Bringing Austin's Oldest Cemetery Back to Life

By: Kelly Fine, Skylar Isdale, Meleena Loseke and Caroline Manning

The sky was gray and murky as a slight breeze cut through the thick mid-morning air.   A crowd of people gathered around a man dressed in a bright red coat and black top hat, holding a skull-topped staff. Eight people dressed in period costumes lurked in the distant graveyard, awaiting their audience.

This was the scene that took place last Saturday at the 7th Annual Murder, Mayhem, and Misadventure Walking Tour at Oakwood Cemetery.

This tour takes place every year around Halloween in hopes of raising awareness about the financial and physical needs of Oakwood Cemetery. Built in 1839, Oakwood is the oldest of five public cemeteries in Austin.

“One day I happened to be in the area in 2003 and I had stopped by [Oakwood} and it was right after a big storm,” said Dale Flatt, the founder and liaison of Save Austin’s Cemeteries, a non-profit organization that preserves historic cemeteries in Austin. “Big trees had knocked down a bunch of the marble statues and shattered them, some of the headstones were just broken to pieces and I just thought, ‘Man, this is a shame.’”

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Flatt went to the Austin Parks and Recreation Department to see what could be done. “We figured out the cemeteries are grossly underfunded and that while there are grants out there… the city couldn’t get their hands on some of that grant money, but a [tax exempt non-profit organization] could,” Flatt said.  So he got a group together and partnered with the city to start SAC.OakwoodInfographic

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Measuring 40 acres with around 23,000 deceased buried on-site, the last plot purchased in Oakwood was in 1910. Most of the families buried in there have died off, leaving the burden of caring for the cemetery to the city.

“Evergreen and Austin Memorial Park are more current. They get 100 burials a year. They have to look the nicest – the city is making money off of them,” says Danny Camancho, an SAC member and “Cemetery Ringmaster” of the annual tour. “Oakwood is a financial liability – no more property to be sold – and its needs aren’t being addressed.”

SAC began the Murder, Mayhem, and Misadventure tour in 2006 to help raise money to restore the damaged markers in Oakwood. They take groups of people on tours through Oakwood, depicting its history and showing some of the damage done to the grave markers. Many of the members of SAC dress up in the appropriate time-period costume and perform monologues depicting interesting people buried in the cemetery.

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The event raises a little over $1500 each year.

“Everybody is welcome, and when you get done if you want to leave a donation you can,” says Flatt. “We exposed the cemetery and the needs of the cemetery to close to 500 people. That’s a pretty good goal for one day. The people came out, saw the problems, and hopefully they will vote on measures to raise money for the cemeteries.”

A storyteller shares her rehearsed story acting as the person buried at that grave. Photo by Skylar Isdale

A storyteller shares her rehearsed story acting as the person buried at that grave. Photo by Skylar Isdale

Local Austinite Matt Williams brought his two sons to the event. Growing up in a family that owned a funeral home, he has spent a lot of time around graveyards. “I’m partial to these kinds of causes so it was good to come out here and participate and give them some money for their efforts,” said Williams.

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Lara Harlan brought her three children to the event after a friend urged her to visit Oakwood. “I just enjoy the beauty of the cemetery and the degradation and buy cialis online online pharmacy over the counter viagra looking at all the stones that have fallen down and the history of the place that we drive by everyday,” she said.

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Some reporters, like Dale Dudley of KLBJ, and local politicians have voiced opposition to the event, claiming that it was in bad taste to be “dancing on graves.”

“Our guests are very respectful. They walk on the paths, they are not disrespectful,” says Comancho. “ We are here to raise awareness and educate the public.”

“The council member in question, Mike Martinez, was invited to come out and he chose not to,” added Flatt. “One day they’ll come out and they’ll understand.”


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