Although the cemetery dates back to 1857 and about 4,000 people are buried there, McDonald said, it has space for 4,000 more burial plots — enough to last 30 or 40 years — and is in the midst of a construction project.
Near the entrance of the grassy, tree-dotted, park-like cemetery, a memorial for war veterans buried in the cemetery is being built at a cost of about $48,000.
“It's something that's unique; we don't know of any other cemetery in the whole area that's done that,” said McDonald, who is manager of cemetery construction and maintenance.
The board of Athens Cemetery Association, which operates the cemetery, felt it would be a good idea to recognize veterans buried in the cemetery and wants to list on the memorial all their names, McDonald said.
The board raised $45,000 for the project but is about $3,000 short. Donations to finish funding the memorial may be sent to Athens Cemetery Association,
P. O. Box 1296, Athens, Texas, 75751.
The memorial basically will be a red brick wall which matches the entry gate and an information kiosk. Granite panels will be embedded in the wall bearing names of veterans, listed according to burial date for each war.
There will be panels for the Cherokee Indian War, the Civil War, Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War, Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
“One interesting fact is that there are 56 Confederate veterans and there's one Union soldier,” McDonald said. “He was from Illinois and moved down here and had a farm after the war.”
Developing the list of names of veterans buried in the cemetery who served in all the wars “was quite a research project,” McDonald said.
“There is no doubt we have probably left someone out and we will be happy to add them,” McDonald said, encouraging family or others to notify the association if they notice a name is missing.
There's space on the panels for veterans who die in the future and are buried in the cemetery.
In front of the brick wall with granite panels will be a concrete plaza with an American flag in the middle and a couple of benches. A walkway accessible to the handicapped will lead from the center of the plaza to the roadway.
In the meantime, a fundraising drive will be waged for an eagle sculpture for the top of the middle of the brick wall. It is expected to cost about $4,000 to $5,000.
In recent years, the cemetery association also built a columbarium containing niches for cremation burials.
“We have ample niches available; we see a steady trend toward cremations now,” McDonald said.
Big cedar trees scattered through the cemetery were planted in the late 1800's, McDonald said. They grew from seed brought to Athens from Lebanon, Tenn., by Joseph T. LaRue, one of the Athens pioneers buried here, he said.
There are six historical markers in the cemetery, most in the pioneer section.
For example, a Texas Historical Commission marker on the grave of Dulcea Avriette states that according to local tradition, she named the town of Athens after her birthplace — Athens, Ga. She came to Henderson County in 1847 with her family.
At the front gate is a historical marker that also recounts briefly how the cemetery was started in 1857.
It has been run by different groups throughout the years, the latest being Athens Cemetery Association formed in 1922. It is not a city cemetery, McDonald pointed out.
The association is funded through sale of burial spaces and donations funneled through an organization called Friends of the Cemetery, McDonald said.
In the beginning, land for the cemetery was donated by the Masons for a burial site for lodge members.
The oldest grave site in the cemetery is for William J. Brantley, who died in 1857. He was a prominent planter, the first Henderson County school superintendent and a founding member of Masonic Lodge No. 165 in Athens, according to a cemetery history.
Shortly afterward, a pioneer, A.J. Ward, came into town in a covered wagon with the body of his daughter who had died on the way and wanted to bury her in the cemetery, according to Hall's history. Since the cemetery was restricted to Masons at that time, a landowner donated an adjacent acre where the girl was buried.
Soon afterward, the cemetery was opened to everyone. The original Masonic Section soon lost its identity as many lodge members wanted to be buried with their families, Hall's history states.
From time to time through the years, more acreage was acquired and the Athens Cemetery Association was organized to run the cemetery.