Podcast: Galveston's Broadway Cemetery Complex

More of a visual learner? Read the transcript of this week's Galveston Unscripted podcast episode below:

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When it comes to death, Galveston is no stranger. Wars, executions, epidemics, shipwrecks, fires, Hurricanes, and one of the first major hospitals in the state. The Island has experienced its fair share of death since its founding. The early custom of burying bodies on the beach can only last so long in a growing city on the Gulf of Mexico. Families did not want to have to deal with the remains of family members after a storm surge washed away the dunes. Like all major cities, Galveston needed a dedicated place to bury and pay tribute to the dead.

If you spend more than a few hours roaming around Galveston Island, you are sure to come across at least one of Galveston's many expansive, ornate cemeteries. Galveston's Broadway Cemetery Historic District stands out as an impressive urban burial ground that contains the remains of the likes of men who fought in the war of 1812 to the American Civil War, to families who died during a yellow fever epidemic to victims of the 1900 storm.

What is breathtaking are the mixture of mausoleums, headstones, and towering obelisks that are covered in victorian symbolism and artwork that exude affluence, importance, and historic prominence. Famous sculptors from around the country, such as Pompeo Coppini, would be contracted to design and carve markers and mausoleums. This urban cemetery remains as a rare surviving example of its type within the state of Texas, as most urban cemeteries were abandoned as part of the Rural Cemetery movement of the nineteenth century.

Composed of seven separate cemeteries, the Broadway complex occupies six city blocks and was originally set aside on the far West end of town for family burials as part of the original town charter in 1839. In the early days of the incorporated city, the location of this cemetery would have been the extreme west end of the urbanized portion of Galveston island. The complex contains the Old City Cemetery, Trinity Episcopal Cemetery, Oleander Cemetery, Old Catholic Cemetery, New City Cemetery, Evergreen Cemetery, Hebrew Benevolent Society Cemetery.

One thing that makes a cemetery complex like this one of a kind, is that it has endured multiple grade rasings.

Along with the urbanized portion of the island after the 1900 storm, the cemetery has been raised 2 to 3 times in different areas. The grade rasings took place from just after the 1900 storm to the 1920s. You may notice that many of the markers and mausoleums seem to be half-buried. Many of the markers have been completely covered. When a grade raising of the cemetery was planned, the Newspapers would announce the grade raisings, and if the family could afford to raise the Mausoleum or headstone, it would be elevated to meet the level of the new grade. If the family could not afford to raise the stone, the plot would be re-sold and another body would be placed just a few feet above the original plot.

The 12,000 visible markers at the site signify only about a quarter of the bodies buried here. So, this cemetery is unique in that it is 2 to 3 layers deep.

The diversity of headstones from the early 1800s to today displays changing attitudes toward death and burial practices over the centuries. The organization of the site, as well as tombstone design, symbolism, and inscriptions, provide documentation of the traditions and beliefs important to the citizens of Galveston.

Like many of Galveston's historic districts, entire books have been written about this cemetery complex and on the people buried within the cemeteries and even the history of the grave markers themselves. The people buried in these cemeteries helped build the city, the Republic and state of Texas, and even the United States. Galveston, where you can trace the history of the United States through the multi-layered cemeteries such as the Broadway Cemetery Complex."

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J.R. Shaw Creator & Host of Galveston Unscripted

J.R. Shaw is the creator and host of Galveston Unscripted Podcast & audio tour. Shaw recognizes that history is nuanced and learning it can be powerful. He's made it his mission to reduce the friction between true history and anyone who is willing to listen! J.R. Shaw focuses on telling the full story through podcasting and social media with the goal of making learning accurate history easy and entertaining for all who seek it.

J.R. grew up along the Texas Gulf Coast, where he learned to love talking with anyone about anything! He started Galveston Unscripted after he realized how much he loved talking to people about their stories related to Galveston Island and Texas History. "So much of our history is lost when we don't have the opportunity to hear from those who lived it or have second-hand knowledge."