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Plotting the Future of Austin’s Cemeteries

oakwood_cemetery.jpg
Miguel Gutierrez Jr./KUT
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Three of Austin's five city-owned cemeteries are at capacity. The Austin City Council will vote today on a plan to preserve and fund the cemeteries in the future.

Update, Thursday 1:45 p.m. The City of Austin reports that Council approved the Cemeteries Master Plan.

Original story: The Austin City Council will vote today on whether to approve the city’s Historic Cemeteries Master Plan. Clocking in at 510 pages, the CMP is a massive document that envisions the future of the city’s five publicly owned burial grounds. This includes suggestions on how to preserve, document and fund Austin’s cemeteries.

Keep in mind, though, that three out of those five cemeteries the city owns are full, meaning they are no longer selling plots.

At Oakwood Cemetery on the East Side at 16th and Comal streets, Dale Flatt, a retired Austin firefighter, asks a simple question: When’s the last time you visited your grandparents’ grave?

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Credit Miguel Gutierrez Jr./KUT
Dale Flatt runs Save Austin's Cemeteries, a non-profit group that has been lobbying the city to devise a plan to preserve city-owned cemeteries.

Flatt says, these days, most people answer that question with “never” or “once or twice.” He runs Save Austin’s Cemeteries, a non-profit aimed at preserving the city’s burial grounds. He stops at the grave of Peter J. Lawless, a Texas railroad man who lived for a while in the Driskill Hotel and reportedly still haunts an elevator. Lawless’ wife’s adjacent grave is toppled over.

“That’s part of the problem we have with an old cemetery like this that has stones: Either through vandalism or occasionally by mistake – a lawn mower may back into something and knock it over,” he says. “And so that’s the big dynamic with older cemeteries. You can look, and it’s not very far that you see that there are several broken in a row.”

According to state law, a city can only repair or replace a gravestone if it’s likely to cause injury to a visitor. Otherwise, family members are responsible. So in order to preserve a monument that might be cracked, but not dangerous, the city needs to have the family’s permission and, in most cases, their money. Oakwood is an old cemetery, so you’d most likely have to call up someone’s great-great-grandson, Flatt says.

“[If someone says,] ‘Hey listen, your great-great-grandfather’s headstone is in danger of toppling over, it’s going to cost $2,000,’ you’re going to go, ‘I got student loans, I got a wife, kids, house payments, car payments.’”

Like most of the others, Oakwood Cemetery is full. No burial plots for sale. It’s been full for roughly a century. That’s a big revenue drain for the city: No money is coming in and lots of money is going out for maintenance.

The cemeteries where you can still buy plots – Austin Memorial Cemetery on Hancock Drive and Evergreen Cemetery off Airport Boulevard – sell them for anywhere from $1,800 to $2,600. The actual burial will cost you an additional $1,200. But eventually these cemeteries will fill up as well. Flatt stands outside a large mausoleum, the top of it browning, the metal gate to the tomb rusted. The name on the outside is Kreisle.

“I’m famous for this quote, it’s not mine but I stole it, ‘A cemetery is the only piece of property you sell once, but you have to maintain it forever,’” Flatt says. “One of the hard things we have to look at is what is the standard of care we’re willing to accept.”

That’s one of the things the city’s proposed Cemetery Master Plan tries to tackle.

“Cities throughout the United States are struggling with issues surrounding historic cemeteries, particularly historic urban cemeteries,” says Kim McKnight, a program coordinator with Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department. She was the lead on the Cemetery Master Plan. In April, McKnight began introducing several of the city’s boards and commissions to the master plan. McKnight says more and more people are finding it harder to remain near gravesites.

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Credit Miguel Gutierrez Jr./KUT
Some of the headstones at Oakwood Cemetery are more than a century old. Family members can authorize and pay for repairs to headstones, but many often don't. State law doesn't require the city to pay for headstone repairs unless they're a danger to visitors.

“The American population is increasingly mobile and less likely to remain rooted in the same community for generations,” she said. “Fewer family members may remain near the cemeteries where their parents, grandparents, and ancestors are buried."

Cremation is also becoming more common, she says.

“As a result, many of this nation’s oldest cemeteries – both public and privately owned – have been largely abandoned by the communities that they once served,” she says.

In 2013, these and other issues facing Austin’s cemeteries came to a head. The drought of 2011 had destroyed much of the cemeteries’ living population: its vegetation. A contract the city had with a long-time cemetery management company was about to end. So, Austin decided it would manage the cemeteries itself. At the same time, staff put together a working group to begin thinking about what the cemeteries should look like going forward. That led to the Master Plan that council will vote on today. Some of its recommendations are as simple as replacing a fence.

“Currently at Oakwood Cemetery, we have chain-link fencing topped with barbed wire,” McKnight says. “It’s just not a very respectful type of fencing, quite frankly.”

But others recommend the city collect more revenue by offering alternative burial options. Ideas include setting up scatter gardens — green spaces where family members can legally scatter the ashes of their loved ones. Another idea is to build columbariums, places where families can buy a small storage shelf for their loved one's urn. It’s important to point out that no funding has yet been secured for these ideas. Council will simply vote on whether to put its stamp of approval on the master plan, approving a set of priorities. The funding comes later.

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Credit Miguel Gutierrez Jr./KUT
A headstone at Oakwood Cemetery.

The master plan is a whole lot of paper – 500 pages of it. But, when you go into the cemeteries, especially those newer ones, you get a sense of what’s at stake. Saundra Kirk is a former Planning Commissioner with the city. She’s also the daughter of Willie Mae Kirk, a local civil rights leader. As she drives around Evergreen Cemetery, she notes how it needs a permanent restroom and a second entrance. And then, we spot someone she knows.

“These two Kirk stones are family stones. That’s my mother, who died September 2013, and that’s my brother,” she says. “I usually come and just kind of check and sometimes put flowers and what have you. There are people all through here, if I get out and walk.”

Kirk points out Mrs. Calhoun across the way, her mother’s neighbor in life and now in death. Then there’s the mom of her childhood best friend, Mrs. Bailey. She’s also buried here in Evergreen.

“Just so many memories, and it’s a real heart-opener for me being in Evergreen. I come here and it’s like opening up the past.”

The City of Austin is growing fast. Soon it will reach 1 million residents, and there are endless conversations about how the city should look and function for new and current residents.

The city’s cemeteries house about 60,000 people, and get only a handful of new ones every year. People like Kim McKnight and Dale Flatt are simply asking: Why not talk about what their home will look like?

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