Death Waits for No Plan

Nevertheless ... city drafts a long-range vision for its five cemeteries

Oakwood Cemetery
Oakwood Cemetery (Photo by John Anderson)

Two of the first men buried in an Austin cemetery – or so the story goes – were killed by Comanche warriors while hunting bear in the part of the local forest that would eventually become Zilker Park. There's a limestone obelisk in Oakwood Cemetery, bought by the daughter of John R. Black, to memorialize her father and his friend George M. Dolson.

Currently, you have to hunt the entire 40-acre cemetery to find it. Maybe you could find a staff member of the Parks and Recreation Department, or a volunteer from Save Austin's Cemeteries, to point you in the right direction. But in the future, it should get a lot easier to find the Dolson-Black grave, or any other local monument. The city has just completed a 542-page master plan, describing in detail every aspect of Austin's five municipal graveyards. Project Coordinator & Cultural Resource Specialist Kim McKnight called it "a plan of the most sweeping scale" – one that does not simply catalog and map the cemeteries, but suggests ways to make them a real cultural asset to the city, through education and events. McKnight said, "You can't get the 120 people moving to Austin every day to care about this place, unless you're doing regular programming and tours."

Death and the Maiden

Just inside the gates of Oakwood, by the old chapel, McKnight cheerfully waves me over. She has become a major part of the public face of the master plan program, and the cemeteries have become her outdoor offices. Nearby, part of the 22-member cemetery management and maintenance team is packing up after a morning of cleaning and mowing. She chats with them about what her office has planned – not least, new bathrooms for staff – and they pick her brain about the cemetery's age and history. She laughs, telling them that they probably know the grounds better than her by now. "Y'all see all the people who's buried here," she tells them, before opening up the back door to the chapel.

Inside, the chapel is clearly in need of renovation. McKnight apologizes, as though it's a messy office desk, yet it's really an architectural historian's dream. A rare example of early 20th century Gothic revival in Austin, in one corner there's a stack of iron fencing from around individual graves, taken up to protect them from vandals and scrap-metal thieves. A pair of rough-hewn wooden tombstones from the 1910s have miraculously survived the Texas weather, and are stored here for safe-keeping. For McKnight, these are the kind of artifacts that the cemeteries should be highlighting, not hiding in a locked room. The goal, she said, "rather than just think about it as operations and management, is to have somebody here who can do programming for children and fourth-grade Texas history classes."

The city of Austin runs five cemeteries scattered around town: Oakwood, Oakwood Annex, Plummers, and Evergreen in East Austin, and Austin Memorial Park, bordering MoPac to the west. As the oldest, Oakwood is also the most obviously historic. This is where the town's grandees are buried: the Zilkers, Scarboroughs, Lamars, Littlefields, Muellers, and Berg­stroms. Read the smaller tombstones, and there are the forgotten waves of migrants that came to Austin, with periods of Scandinavian and Scottish influx, and corners dedicated to Austin's Jewish community. Tragedies left their mark, like the sudden swell of infant burials in Baby Town (as such areas are called) during the 1918 flu epidemic. Then there are areas dedicated to the unions and trade organizations that built the city. "All the great fraternal organizations are represented in the cemeteries," said McKnight. "There's even a section with cast fire hydrants for firefighters."

Yet each cemetery is the history of Austin, played out graveyard by graveyard, plot by plot. In 1839, when Oakwood opened, it was the burial ground for the capital city of the independent nation of the Republic of Texas. Back then, the northwest corner was reserved as the "colored cemetery." That was segregation in the soil, but that wasn't enough in the era of separate but equal – and so in 1928 Evergreen became the city's first dedicated African-American municipal cemetery. Over time, it became a point of pride, an Oakwood for the Eastside. Plummers, by contrast, is the archetypal potter's field, with headstones chiseled on a flagstone by family members, or maybe in iron in a welding shop. Families that couldn't afford even to carve their own headstones would often just plant bulbs instead; each spring redraws the map of burials, as crocuses and daffodils spring up over the deceased.

Most modern private cemeteries are out in the suburbs, so for McKnight, the fact that these are in the heart of the city make them a valuable resource. She said, "These are beautiful, open spaces next to neighborhoods where people go to walk and be thoughtful. There's something about cemeteries that make them a contemplative space, and people who don't have anyone buried here but live nearby have a really strong connection."

That connection can be unexpected. Out at Austin Memorial Park, Cemetery Man­ag­er Gilbert Hernandez leans over the wheel of the golf cart he uses to silently navigate the nearly 100-acre site. It's a perfect Texas January day, with the trees full of mockingbirds, and the odd flash of a cardinal in full winter crimson. "We've seen red tail hawks out here," he said, noting that the grounds have become a mecca for urban bird watchers and photographers. McKnight calls Hernandez's job the toughest in all of PARD, but he talks of it as a balancing act. "We're part sales staff, part maintenance, but we're also part grief counselors because these folks are dealing with the loss of a loved one. Sometimes it's just, put 'em there, let's go, and sometimes they come three or four times before they find the right spot that speaks to them."

For the Living

Cemetery management is also a relatively recent addition to PARD's assignments. It was under Public Works for decades, then transferred to PARD in 1986. Then the city hired San Marcos-based InterCare Corp. in 1990 to run operations. Yet it was never a truly successful relationship, so in 2013 PARD took back the day-to-day facility operations, even selling lots through the newly established Cemetery Operations Group. McKnight said, "Nobody takes better care of a park or cemetery than the owner."

The transfer hasn't always been easy. Last November, the team was dinged in a city audit for inaccurate record-keeping, and even for selling the same plot twice on the same day. However, a quick look around their offices suggests why. Record-keeping relies on plot books: a paper record, handwritten, of every lot sold, filled, or still available. If staff members are lucky, there may be a current address for the family, but only if they are lucky.

There is software available that can handle the work, as McKnight said. "It allows you to track deeds, descendant data. Everything you might have to deal with in a cemetery, they're tracking." But that's not expected to be installed here until the second quarter of 2015, and then the staff will have to begin inputting details of the 65,000 interments that they know of.

Now, because of the master plan process, they at least know what they face. McKnight explained that the original idea for a plan really came from public advocacy. The Parks Board responded by assembling a working group, comprised of Chair Jane Rivera and members Lynn Osgood and Carol Lee. "They recognized that they needed to put a microscope on the needs of the cemeteries," said McKnight. By the fall of 2013, they had hired three firms – AmaTerra Environmental Inc., John Milner Associ­ates Inc., and McDoux Preservation LLC – to work on the core plan, while AmaTerra and the Davey Tree Company collaborated on a supplementary tree survey. Meanwhile, McKnight found cemeteries had become a higher priority under the old Council (especially former Mayor Lee Leffingwell), and the new Council appears similarly engaged, with Council Members Leslie Pool and Ora Houston taking the lead, and Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo providing a bridge between the two eras. McKnight said, "We've never had more interest in the cemeteries than we have now from the city."

Parks and Rec's Kevin Johnson and Kim McKnight at Oakwood Cemetery
Parks and Rec's Kevin Johnson and Kim McKnight at Oakwood Cemetery (Photo by John Anderson)

With the ink barely dry on the master plan draft and a month to go on public consultation, McKnight said she's already got other cities contacting her about the process. With good reason: Outside of military cemeteries, such civic master plans are unusual, and varying burial practices in other countries mean differing cemetery management practices. For example, McKnight said, in Germany, "you lease a lot for 50 years, and then you're done." By contrast, American municipal graveyards are public spaces made up of interlocking private property – the city owns the land, but the lots and everything on them, from grave markers to flower vases, belong to the family of the deceased. "Kind of like condos," said McKnight, "but they last forever."

So comparable U.S. studies are rare. The city of Sacramento, Calif., issued one in 2007, and New Braunfels assembled its own in 2010. Texas State lecturer and Cen­ter for Texas Public History Chief Historian Dan Utley, who was part of the New Braunfels team, quoted UT-Austin Geographer Terry G. Jordan: "Cemeteries are for the living." Utley continued, "In effect, they are held in public trust to serve citizens, both past and present." When undertaking the study, his purpose was to put that city's two cemeteries into the historical and demographic context. He said, "The needs of the resource are often complex and specialized, but the benefits to the community are profound and worthy of the investment."

It also became a preservation handbook of sorts. In Central Texas, wild temperature fluctuations make stonework and landscaping fragile, while the shifting clay soils of New Braunfels can make monuments unstable. Utley explained, "On the human side of the equation – and this is by no means unique to Texas – we also have to worry about well-meaning, but inappropriate maintenance procedures and stone restoration efforts. That's another reason why the master plan is so important – because it can serve as a detailed educational manual for those who will be providing the upkeep."

Embracing a Legacy

The first stage of the Austin plan was an exhaustive mapping of each cemetery, down to marking the location and diameter of individual trees. That may seem like a secondary priority, but McKnight explained that, when the city held public outreach meetings about the plan in 2013, "that was one of the top issues that came up time and again."

Now the team has full locator maps, so they can better plan burials, monument and building restoration, irrigation, and general management. It's not just about setting more efficient mowing calendars. A core recommendation of the draft plan is that three locations – Oakwood, Oakwood Annex, and Plummers – be reclassified as historic cemeteries. It's a subtle but significant change in emphasis. There are still the odd burials at all three, maybe one or two a year, but they're on plots sold decades ago, and that means that PARD can put new emphasis onto restoration, education, and engaging with partner groups, such as local historical associations. McKnight said, "We take the cultural landscape approach, where you look at everything as contributing to the character. The trees, the sidewalk, the curbing. You only fix what you have to."

The increased emphasis on cultural legacy is great news for Save Austin's Cemeteries. Established in 2004, the nonprofit has been deeply involved in mapping and chronicling the city's municipal graveyards, as well as providing the kind of tours and programs that McKnight hopes her staff can build upon. They have also taken a role in restoration since, as a nonprofit, they can apply for grants not available to the city. Group founder Dale Flatt called the master plan "a preservation plan and working business model," and argued it will be an important funding tool for the cemeteries. "Nobody's going to give you money until you have a plan on paper. That's why it's really important that we do this."

Even if no grants appear, the sheer act of collecting the data is already a boon, especially in providing invaluable demographic records for historians. Flatt said, "You go to somewhere like Oakwood, where they talk about, oh, he was born in Yorkshire, Eng­land, and married so-and-so, and was governor whenever, and then died. Nowadays, it's just 1958-2015 – and all the information between the dashes is gone."

The planning process allowed the team to fill in some of those blanks. The team worked with groups like the African-Ameri­can Cultural Heritage District, and with residents who know the history behind the names. For example, McKnight connected Saundra Kirk with the out-of-town consultants, to walk through the graveyards and explain who these people really were. "She's the daughter of Willie Mae Kirk, one of the most prominent civil rights leaders in our community, and she spent a lot of time walking them through and saying, that's so-and-so, and that's so-and-so."

Engaging History

The nature of mortality means more names will inevitably join that list, and Austin Memorial Park and Evergreen are still in almost daily usage for burials. Unlike just about every big city in Texas, Austin is still in the funeral business, and with almost 34,000 empty plots, it will be so for decades. That means that PARD can look at those working sites specifically to develop new burial and memorial guidelines, responding sensitively to evolving burial practices and ways of mourning. Some are entrenched, such as the African-American tradition of keeping graves clear of grass, as a mark of respect. Others are more personal. Hernan­dez said, "We allow the public to place stuff that might not be considered appropriate, particularly in a private cemetery where the rules are much more conservative. One of the things that we're doing in the master plan is to set the rules and regulations to help us further define what's appropriate."

There's also the matter of space. His­tor­ic­ally, Americans have been devoted to full-body interment and so, McKnight said, "At current burial rates, 30,000 spaces should last us a minimum of 30 years." However, by 2017, it's expected that 50% of all funerals will be cremations. Yet not all those ashes will simply be scattered to the winds, and burial of cremated remains (known in the trade as "cremains") complete with a small headstone is still common. That could be good news, since a single burial plot can be replatted into four cremation lots. The master plan for Austin Memorial also proposes building a columbarium at Austin Memorial: Named after the Latin word for a dovecote, this would provide a permanent structure for storing cremains in cinerary urns. Between those two changes, those 30,000 spaces could readily become 40,000 or more.

There is also a financial aspect: As Her­nan­­dez noted, "Death is a business." Cur­rent­ly, his office nets between $1.5 and $1.9 million for the city, and receives an operational budget of around $2.1 million from general revenue. Arguably, that difference is a simple return on investment: The cemetery department has been paying cash into city coffers for almost two centuries and, as Flatt noted, the city should have established an endowment fund decades ago. But by transferring three of the cemeteries to a historic designation, McKnight hopes there will be a more realistic expectation of what the department does and its needs. "At some point, you've got things the city does that only cost money, and aren't revenue-generating. That's really what historic cemeteries are destined to become."

One day, all five cemeteries will be historic, since both Oakwood and Evergreen will be full, and there are no plans to add more properties to the city's inventory. McKnight's group is already resisting calls to take over full ownership of Bethany on Springdale, thought to be the city's first and biggest slave graveyard. It's currently maintained by Travis County, and while McKnight appreciates the inherent compliment to her department's skills and experiences, she's wary of adding extra workload when they are already so busy. "We don't want to become a victim of our own success."

But if the master plan process works, McKnight expects that Aus­tin­ites, whether native or transplant, will think a little more about these final resting places. She said, "If we can get people to start caring about cemeteries when they don't have loved ones [there], then we will have succeeded."

The draft Austin Cemetery Master Plan is online at, and the city will be inviting public feedback on it until March 6.

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Austin Cemetery Plan, Oakwood Cemetery, PARD, Kim McKnight, Plummers Cemetery, Austin Memorial Park Cemetery, Evergreen Cemetery, Oakwood Annex

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