By TOMIE LUNSFORD
Telegram Staff Writer
There are at least 50,000 dead people in Bell County.
The tally didn't come from a mail-in census; it came from a tombstone count by Joe and Dorothy Button of Killeen.
Cemetery hopping, more or less, is the couple's hobby.
This particular pastime, though, is an invaluable act of community service, according to Ron Gates, chair of the Bell County Historical Commission.
'The Buttons are the cemetery people,' Gates said. 'If anybody has a question about a grave or a cemetery, they either have the answer or can find it for you.'
The 50,000 tombstones the couple has counted since 1997 are from private family cemeteries and random one- and two-man burial sites, found hidden behind groves of trees or on rural road sides and river banks.
'The total doesn't include the larger commercial cemeteries,' Mr. Button said. 'It will one day. We just haven't gotten around to it.'
Since 1997, the Buttons have identified 176 cemeteries and 207 historical statues and monuments.
Public maps do not recognize all of the cemeteries and burial sites the Buttons have found.
'But we're working to change that,' Mr. Button said. 'That's why we're working with the historical commissions.'
The Buttons share their cemetery inventory with both the Texas and Bell County Historical Commissions. The state commission has a link to the Buttons' database.
'That way when the state goes to update historical listings, the tiny, once forgotten ones will be included,' Mr. Button said.
The couple's findings are available to the public in a book they first published in 1997, 'Historical Markers of Bell County.' Interested readers can find copies of it at libraries in Temple, Belton and Killeen.
'We sold 200 or 300 copies of that book as a fund-raising project for the county historical commission,' Mr. Button said. 'It was updated once in 1999, and now we're updating it again.'
This time, in addition to names, birth dates, death dates and genealogical information, the Buttons will include pictures of all the tombstones and a GPS locator map to each cemetery.
'The GPS maps should provide precise directions on how to get to a cemetery instead of something vague like 'six miles south of Belton,'' Mr. Button said. 'And the photos, those should help in cases of cemetery vandalism.'
Defacing a tombstone is criminal mischief. If convicted, perpetrators face a fine of up to $10,000 or a term of up to two years at a state jail, said Sgt. Allen Teston of the Temple Police Department.
The photos the Buttons are taking, Teston said, could help deter cemetery vandalism.
'It could be very beneficial in helping to get convictions and assign fines,' Teston said. 'With a photo of a grave, a marker and all the information about it in a single place, we would be able to show the court, 'this is what it was' and 'this is what it is.' It would provide physical evidence.'
That evidence is something Mrs. Button gladly works to find.
'When people damage tombstones, they're taking history away from the rest of us,' Mrs. Button said. 'And the people who do it, they get away with so little punishment. The fine is often nowhere near what most of the markers are worth.'
There's no doubting the value of the Buttons' work, said Gerron Hite, Texas Historical Commission cemetery preservation coordinator.
'I've gone to several cemeteries with the Buttons. They're hard workers,' Hite said. 'With the research they've done, they've saved us a lot of time. With each unknown cemetery they locate, they're saving a bit of history of us.'
The couple finds their cemeteries via random day trips through Bell County.
Destinations oftentimes depend on grave tips swapped at various family reunions and cemetery association meetings. Good haunts also come from newspaper obituaries, genealogy records and conversations with curious inquisitors.
Before Mr. Button retired last March, his weekends were reserved for cemetery detective work. Now, the 72-year-old-man researches the county's past on a daily basis.
'This kind of work keeps me young,' Mr. Button said, grinning.
Once the Buttons locate a new cemetery, they clear away the debris and mow the lawn.
'We've got to get it cleaned up before we can get close to the grave markers,' Mr. Button said.
On average, it takes the Buttons four days to clean a cemetery.
'They're 12-hour days out in the sun. She's out there right by me, doing as much as I do if not more, trimming limbs and whatnot,' Mr. Button said, smiling at his wife, who's 50.
Once the cemetery is clean, Mrs. Button takes an inventory of all the grave markers.
'We developed our own worksheet,' she said. 'There's blanks for names, dates, marriage dates, military associations and out-of-the ordinary quotes.'
Mr. Button inputs data from Mrs. Button's worksheet into an electronic database. Now including the names and tombstone descriptions of more than 50,000 people, the printed copy of the database measures at least 1,000 pages thick.
The couple keeps back-up copies of their work on a CD and on a memory stick.
'The CD's locked in the filing cabinet, and the memory stick is in the glove compartment of the car,' Mr. Button said. 'So as long as we don't have a house fire and a car wreck at the same time, we should be fine.'
The initial step in the fact gathering, Mrs. Button said, is often the most difficult.
'Sometimes a marker only has the last name and an initial,' Mrs. Button said. 'We've found people with the same names.'
And they've come across individuals with two separate grave markers, sometimes in the same cemetery, sometimes not.
To make sense of each puzzle, long engraved in stone, the couple said they look for clues. Seeking explanations, they interview any surviving relatives and read history books and old newspapers.
'Once we get it figured out, we write it down,' Mr. Button said.
People with only one initial and those with the same names are fairly easily to identify, Mrs. Button said.
'We can figure that out by comparing birth dates,' Mrs. Button said. 'Or we can look at family trees. It's just a matter of finding where the information is.'
But when an individual has two grave markers, the work is trickier.
'Several of the double tombstones are in the same cemetery, but some are at opposite ends of the county,' Mr. Button said. 'It's a real mind boggler. But after a lot of digging, we learned that the double tombstone folks exist because of second marriages.'
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Mr. Button said married men would often purchase double burial lots with the tombstones already engraved.
'Both markers would have the names on it and birth years for both husband and wife,' Mr. Button said. 'Then there'd be a dash, waiting for the death date.'
But then one of them would outlive the other, he explained.
'A wife might die in childbirth, relatively young,' Mr. Button said.
The husband then would remarry and start a new life, complete with a second double burial plot.
'It's not hard to understand how it happened,' Mr. Button said. 'People do that kind of thing today. It's just hard figure out when there's no obvious written record.'
'The only thing that's more confusing is a woman's name,' Mrs. Button said. 'For so many years, women were identified only as 'Mrs. So and So.' That gives us nothing to find out who she was or where she came from.