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Think of urban cemeteries as the first public parks in America. They enticed city-dwellers into an idyllic country experience with rolling green hills, shady trees and stone benches designed for reflective thought. But it wasn’t a complete escape. A city’s character is echoed in the landscape of its cemeteries, from social hierarchies made visible in the burial of prominent citizens on higher ground to generations of graves segregated by the ethnicity of the deceased.
As the meeting point between the living and the dead, cemeteries are peculiarly fraught ground. That makes them easy for cities to ignore. Crime, environmental problems, historic preservation, social class, religious traditions, and the thorny legacy of who is included in cities, and who is not, all come crashing together in urban cemeteries. It’s a toxic tangle of priorities that often contradict each other, and when the cemeteries are on public land, they are an endless drain on city budgets. If no descendants are around anymore to care, if eroded grave markers make it hard to even tell who is buried where, is there any harm in letting nature run its course?
Down in central Texas, abandonment is not the solution. Austin may be one of the fastest-growing cities in the nation — 885,400 people and counting — but it’s still managing to include long-gone residents in its long-term vision. The city is creating its first-ever master plan for five municipal cemeteries, the oldest of which dates to the founding of Texas’ capital city in 1839. The proposed plan — a 542-page behemoth — debuted in January. It details a rehabilitative approach to historic cemeteries: protecting their character through repair of gravestones, relics, and plant life, expanding visitor services, and developing interpretive programming that, in effect, returns cemeteries to their origins as public parks. By creating reasons for Austinites to connect with the cemeteries — even if they don’t have a familial connection — the city intends to generate the interest and funding needed to properly restore the antique graves and drought-starved landscape. If successful, the project will have environmental, architectural and cultural benefits that could change the way the city relates not only to its past, but to its present. ….