Master plan may breathe new life into aging city cemeteries

AUSTIN (KXAN) — It’s a place we may all wind up some day, but chances are that many don’t give it a lot of thought: cemeteries.

The City of Austin owns five cemeteries that need some major repairs, and for the first time, city officials are working to come up with a master plan to preserve them.

“Right now, we’re at Oakwood Cemetery, and it’s the oldest municipal cemetery in Austin,” said Kim McKnight, project coordinator with Austin Parks and Recreation Department’s Planning and Development.

Just off Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and the frontage road of Interstate 35, a peaceful cemetery filled with trees and gravesites dating back to the early 1900s rests on a hill overlooking downtown.

The Oakwood Cemetery was founded in 1839, the same year Austin was founded. It was part of the original city grid map.

Walking through it is like walking back through history.

“You’ll see citizens whose names are all over the city like the Scarbrough family, the Pease family, the Zilker family, a lot of history here,” said McKnight.

And a lot of issues, like an irrigation system that dates back to the 1970s and gravestones dating back even earlier that are crumbling and falling over.

“Historic cemeteries are all struggling with gravestone conservation issues, infrastructure issues; the drought was particularly hard on our trees,” said McKnight.

The hope is a master plan will do the trick — working with neighborhoods, preservation groups and genealogists who consider this more than just sacred ground.

And for those who come to visit family and friends or are just curious: “Touring a cemetery can tell you a lot about the history of a city,” said McKnight.

Wednesday night a public meeting is scheduled at the Carver Branch Library from 6-8 p.m. to gather feedback for the master plan.

The Parks and Recreation Department manages the city-owned cemeteries and expects it will take one year to create it. Any funding for improvements would likely come from a bond election.

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