When I lived in downtown Atlanta, one of my favorite restaurants was a nearby pub and seafood place called Six Feet Under in Grant Park. The restaurant was right across the street from a cemetery, and, rather than being grossed out at the thought of eating so close to the many corpses buried across the street, I found the view rather peaceful and beautiful. I enjoyed going to their rooftop deck, ordering a beer, and gazing upon all of the serene tombstones. With a strange-in-a-good-way feeling, being in the presence of so many that had lived before me helped me feel part of something larger, and put the petty problems of the day in perspective – a reminder that I was part of something much more significant.
Cemeteries are, I believe, an important part of the urban landscape; but a part of the urban landscape that I don’t think many people living in dense urban cities actually think about. Austin seems to be on the cutting edge of trying to leverage aging infrastructure (or, if you’re into puns like me – “dead weight”) into a modern productive asset, and the current discussions surrounding a cemetery “master plan” are part of that process.
Cemeteries do not just take care of themselves. There’s an entire system and economy behind operating these pieces of land. There are privately owned cemeteries, and there are municipal cemeteries, which have a basic function of providing affordable burial and related services for those in the community. Here in Austin, Travis County is responsible for providing burials for the indigent population.
Of the ~300 known cemeteries in Travis County, the City of Austin only owns five of them: Austin Memorial Park, Evergreen, Oakwood, Oakwood Annex, and Plummers. The City of Austin Parks and Recreation Department took over maintenance of the cemeteries in 2013. A 2006 article in the Austin Chronicle explains how these City cemeteries “work” and some of the inherent challenges of running a cemetery:
Part of the difficulty in maintaining Oakwood lies in the fact that, although the city owns the property, caring for individual plots is the responsibility of the families of the people buried in them. As Jay Stone, manager of Austin Parks and Recreation’s financial services division, put it, “It’s no different [from] when you purchase your home. You do the upkeep.” Oakwood – and the city’s four other cemeteries – are like their own neighborhoods within the city. Think of the plots as people’s lots, the graves and mausoleums as people’s houses, and the tombstones and other markers as fences (hence references to the cemetery in old newspapers as “The City of the Dead”). The hole in this rationale, says Dale Flatt, president and co-founder of Save Austin’s Cemeteries, is that many of the families of people buried in Oakwood have long since moved away. In terms of long-term care, those graves have essentially become abandoned houses.
The City of Austin has never had a plan regarding the management and upkeep of municipal cemeteries, and it was the recent announcement of gathering public input for the City’s inaugural Cemeteries Master Plan that got me thinking about the business and real estate of cemeteries. The fifth and final public input meeting is on Saturday, January 24, 2015, from 10:30am-12:30pm at the Austin Public Library, Carver Branch, 1161 Angelina Street. At that meeting, the Master Plan team will present the draft plan.
The two nearest cemeteries to downtown Austin are
- Oakwood Cemetery at 1601 Navosota, 78702, and the Oakwood Annex, City-owned and managed
- The Texas State Cemetery at 909 Navasota, 78702. This is the impeccably manicured burial site of Stephen F. Austin, General Albert Sidney Johnston, Governor Allan Shivers, Governor John Connally, and Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock.
Oakwood and the Oakwood Annex rarely see new burials, and are deemed as historic sites. Yet, the cheap chain-link fence that wraps the land has been an eyesore for years. Between the two separate but adjacent sites rest over 35,000 buried bodies! Oakwood is Austin’s oldest cemetery, established in 1839, when the City was originally platted. Susanna Dickinson is among other notable Austinites buried there.
When I read articles online about the urban cemetery as a concept, the theme from the articles was that space for a traditional burials is becoming limited, and urban cemeteries and burial practices are evolving to take into account those needs.
Interestingly, “stacked” burial plots are actually NOT allowed in Austin (I guess the City is presenting obstacles to urban density even in death, wakka wakka).
A little “spooked” (I can’t help myself.) and looking for answers, I called up Kim McKnight (a City employee who is facilitating the discussions around the Austin Cemetery Master Plan, and who has a background in urban revitalization), and she assured me that there is not really a threat of that happening in Austin for the foreseeable future. However, she did say that part of the purpose of the Master Plan was to find ways for the municipally-owned and operated cemeteries’ use to evolve and perhaps generate some revenue. She was VERY quick to clarify that the City does not view cemeteries as being the same as other parks, and that they should not be used as traditional recreation spaces, instead stressing “we can do a better job of activating those cemeteries so that they have some relevancy.”
Right now, only two of the five city-owned cemeteries actually brings in revenue. The master plan seeks to address funding issues to create a sustainable model to keep these historic sites beautiful and maintained as a part of the larger community. With Oakwood in particular, the City is not only looking at ways to activate the space, but is also considering creating additional burial options like cremation. The Oakwood Annex is being considered as a site to hold a columbarium.
The master plan also seeks to tackle the issue of restoration / renovation of the sites. One interesting project in Oakwood is the planned restoration of the Oakwood Chapel, with the intention to use the space for programming once it is renovated. Charles Page a significant local architect who also designed the bandstand at Wooldridge Square and whose sons were partners in the well known firm PageSoutherlandPage, built the chapel in 1914. The master plan will also address how to properly maintain gravestones and monuments, and provide irrigation solutions.
Tree care is also vitally important, and the City has forked over major funds for a tree inventory and assessment study. Interesting aside – apparently foxes live in the Oakwood Cemetery – who knew?!
- Save Austin Cemeteries is a non-profit dedicated to preservation efforts of Austin cemeteries through documentation and education, and to promoting historic cemeteries of Austin as local and state cultural resources.
- City of Austin Website for Cemetery Master Plan
- Scope of Work for Cemetery Master Plan
- City of Austin Burial Fee Schedule
- List of Known Cemeteries in Travis County
- Texas State Cemetery
- Oakwood Cemetery Database Site
*A big thanks to Kim Mcknight for spending a good amount of time with me on the phone to talk about cemeteries and the Master Plan, and who also provided some of the pictures and resource links.