By WAYLON CUNNINGHAM
Parked cars lined nearly every path running through the cemetery last Sunday as families from as far away as Houston and as close as down the road gathered for the 65th Liberty Hill Cemetery Homecoming as the smell of barbecue drifted through the air alongside the old hymns.
These families may not see each other any other day of the year, but Sunday, they joined together for food and fellowship, remembrance and reunion. This was Homecoming.
As cemetery reunion days go across the country in rural communities, Liberty Hill’s Homecoming calls on all generations of those families buried at the cemetery to gather at the site.
Every year, the Sunday service comes first, and then the barbecue, the guest speakers, and finally the “roll call.” The names of every person who has died and been interred since last year is read aloud.
This year, as every year, the crowd disperses only slowly afterwards. One man is heard saying to another, “I’ll see you next year, or forever hereafter.”
Cemetery caretaker Kathy Canady said the day saw its best attendance in years.
Judging from the amount of catering plates served, she estimated the turnout at between 400-500, “conservatively.”
The weekend’s high turnout comes at a time when many cemetery homecomings—once a staple tradition in American Protestant communities throughout the country—have disappeared entirely.
Liberty Hill’s first homecoming was recorded in a June 10, 1952 edition of the Austin-American Statesman. It described it as a “day long to be remembered,” with “perfect weather, plenty to eat, preaching on the ground, and the reunion of over 1,000 old friends.”
Some who attended this year still remember that day.
Gary Spivey, 69, says he remembers families bringing their own food to the early homecomings, which ended up with “hundreds of pies” lining the tables.
In 2017, lunch was barbecue brisket, sausage, beans, coleslaw, condiments and tea. It was served by Mopsie’s Catering, which Canady said had done so for the past 40 or so years.
She said they probably operate at a loss coming from Taylor, but by this point they’re almost “part of the family.”
Canady said that Liberty Hill’s continued tradition can be attributed to the interest of the town’s older residents, though one day homecoming here could fade, too.
Children today, she said, are not as aware of their connection to place.
She said there used to be a joke in Liberty Hill, “even if you’d lived here 30 years, it was said you still weren’t from here.”
In previous years, there was a strong overlap between those who lived in the town, and those who were buried in the cemetery.
Several older residents recalled that at one time, so strong was the tie of the community to the cemetery, that plots did not even need to be purchased.
One woman who attended the first homecoming as a young girl recalled that for many years, more Liberty Hill locals were buried in the cemetery than who lived in the town.
For her, homecoming functioned as a family reunion.
The same is true for many who gathered Sunday. Several said that they had generations going back of ancestors buried here, but only come to the area on this weekend.
At the same time that families with deep roots in the area have begun to disperse, the individuals who come to the Liberty Hill Cemetery for burial are now drawn from a wider geographic radius.
The Homecoming tradition in Liberty Hill has changed in some ways to reflect these trends, just as cemetery reunions have nationwide.
Many communities began practicing the “cemetery homecoming” around the turn of the 20th Century, writes historian Gwen Kennedy Neville in “Kinship and Pilgrimage: Rituals of Reunion in American Protestant Culture.”
Then, a primary function for many associations was that the day served as an opportunity for the families associated with the cemetery to gather in cleaning it. They would keep the grass cut and the curbs trimmed and other various improvements.
She writes, “The graves must be maintained, they say, and the cemetery must not be allowed to fall into ruin. In cultural terms, the ancestors must be given homage. The dead must be honored and the living must create ways of remembering.”
Writing in 1987, she describes Liberty Hill’s own Homecoming in relation to those older traditions.
“By 1985 the association had adopted the custom of having the noon meal catered by a popular local barbecue caterer, but the pattern of lining up by families and eating in clusters of extended kin remained firm. A tabernacle now covered the assembly area and a loudspeaker system carried the voice of the reader as she called out the names of all those who had died in the past year. And the association now had enough money accumulated in its bank accounts to keep the grass cut and the curbs trimmed and to make various improvements; but these matters were all deferred until the Annual Business Meeting on the third Sunday in October. At this homecoming one does not do business. One visits relatives and honors the dead.”
Today, Canady does much of the upkeep herself.
Neville also wrote in the discussion of Liberty Hill’s Homecoming that a cemetery association’s founding narrative is often bound up in the history of the town’s founding.
Joe Bryson echoed as much when he served as a guest speaker this past Sunday. As a descendent of one of Liberty Hill’s original settler families, and as the grandson of the man who helped start the modern association in 1950, Joe Bryson detailed the audience on his own historical research into the town and cemetery.
As he spoke, he would ask any descendents to raise their hand when he mentioned a name: Snyder, Roddy, Poole, Chance.
When John and Amelia Bryson came to Texas to claim land offered by the Texas government, its previous American Indian inhabitants only recently removed, the soil was not as rich as they might have expected.
But in 1875, John Bryson deeded a three and a half acre portion of that land to serve as the initial basis of the cemetery, stating a desire to see his family and the community have a “permanently and properly improved Burial Ground.”
The grounds had already been used informally for burials for some time before then, although the names and dates for many of those graves have since eroded.
Later additions, from the local Masonic Lodge and local families, added to the cemetery’s now more than 20-acre tract.
In 1913, a group of local women founded the cemetery’s first association as a way to properly maintain the grounds and graves. They raised funds, sponsored clean-up efforts, and bought a horse-drawn hearse. The organization, however, gradually fell apart.
In 1950, another association was convened by local families, and in June 1952, they held the first Homecoming.
The improvements they secured included a deep water well, new fencing, new roads, flower beds and shrubs, a tabernacle for services, and more.
This history was reflected in the books and historical photographs available for purchase at the Homecoming event. All proceeds went to the Cemetery Association.
The other guest speaker was Williamson County Commissioner Cynthia Long, who first visited the Homecoming in Liberty Hill 10 years ago. She said that having grown up in Houston, this kind of gathering was “amazing” for her.
“We don’t have anything like this in the city,” she said.
Long spoke about upcoming developments in the county, which would be of interest to those in Liberty Hill, such as road improvements and a new emergency services in Cedar Park.