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At a cemetery in Austin
At a cemetery in Austin
Stephie Grob Plante

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Death Next Door

How Austin’s Cemetery Master Plan preserves the urban burial ground

When we talk about urban planning, we envision the future: innovation, improvements, newness.

Development and preservation are often at odds. The construction of new highways and high-rises threatens the sanctity of historical landmarks, preservationists argue; the need to kowtow to historical societies introduces tedious roadblocks, developers claim. Cemetery preservation—the movement surrounding the conservation and perpetuation of some of the country’s most neglected properties—is a prime example of the long-standing debate, and a particularly human one.

Is it possible to save cemeteries while also making sure the cities that hold them are prepared for the future?

Kim McKnight thinks so. As project coordinator and cultural resource specialist at Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department—an urban planner with a preservationist background—she devoted over two years to crafting the city’s Cemetery Master Plan, a blueprint for historic cemetery preservation and future cemetery planning in Austin.

The proposal document passed Austin City Council this past September, and soon received national attention for its breakthroughs in urban planning. McKnight says she’s fielded calls from other cities’ Parks and Recreation departments looking for advice and informal mentorship. Last month the plan received an award from Preservation Texas.

"I think the plan has garnered a lot of attention because it tries to tackle a lot of those big questions," says McKnight. "What is the role of a cemetery in an urban environment? What does the cemetery say about who we are as a people? How can we justify spending money on a cemetery when there are so many other pressing needs?"

Photo by Stephie Grob Plante.

Austin’s Cemetery Master Plan is the first of its kind: large in scope, encompassing five city cemeteries, working with heritage activists to both address historical preservation needs and plan for the future of the deathcare industry in the city. It’s a revolutionary idea, but it shouldn’t be.

"We have collectively more than 160 acres of city cemetery land within the middle of our city," says McKnight. "How can we craft a plan that deals with the physical issues, like gravestones and conservation, and then how can we connect these broader communities that are moving to Austin with our cemeteries? What do the cemeteries have to offer somebody who doesn’t have any family there?"

The key to Austin’s Cemetery Master Plan, she says, is that it looks at cemeteries not just through a preservationist lens, as historical relics, but within the framework of urban progress, as community enhancements for the present and beyond.

This is a new and radical way to conceptualize cemeteries on the city planning level, and it’s only as good as the commitment level of the local government—and the tenacity of the advocacy group behind it.

"Passing a Master Plan doesn’t mean you have the funding, and that you get to do anything," says Dale Flatt, founder of Save Austin’s Cemeteries, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to cemetery preservation in Austin. "It becomes a blueprint on which direction we should go. But nothing’s in stone. [City officials] can go, ‘Yup that’s fine,’ and they put it on a shelf, and they never touch it again. So that’s where SAC has to come in and go, ‘Uh, what are we doing?’"

In a city like Austin, itself experiencing a steady surge in population growth and rapid urban development, encroachment presents a big concern. Flatt lists several Austin cemeteries paved over by modernity: one that’s now a supermarket parking lot, one that’s now a housing complex, a Macaroni Grill, a Wal-Mart.

"Part of what SAC does is kind of watch these things, look for the growth patterns, and try to intercede to ensure that we have access," he says. "Even if you can’t save [the cemetery], you have to save the history."

The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 first laid the groundwork for legal protection of "historic properties significant to the Nation's heritage." It took several decades, however, for cemeteries without official landmark status to receive any kind of attention.

Flatt recalls an old cemetery near his childhood home in San Bernadino that he’d cut through on his way to church. When he tried to find it 40 years later, the headstones were gone—the cemetery had been bulldozed and re-landscaped into a park.

Past and present images of grave markers at Oakwood.

"Before the preservation movement really started sweeping across the United States [in the 1980s and 1990s], people did what they thought was best. In this case, the city didn’t even map who was where. They had the foresight to get a list of names, and put them inside a little kiosk at the end of the street. Remember DYMO Tape [used in labelmakers]? They basically did that. A very crappy thing, just to remember those folks, under a plexiglass cover that’s all clouded over. "

It’s near impossible to estimate how many active cemetery preservation societies exist in the United States today. There’s no national registry or overseeing operation connecting individual organizations to one another. "On a national level, there are only a few [cemetery preservation societies]," says Jason Church, materials conservator at The National Center for Preservation Technology and Training. "But on the local level, there are thousands."

Why is the number of groups dedicated to this work so incalculable? First, there are a lot of cemeteries in the country. There are cemeteries owned by municipalities, cemeteries owned by religious groups, and cemeteries owned by corporations, not to mention the great number of small, family cemeteries and isolated, abandoned graves scattered from state to state.

"At some point almost all [cemeteries] fall into disrepair," says Church, whose work at NCPTT focuses on cemetery preservation. "Once the cemetery’s filled, it’s just a money hole. It’s a burden on everyone. So a lot of times, people abandon them. Corporations will walk away. They’ll dissolve the board, and all that."

That’s where "friends of" cemetery associations and similar groups step in. Many of these organizations are nonprofit and entirely volunteer based, but not all endeavor to serve and protect swaths of land larger than a single cemetery—Save Austin’s Cemeteries, however, does.

Photo by Stephie Grob Plante.

In some ways, the case to save a cemetery is easier than the case to save a building. "With building preservation, no matter how awesome of a building it is—how unique, how historically important—it has to have a purpose," says Church. "Cemeteries always have a purpose. You don’t have to reinvent anything, you don’t have to find anything. It’s there. Everyone can make a connection to a cemetery. Everyone’s got someone who’s in one."

But cemetery preservation presents a unique issue. Cemeteries are, by definition, lifeless. The dead buried in cemeteries didn’t live there or accomplish their life’s work there. A cemetery is, by nature, at a remove. On top of that, it’s impossible to parse cemeteries from the reason cemeteries exist: death. Death is scary, sometimes spooky, and always sad, and cemeteries are teeming with dead bodies.

"[Some people] think we’re funeral operators," says Amanda Walker. Walker is the executive director of New Orleans’s Save Our Cemeteries, one of the better known cemetery preservation societies in the country thanks in large part to the city’s storied crypts and burial vaults. "Some think we actually bury people."

Preservationists don’t bury people, although Walker’s latest restoration project did hinge on re-closing fifty open vaults in two cemeteries. Navigating frequent vandalism, Walker says, keeps her busy. "I’ve seen people break open the vaults, I’ve seen human remains, things pulled out of tombs. One guy was running from the police and hid inside an open vault. You’ll see people in costumes doing photo shoots....It’s never boring."

To best answer the question of what cemetery preservation entails, it’s critical to understand what exactly puts cemeteries in danger. Development is a major culprit.

A crumbling tomb at Oakwood. Photo courtesy of Austin Parks and Recreation Department.

"Society has a huge number of cemeteries, many of which are abandoned," says Michael Trinkley, director of Chicora Foundation, a non-profit heritage foundation specializing in cemetery assessment work. To put that concept of "huge" in context, take Texas law, which states that one grave constitutes a cemetery. SAC board member Sally Victor spent two years working with the Texas Department of Transportation to archaeologically exhume one abandoned grave uncovered in the path of a new highway’s construction. The highway couldn’t be completed until the single-plot cemetery was de-dedicated, and the human remains of a middle-aged 19th century woman were removed.

Cemeteries are for the living, goes the old adage, but the living eventually die, too. Despite DNA tests and a promising near-match, Victor failed to find any living descendents of the woman buried out on Texas State Highway 130. Organizations like SAC, SOC, and New York Historic Cemetery Preservation Society step in where lineage leaves off, remembering and mourning the long forgotten.

"I thought it was absolutely horrible that we could do this to cemeteries," says Robin Prinzhorn, founder of NYHCPS, describing her first time visiting an abandoned cemetery in her hometown of Little Falls, New York. "It was an instant calling for me."

Abandoned cemeteries are often overgrown, their headstones dirty and sometimes illegible. Limestone cracks and breaks. Marble, too, is a soft rock. Unkempt trees topple and destroy whatever centuries old markers lie beneath them. These are problems not only in forgotten cemeteries, where descendents of those buried moved off the land long ago, but in historic city cemeteries, too. Monuments fracture, footstones sink into the earth, and statues and fencing disappear, stolen by thieves who recognize their worth as antique collectibles. New Orleans’s above-ground vaults, Walker explains, present unfortunately easy access to rob the tombs. Sprinkler systems are, of course, necessary for lawn upkeep, but what happens when one of the oldest tombstones in Oakwood Cemetery, Austin’s first established city cemetery, bears the brunt of decades of hard water at close range?

"The technical term is called spalling," says Victor. "That’s when water gets into the stone, and then a freeze comes along, forms ice, the stone expands, and it spalls"—breaking apart into tiny fragments. Without proper maintenance, it’s relatively easy for an old cemetery to die. Oakwood is home to approximately 23,000 burials; only 12,000 headstones remain today.

Organizations like SAC, which Flatt founded in 2004 after several years of working solo, strive to keep the oldest of these old cemeteries alive by selectively restoring damaged markers, educating the public, and maintaining thorough records.

There’s really just not enough room anymore. And that’s another reason to preserve them. Because I don’t know that in 50 years even that they’ll still be there.

Flatt thinks a lot about where all the data and research he’s amassed over the past sixteen years will end up, where the final resting place will be for his paperwork on final resting places. Old photos, recent photos, photo logs, revised photo logs when headstones suffer damage, maps, maps after new construction, first-hand accounts, precise measurements—all documenting the 250 known cemeteries in Travis County, where Austin is located, including the city’s five historic municipal cemeteries that date back as early as 1839. Two hundred and fifty is not an unusual number of cemeteries for an area with a comparable historical population density, says Flatt. Unusual, no, but certainly massive: community or churchyard burial grounds are typically two to six acres averaging 800 to 1000 burials per acre.

"Doesn’t do anybody any good [for those files] to be at my house on my computer," says Flatt.

I ask him later via email if he has an approximate idea of how many files he has in his home. "Any vague guess is fine!" I add.

He emails me back exactly four minutes later:

"45 GB on hard drive: 15,009 files; 1,144 folders. 6 filing cabinets full of paper files. 15 linear feet of books and binders."

At one time Flatt thought he’d solved his storage issue after he donated most of his archives to the Texas Historical Commission. Then, a couple years later, the Commission suffered major budget cuts. "A lot of the things that I’d given them to archive, they go, ‘We can’t store it anymore, we’ve got too much stuff, here’s your files back.’"

When I first meet Flatt, he’s wearing an Austin Fire Department sweatshirt over a red collared polo shirt, crocs, a knit cap, and small lensed glasses perched at the very tip of his nose. He’s a hulking but focused figure, someone who looks like he could hoist a house over his head and recite the Declaration of Independence from memory at the same time.

1911 map of Oakwood Cemetery courtesy of Austin Parks and Recreation Department

He’s not a historian or archivist or genealogist. He has no training in architecture or archaeology or anthropology. He’s a retired firefighter who used to have a lot of time on his hands.

"When you work as a firefighter, you have these really strange schedules," he says. From 2000 onward, Flatt used his days off to locate all the old cemeteries sprinkled throughout Travis County. He quickly discovered how inadequate the city records were, and how much danger these landmarks were in of being lost forever. "It was about four years before I really stumbled across Oakwood and realized what it takes to start a 501(c)(3): $150 and a lot of paperwork."

Sometimes Flatt’s dedication to not losing mementos of the past borders on obsession over preparing for the future, a future when he can hand over the reins of SAC. He debates the merits of color photography versus black and white photography, digital files versus hard copies, how best to keep digital files from getting scrambled when updating operating systems...

Most of all, he’s worried about information falling into the wrong hands. He says that one cemetery preservation society that published a book on its historic art soon found its antebellum statuary and ironwork stolen. "It became a shopping list for art thieves. So it’s like, I could do all this work, but what if someone’s just going to steal it?"

That has happened in Austin before. In 2005, someone stole 1,600 linear feet of wrought-iron and cast-iron fencing from Oakwood over the course of several months. Flatt not only discovered the theft, but he ultimately caught the thief—after realizing he’d photographed the man months prior at the scene of the crime. The thief ended up being convicted of felony counts for robbing a grave. Upon release, he returned to Oakwood and stole the brass fittings off the sprinkler heads.

The image of Flatt as an amateur crime fighter, taking the law into his own hands—in his crocs and fire department sweatshirt, or in the dirty blue workman’s jumpsuit he wears when he tells me this bizarre story—is delightful. But the truth is, Flatt is no vigilante. He’s the first to recognize that working with the system is crucial to achieving lasting change, even if he can’t help but simultaneously eye-roll over the bureaucratic minutiae involved.

"Have you seen the Master Plan?" he asks, referring to the fruits of his yearslong collaboration with Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department, Amaterra Environmental, McDoux Preservation, and Commonwealth Heritage Group. "When you read it, you’ll get a nosebleed, blood will come out of your eyes, because it’s all written with the language of historic preservation, talking about the secretary of state and all this other gobbledygook, and all the other things.…It’s over five hundred pages long. And then in the city’s ultimate wisdom, they decided, ‘Oh my God, we have to open it up to the public, we have to open it up for public comment.’ There’s over eight hundred pages of public comment."

Flatt seems like someone who, if he were running for office in a national election, would brand himself a Washington outsider. "He’s very interested in the politics and the bureaucracy," says Leslie Wolfenden, a founding board member of SAC. "I don’t think he actually likes it, but he likes tackling it. Whereas I’m going, I don’t care. My interest is in the architecture."

Who Saves Cemeteries?

SAC’s membership demographics span from university students to the recently retired. "It’s not just, ‘Oh, I’m 60 so I better start thinking about cemeteries now’ kind of people," says board member Jan Root. If anything, these volunteers think about cemeteries for reasons that have nothing to do with their own mortality. Common denominators run through the group:

- Native Austinites with ancestors buried in the area, like photo documenting volunteer Laura Heiligenthal, a teacher and rancher

- Native Austinites with ancestors buried in the area who also are professional historians, like Root, a certified archivist, and fellow board member Kay Boyd, a genealogist

- Austin transplants with training in archaeology, like Sally Victor, and architecture, like documenting session leader and Texas Historic Commission staffer Leslie Wolfenden

- Aspiring anthropologists like college student Jason Peterson and recent graduate Alan Garcia

- Educators who hobby in history, like Karen Eshliman, an executive assistant who operates Austin city tours in her spare time, and Bobby Cervantes, a high school science teacher, graduate student, bartender, and lecturer at SAC’s library meeting last month

- Volunteer-work junkies / tireless do-gooders, like Abigail Murray, a nurse who developed an interest in old cemeteries while running dog transport for a Texas animal rescue

Asking a preservationist about the obstacles they face in their work often prompts some calculated repetition of a single word: lack.

A lack of funds. A lack of viable action. A lack of correct information. A lack of respect. These issues affect urban preservationists and cemetery preservationists alike.

"The problem with cemeteries that are in the Parks Department," says Flatt, "is that parks and libraries in any budget cycle are some of the first departments that lose funding."

"Our funding is limited," agrees Walker of New Orleans’s SOC, "so we have to try and do the best we can, and focus on what needs the most TLC. We want to take care of and restore every crumbling tomb, but we just don’t have the resources....If you go out and lime wash it every year, it’s going to be here for generations. But there are more and more abandoned tombs, which is our focus, so the problem is just big."

In both Austin and New Orleans, the laws are straightforward but can be cumbersome to navigate. Although the city may own a cemetery, each plot is private property, belonging to the family of the individual buried there. For historic cemeteries like Oakwood in Austin, and St. Louis #1 in New Orleans, most descendants of the dead died off long ago themselves.

When any grave suffers damage, SAC, SOC, and groups like them must undertake a long, painstaking search for a living relative simply to sign off on the needed restoration, and—unless the funds are covered in a grant—pay for it.

"This organization doesn’t own the property that we’re on all the time," explains SAC’s Karen Eshliman. "We see things that need to be done, but our hands are tied." This past October, Eshliman and her colleagues discovered that a wing had broken off an angel statue. "Is there anybody left who would care enough to want to put this little wing back on? Chances are that wing will be off of that angel for years and years, or maybe it’ll never be [fixed]."

Even when living descendents are found to care for inherited graves, many don’t know the proper procedures for maintenance and cleaning. SOC’s Walker says she’s seen people cover their family tombs in modern concrete and latex paint, materials that will cause brick and stone to eventually crumble. "You can actually knock on some tombs and hear an echo. That’s frustrating. I mean, the tombs look white, gleaming and beautiful—but they’re doing way more harm than good."

One thing that can be said for people who don’t know what they’re doing is that, at least, they care enough to try. For Bobby Cervantes, a high school science teacher who pursues Austin preservation projects in his spare time, apathy is the steepest hurdle.

"I’ve spoken to my students about the cemetery, and they know what I do, and they’re like, ‘Why?’ Well, I would like to think that in 150 years, somebody will be looking after my grave. Because I was raised with the belief that cemeteries are sacred ground. It’s hallowed ground. You don’t disrespect it." Cervantes says he’s come across abandoned cemeteries where jars of fecal matter had been left on the graves. In one case, the bodies had been dug up. "I would just like to see people caring, more or less. That’s all it would take."

How do you get people to care?

Cervantes says it’s about making a connection. "Kind of like when you go into a bar, everybody wants to have their guy, they want to have their connection at the bar, bartender-wise. It’s the same thing. You need to have a connection."

For historic buildings with links to important people, creating that connection is relatively easy. But not everyone has ancestors buried in historic cemeteries. Not everyone grew up with a passion for cemeteries, like Wolfenden, whose favorite school field trip included headstone rubbings, or SAC volunteer Sally Baulch, who grew up visiting cemeteries on family vacations to learn more about "the town’s sense of humor." Not everyone is a professional archivist, or an amateur history buff. Not everyone is Dale Flatt.

And Flatt is quick to point out that as time stretches on, those connections to the past get lost in the ether. Most people don’t feel much connection to their great-grandparents or great-great-grandparents. Most don’t even visit their grandparents’ graves.

"When I first started in Austin, we had a cemetery contractor managing the cemeteries. And he applauded my passion, and he liked the fact that we were moving things forward. But he goes, ‘Does it really matter? In 50 or 100 years, is it really going to matter?’ I go, ‘Well, it matters today.’ But now I’ve almost come full circle. All the energy and time you can put into this, and I’m the first one to tell people, if it’s a question for funding, are we going to fund new roads, or a hot breakfast for elementary school kids, or this? Well, by all means, give the elementary school kids a hot breakfast. That’s important. It’s important to remember someone’s past and life, but the reality is that once you get past two generations, nobody cares. Very few people care."

One of SAC’s chief missions is to spread awareness, to inspire connections, to make people care. But is this a battle worth fighting?

Image of Oakwood cemetery chapel restoration courtesy of Hatch Ulland Owen Architects; Charles Melanson as project architect.

Michael Trinkley is unsure. As an archaeologist, Trinkley has dedicated the last thirty years to consulting on heritage preservation projects throughout the country. In 2013, his Chicora Foundation completed an eight-month-long cemetery survey of Richland County, South Carolina. Chicora’s work there focused on pinpointing locations of the over 500 cemeteries in the region—not on photo-documenting, not on repairing, not on cleaning.

"So often we are asked to come to meetings and talk about, well, how should we clean stones, and so often I want to scream, ‘Don’t clean them!’ It’s not the important issue."

Trinkley cautions against getting bogged down in the nitty-gritty of what encompasses the expanse of modern preservation work, namely gravestone studies and restoration efforts, instead advocating a holistic approach, one that focuses on locating and identifying.

"I think most people would agree that cemeteries offer a variety of historic resources," says Trinkley. "They’re sacred places, they’re genealogical storehouses, they’re part of a community’s history. I don’t know that there’s really a lot of disagreement about the importance of cemeteries, but a lot of people just really don’t comprehend how many cemeteries there are."

What is the role of a cemetery in an urban environment? What does the cemetery say about who we are as a people? How can we justify spending money on a cemetery when there are so many other pressing needs?

Trinkley says that his team made a number of recommendations to Richland County Council following their survey’s publication in 2013. The number of recommendations adopted by the county thus far: zero.

Trinkley hoped that the study would necessitate discussion within the local government, but so far, it hasn’t.

"If we just stop and think about it, we can come up with some pretty good suggestions of what we need to do. And it probably doesn’t include cleaning stones, and it probably doesn’t include looking at what kind of wings the cherub has. It’s probably something far more difficult and far more substantive."

Something that requires voters to do that thing Flatt and Cervantes say they have yet to see the public do when it comes to cemeteries: care.

"People need to decide exactly what they are prepared to do," continues Trinkley. "Are we, as a society, prepared to say these burials mean nothing to us? Bulldoze them. Who cares. I think that would be a tragic and sad decision, but it’s a discussion we have to have.…We have to make this decision, or the decision will be made for us."

Kim McKnight believes that people do care, and she’s perhaps in the best position to know. The two-plus years she committed to pushing Austin’s Cemetery Master Plan through had her playing chief liaison between SAC, city council, and the public—in other words, interfacing with people who care very much, every day.

"There wasn’t a single [public] meeting that I held where I didn’t have somebody telling me how important these spaces were," says McKnight. She cites a number of parents who lost and buried their children in attendance. "I could see right away in their eyes that this was a very big deal, and that this was very tough for them to be entering this space, and feeling vulnerable, and feeling worried, and wanting to make sure that we wouldn’t be doing anything that would make their experience in the cemeteries negative. So this was a very emotionally charged process for me personally, because we were mindful that this was a sacred landscape."

The annex at Oakwood before and after restoration.

It’s hard not to draw a Leslie Knope comparison. McKnight is passionate about her city, engaged with her community, and energized to improve and modernize the spaces and places under her jurisdiction—without losing sight of the history attached. If she were gazing off into the distance, her LinkedIn profile photo could easily be confused for Pawnee set dec.

"You can’t really implement the plan unless you have a community that participated," says McKnight. "And I think that the community really let us know that while they may not [all] have somebody buried there, they consider these spaces to be part of their cultural landscape and part of their neighborhood, that this is where they walk every day. They feel some sort of connection."

Cemeteries are more than the sum of their parts: they are storybooks. They render the character of a time and a place as much, if not more, than they do the individuals buried there. Shrines may lose value as individual objects, but they gain meaning as aggregates of history.

Activating that history is the key. SAC hosts a number of character reenactment walking tours at Oakwood Cemetery, including Murder, Mayhem, and Misadventure during Halloween, and a heroines of Texas history tour around Mother’s Day. Flatt wants to install QR codes alongside select graves, so that visitors can scan their phones to learn more about the people buried beneath their feet. He’d love to see more school groups return to Oakwood for field trips, like they did in the past.

"Make it more interactive," says Flatt. "More fun."

Ignite kids’ interest—in a free educational activity, no less—and their parents will follow.

"Our goal," says Flatt, "is to make sure that when [cemeteries] comes up on the ballot, someone goes, ‘I’ve been to Oakwood Cemetery, they’ve got some pretty cool stuff there, this is worth saving.’"

So it’s surprising, in a way, that Dale Flatt wants to be cremated.

He’s thought a lot about it. As a firefighter, he’s seen more than his fair share of death. And as a cemetery preservationist, he’s dedicated essentially all of his free time to the terrestrial hereafter.

"I told my daughter, when you get my ashes back, put a pinch in these [plastic vials], and then take the list of cemeteries I’ve done, take a stick, and go poke holes in the ground and drop the vials in there, and I’ll be the guy watching the gates at all these cemeteries. It’d be fun to say, ‘Oh yeah, my dad’s in 150 different cemeteries.’"

He plans to convert the 20 acres he owns in rural West Texas into a natural family cemetery—cremains only. No service markers. No headstones. No plaques. Future generations will not be able to stumble on the cemetery and learn the history of the Flatt family, or of the era in which the Flatts lived.

His fellow board members Sally Victor and Karen Eshliman will opt for cremation, too. They’re fine with depriving future generations of preserving their own gravesites. Is it modesty, or shortsightedness—or pragmatism?

Flatt’s reasons for cremation make practical sense, and are startlingly unromantic compared to all the reasons he saves cemeteries. Cremation is cheaper. Cremation is more flexible. Cremation is more compact. To wit, there are only 30 acres of Austin city cemetery left to grow into. Where will everyone go?

"I don’t know that cemeteries will exist in a couple hundred years," says Victor.

"There’s really just not enough room anymore," adds Eshliman. "And that’s another reason to preserve them. Because I don’t know that in 50 years even that they’ll still be there. I just think [burials] will probably be a thing of the past."

Editor: Sara Polsky


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