Ever wonder how cemeteries get started? Of course, it all revolves around need. A fledgling community begins and a member of the community dies. Unless he/she is to be buried in an already designated spot - what do you do with their remains?
This is actually how the historic Athens Cemetery began.
On October 1, 2002, the Athens Cemetery Association and Masonic Lodge #165 held a joint dedication ceremony of a historical marker at the gravesite of William J. Brantley, the first person to be buried in the Athens Cemetery. Mr. Brantley was born in Georgia in March, 1829. In 1852, he and his wife, Elizabeth, moved their small family to Texas by covered wagon, first settling in Cherokee County. Two years later they moved to Henderson County, establishing a farm a few miles west of Athens.
Mr. Brantley became active in local affairs. He was elected the first County Superintendent of School when all of Henderson County was one school district. A Mason, Mr. Brantley was one of the leading organizers of Masonic Lodge #165 in Athens.
William J. Brantley died on June 7, 1857, at age 28. Pleasant Tannehill, the Worshipful Master of the Masonic Lodge in Athens at the time, donated land just south of town for a Masonic cemetery so that Masons would have their own burial ground. It was here that William J. Brantley was buried, thus beginning the Athens Cemetery.
And the Masonic influence upon development the Athens Cemetery continued.
In 1858, Joseph M. La Rue, also a Mason, traveled back to Lebanon, Tennessee, to visit relatives. There he collected seed from the large cedar trees which were said to have come from the cedar trees of Lebanon in the Middle East. Upon his return to Athens, Mr. La Rue began the practice of planting the seeds at the gravesites of fellow Masons. He continued this practice until his death in 1887. While some have succumbed to lightning strikes and disease over the years, many of these magnificent old cedar trees can still be seen today in the original section of the Cemetery.
Among family members buried near William J. Brantley are his daughter, Mrs. Anna Williamson, his grandson, John Brantley Williamson and his son, John Brantley. Following the death of her husband, Elizabeth Ann Brantley married John M. Pickens. She lived until 1904, thereby outliving her first husband by 47 years. She and John Pickens are also buried in the Athens Cemetery, surrounded by a number of their children. She rests not far from her first husband, William J. Brantley.
(Original research and story by Art Hall, Historian)