Oakwood Cemetery

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After touring Oakwood Cemetery on Austin Museum Day, I decided that this interesting historical site deserved its own blog entry. Established in 1839, Oakwood is Austin’s oldest cemetery. The grounds cover 40 acres, the same size as the original University of Texas campus (still nicknamed “The 40 Acres.”)

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Our one-hour tour was led by a member of a local preservation group called Save Austin’s Cemeteries. We started inside the Oakwood Chapel that’s near the entrance gate. This building was used as a “dead house” to hold corpses until they could be buried. A restoration project is planned for the near future.

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Our tour guide observed that Oakwood is really “a museum without walls.” Four Texas governors were buried there, as well as Benjamin Franklin’s grandson, several hundred Confederate soldiers, and even a few Union soldiers. As the only city cemetery in the 1800s, anyone could be buried there. But, in keeping with those times, the graveyard was divided into separate sections based on race and ethnicity.

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I learned that tombstones in 19th century Austin were made of wood. Only three of those original wooden tombstones remain standing in Oakwood. Later, limestone was used, but those are now deteriorating. More recent tombstones were made of granite or marble.

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An estimated 23,000 people were interred at Oakwood. Our guide explained that some areas may look empty, but those are either mass graves or older sections where the wood markers are long gone. The cemetery is actually full, although a few interments still occur each year in family plots that have space.

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Our guide said that, while the city of Austin owns the cemetery grounds, the individual plots are considered private property. Some are in disrepair because descendants cannot be found (or do not care), and by law, the city is not permitted to make repairs. However, a Historic Cemeteries Master Plan is currently being finalized by city officials, allowing for maintenance and preservation of Oakwood and other city-owned cemeteries.

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Two final notes: Save Austin’s Cemeteries is hosting their 9th Annual Murder, Mayhem, and Misadventure Walking Tour on October 31. Also, the group has recently published a book: Austin’s Historic Oakwood Cemetery: Under the Shadow of the Texas Capitol. More details are posted on their website.

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