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Texas cemetery strains in massacre aftermath

[SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas] Families have buried their dead, one by one, in the cemetery on the edge of town since the 1850s, when a settler named Dr John Sutherland put down stakes on an old Spanish land grant.

Since then the graveyard has endured for generations as a resting place for pioneers and cowboys, matriarchs and masons, overdose victims and those who passed away silently in their sleep.

But the cemetery's caretakers never before faced the colossal dilemma they do now: How to bury so many people in such a short span of time.

So Lynda Ragen, the owner of Vinyard Funeral Home, is talking to a Dallas company about borrowing additional hearses. Joe Garza, a local resident, is donating concrete liners for burial vaults. Audrey Louis, the district lawyer, is rushing to provide money for funeral expenses from a compensation fund for crime victims.

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And Bertha Cardenas-Lomas, the head of the town's cemetery board, has been sorting out the onslaught of funerals so that not everyone is buried at once. She has also been busy mowing the grass at the grave sites.

"This feels like a terrifying, crushing nightmare except that I'm somehow awake," said Ms Cardenas-Lomas, 57.

In the span of a year, Ms Cardenas-Lomas said, the cemetery normally handles fewer than 15 burials - far fewer than the graves that need to be dug in the coming days after a gunman killed 26 at the First Baptist Church in one of the worst mass shootings in US history.

With the church still cordoned off by investigators, the town's focus is now shifting to the cemetery, one of the few other institutional fixtures binding people together here.

A couple who had just begun to enjoy retirement, Richard Rodriguez, 64, a railroad foreman, and Therese Rodriguez, 66, who worked as a receptionist, will be buried on Saturday, the first in a series of funerals that will test the nerves of this threadbare town of about 400 people.

"It would be different if they were killed in a car crash or from sickness," said Regina Rodriguez, 33, a daughter of Richard Rodriguez, who works at Toyota's truck factory in San Antonio.

"But this feels so unreal, bigger than anything anyone should deal with," she said. "Burying my dad in that cemetery is the last time I'll get to see his presence."

This vast state has as many as 50,000 cemeteries, from elegantly manicured expanses in Houston to isolated graves in the West Texas plains. Some cemeteries remain segregated to this day, not by law but by societal divisions that persisted long after Texas seceded from Mexico and sided with the Confederacy to perpetuate slavery.

But in Sutherland Springs, where McLeouds are buried next to Martinezes, Baptists alongside Roman Catholics, ranchers near ranch hands, the cemetery seems to have forged in the town a sense of unity when it comes to burying the dead. Some elderly residents make it a point to attend every funeral as a way to pay respects and connect with neighbours.

"Rural cemeteries in Texas like the one in Sutherland Springs are as much a space for the living as for the dead," said Ana Ju¨¢rez, an anthropologist at Texas State University. "They bind people together through cycles of cultural change, enabling us to see how society itself is changing over the decades."

The cemetery in Sutherland Springs is nothing elaborate by Texas terms. A simple iron gate welcomes visitors. Reflecting, perhaps, the long decline in the town's fortunes, a single plot costs about US$600 compared with nearly US$2,000 in nearby La Vernia.

And yet the people who live here tend their graveyard with affection. Small American flags adorn some of the graves; plastic flowers, crosses, even cowboy boots are near others.

Funeral ceremonies are usually intimate and modest. A local pastor from the denomination of the departed reads from Scripture. Mourners dress up, but not extravagantly. The cemetery is close enough to the centre of town that some people walk. Afterwards, they gather for a meal at the grieving family's home.

Some of the regular mourners are bracing for what comes next. On Wednesday, the Texas Department of Public Safety released the names of the dead - 10 women, seven men, eight children, and the unborn fetus carried by one of the victims, Crystal M Holcombe. The youngest of the children was one; the oldest of the adults was 77.

Antonio Morales, 79, a retired farmworker who insists on going to every funeral in town, was among the residents here who were coping with the tragedy. Days after the shooting, he was at the cemetery cleaning up as a cold front enveloped Sutherland Springs.

"When the wind blows too hard, it blows the flowers away, so I go over there and pick them up and put them back," said Mr Morales, whose wife and other relatives are buried here.

Morales said funerals were an occasion for the town to come together, emphasising that Sutherland Springs needed this unity more than ever after the shooting.

"It don't make no difference if you're Spanish or white or whatever," he said. "If you're from around here, we all get together."

NYTIMES

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