Grave matters: Old City Cemetery sees improvements

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A worker installs a new ceramic grave marker at the Old City Cemetery in Brownsville. (Courtesy photo)

Navigating Brownsville’s Old City Cemetery is easier now thanks to new ceramic tile block markers to replace the old concrete markers, many of them barely legible or missing entirely.

An initiative of the Brownsville Historical Association, 64 new tiles were installed by city parks and recreation crews at roughly $5 per tile plus the cost of materials, said Dave Parsons, BHA membership coordinator, who also keeps tabs on the cemetery where many of Brownsville’s earliest leading citizens are interred.

“It was something like $600 or $800 total plus whatever labor they had into it,” he said. “They don’t typically charge us labor.”

The project goes back a couple of years, though COVID and other issues caused delays, Parsons said, adding that he was ready to pay for the installation himself before the city came up with the funds.

A new ceramic tile marker is seen next to the old cement marker at the Old City Cemetery in Brownsville. (Courtesy photo)

“We finally got them working and they’ve got the first 60 done,” he said. “We’ve got everything but like two rows right now and they’re supposed to be finishing those up today.”

The tiles are big improvement over the remaining old markers on which a number was scratched into wet concrete, and which had been painted in recent history though the paint faded within about a year, Parsons said.

“Over the years the rain and whatever has worked them up out of the ground, and so there’s a number of them that are lost,” he said.

The new tiles are white with black numbers. Parsons said the old markers were a source of complaints by visitors in the past, but that Daniel Salinas, the city’s parks maintenance manager, has been very helpful in the project. Old City Cemetery is one of Brownsville’s historic gems, telling the story of the city’s early history through the names on gravestones of those who helped shape it, though there are a lot of things it needs besides new markers, he said.

A new tile marker is seen at a gravesite at the Old City Cemetery in Brownsville. (Courtesy photo)

“There’s a lot of things that need to be done that we don’t really know to get done,” Parsons said. “There are a lot of headstones that are still messed up.”

Many of the tombstones bear the names of those who traveled all the way from countries such as France, England, Ireland and Spain to test their fortunes in the dusty rawness of 19th-century Brownsville and Matamoros.

“Most of them came through New Orleans,” Parsons said. “They were primary trading powers for a long time.”

Another cemetery project on the horizon, possibly the distant horizon, is to replace the missing anchor chain that once bordered the Masons section, he said.

“The city actually spent some money and I think (Port of Brownsville Commission Vice Chairman) Ralph Cowen donated a good portion of the money to get 400 feet of anchor chain,” Parsons said.

Workers install a new ceramic grave marker at the Old City Cemetery in Brownsville. (Courtesy photo)

“They’re in the process right now of fixing up the posts to do about 100 feet. I don’t know how long it’s going to take them to get all of it done, because the posts are in kind of bad shape and they’re going to have to rehabilitate some of them. I tried to figure out how the chain disappeared. It’s not something that you just walk up to and grab.”

It may be a year or two before the project is finished, he said, adding that he’s also at work on a project with a Harlingen area friend to identify veterans without headstones buried in Old City Cemetery through VA records and correct the deficiency.

“My big thing is with the veterans,” he said. “We have something like 450 veterans out in the cemetery. I’m not sure that we have that many headstones.”