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While State Cemetery Prospers, Austin Resting Place in Disrepair

Cemeteries in many cities are considered important historical places, memorials to famous and influential people. Consider the Granary in Boston, Highgate in London, the Pere Lachaise in Paris.  But in Austin only one cemetery fits that category – and the State Cemetery is maintained by Texas. 

And the contrast between the state cemetery in Austin and the city owned ones - is breathtaking. 

Dewayne Hill walks through the tombs of the Texas State Cemetery at Seventh and Navasota Streets.  “I see nice headstones,” he says, “the lawn is manicured, the tombstones taken care off.  Basically, it’s nice.”

There’s a pond.  Birds are chirping.  A Texas flag is flying proudly. 

Credit Filipa Rodrigues for KUT News
Gravesites at Oakwood Cemetery in East Austin.

Just a few blocks from the state cemetery is Oakwood Cemetery. At his office in the Parks and Recreation Department, Gilbert Hernandez lists some of the differences between the two places.

“We have irrigation systems that were installed in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s and have not been upgraded since – you know? We also have facilities that are not ADA or code compliant,” Hernandez says. “We have fences that have to be either refurbished or repaired.”

A metal bridge at Oakwood is completely corroded and falling apart. Headstones are damaged, trees listing. The list goes on. 

Harry Bradley is the state cemetery’s superintendent. He says there’s a couple of reasons why the state cemetery looks like a park.  For one, the place went through extensive renovations in the 1990’s. And since then, the state has been committed to its maintenance.

Credit Filipa Rodrigues for KUT News
Texas State Cemetery superintendent Harry Bradley.

“I came here before the renovation project started out,” Bradley says. “I worked for Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock and it was his big project. We wanted the cemetery to look as nice as the state capitol.”

Texans pay about half a million dollars a year to up-keep the cemetery.  That figure includes staff salaries. 

The city will not discuss the cost of maintaining its five cemeteries. For the last 20-plus years, a subcontracting company has managed them, with an independent budget – and complaints and reports of poor maintenance have risen during that time. As of March, that relationship is over. The city is requesting bids from new contractors.

Gilbert Hernandez with the Austin Parks and Recreation Department says in the future, the city will oversee bringing the cemeteries into this century.

“The voters in that regard dedicated two million dollars in the 2012 bond program specifically for cemeteries,” Hernandez says. “So, we anticipate that that will – you know? – help us deal with some of these long term differed maintenance items that currently exist.”

Hernandez adds that – for the first time - the city has started the process to develop a cemetery master plan.  Phase one will be unveiled this fall. 

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.