couple’s sense of duty and responsibility. I can’t imagine the scope of the job to clean up the entire site.

At the end of the conversation, he asked if I had seen “the man” in the cemetery. The man?! Immediately I was ecstatic. Not only did I find a graveyard with some history, but potentially some ghost stories? He quickly dispelled that myth by telling me there’s a homeless man who likes to stay under the large oak tree. He cautioned me about wandering alone in the area. As a girl from a rural area in New England, I never paid a thought to this and realized I probably need to be more cautious in my exploration. With that, I hopped back in my car looking forward to more time I could spend with San Jose Cementerio.

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