Terlingua, Texas, has one of the quirkiest cemeteries in North America, which is fitting for a place that’s both a ghost town and a living community. If you’re traveling to Big Bend National Park, it’s worth a detour.
The Terlingua Cemetery might well be my favorite graveyard in the world, which is saying something because I’ve visited a lot of them (see my book Near the Exit: Travels with the Not-So-Grim Reaper). Established in 1902, the cemetery is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is said to be one of the most photographed spots in Texas. It’s also the top tourist attraction in town.
I loved how the Terlingua Cemetery reflects the character of the surrounding area, a hardscrabble corner of West Texas where you have to be tough to survive. The town of Terlingua was once the home to the Chisos Mining Company, which operated a thriving mercury mine in the area. The surrounding town includes the remains of homes where the miners lived (that’s what makes it a ghost town) as well as newer dwellings.
I’d been introduced to some of the locals the night before at the nearby Starlight Theatre Restaurant & Saloon, which has a big front porch where people hang out and socialize. The crowd included cowboys and construction workers and tie-dye-wearing hippies. One guy was playing a guitar and farther down the porch another one was strumming a banjo. If you despair over the divisions that plague America, I recommend you hang out at the Starlight on a Saturday night.
The next morning I visited the cemetery at sunrise, wandering among its gravestones as light slowly illuminated the landscape. Because the soil is so rocky, most bodies are not buried in the ground, but under a rounded pile of stones. Many of the markers are homemade, often just two pieces of weathered boards nailed together in a makeshift cross. Instead of green grass, the sparse vegetation is mostly scrubby creosote bushes. In the distance you can see the Chisos Mountains and Sierra del Carmens.
As I peered at the markers, I got a sense for the people buried beneath. Some were miners from the early days of the town; others more recent residents. Many have tokens left on their graves indicating that they’re still mourned by the living, from beer bottles and Grateful Dead CDs to rosaries.
A number of the graves are delightfully odd. One has a hobbit theme, for example, with a Tolkien quote on the headstone and a miniature hobbit’s burrow below. The grave of David Tinsley, who went by the nickname Boss Bird, has a larger-than-life chicken on it. Another has a three-foot statue of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. And here’s my favorite epitaph, which was one of the few engraved in marble rather than scratched onto wood: Another Good Man Done Gone.
But the image that sticks with me the most in thinking back on that graveyard is this: there were several graves that had lawn chairs pulled up at their side, so that people could be comfortable when they come to visit the dead.
There was something so evocative about those chairs, so symbolic of a different way of viewing death, that it makes me want to reflect upon them some more.
Most of the time in American culture, we try to avoid thinking about death. Other than a memorial service and maybe a flurry of Facebook messages after a loss, the rituals of mourning have been lost. Long gone are the Victorian days when people would wear black for many months to indicate a loss. In some ways that’s good, of course, as dwelling on death can be morbid and depressing. But we lose something, I think, when death becomes a purely private affair that’s meant to be rushed through and ignored.
So I think we can learn a lesson from the Terlingua Cemetery, with its blend of quirkiness and humor, its intertwining of remembrance and humor and mourning. This is a place to become more comfortable with death and mortality.
If we could sit down in a lawn chair and visit with the residents of this cemetery, I bet they’d tell us not to take ourselves so seriously. No doubt all of the things that frustrate us and make us anxious look very different from the other side of the grave. I doubt the dead follow the political news closely, for example, or incessantly check their Facebook feeds. And I bet they wonder why we don’t take more time to savor and enjoy the pleasures of this life.
As for me, I hope that when I wake up on the other side, heaven will be more like hanging out at the Starlight Restaurant on a Saturday night than it is lounging on a white cloud with a harp.
Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She’s the author of The Soul of the Family Tree, Near the Exit and Holy Rover. Her website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world.