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Austin’s cemeteries get new leader

Wednesday, July 27, 2016 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

Tonja Walls-Davis has a new favorite gravesite: one for a child, whose headstone is in the shape of a single Lego.

“I’ve traveled these grounds so many times,” she told the Austin Monitor. “But, like I said, every time I come, I see something new. Their life a lot of times is represented on their headstones.”

She tried to find the Lego headstone on a recent Monday, but to no avail. We rode in a golf cart, meandering through Austin Memorial Park Cemetery, one of five cemeteries that the city manages – and that Walls-Davis now oversees, as the city’s newest cemetery manager.

For Walls-Davis, the gig is a natural progression. Previously, she managed Austin’s Fuller-Sheffield Funeral Services on East Martin Luther King Boulevard for 16 years.

“I’m used to dealing with people on the front end, after the death occurs,” said Walls-Davis. “Now I’m kind of at the final stages, at the end. But grieving is grieving.”

Walls-Davis is taking over from Kirk Scanlon, who served as the city’s interim cemetery manager for nearly a year. She is joining the Cemetery Administration, part of the Parks and Recreation Department, at an ambitious time: Back in September, City Council members approved a 500-plus-page Cemetery Master Plan for the city’s local cemeteries.

But even though the master plan was years in the making, it didn’t include any funding to implement the recommendations, such as erecting information kiosks in the cemeteries for visitors and restoring damaged headstones in the city’s older cemeteries.

“Getting the funding is going to be the hard part,” said Dale Flatt, who runs Save Austin’s Cemeteries. The nonprofit sometimes partners with the city – in one case, helping to create a survey of headstones needing to be repaired or replaced.

Kim McKnight, who is with PARD and is also the lead on the Cemetery Master Plan, said typically big improvement projects like this would be funded using bond money.

Either way, funding is something Walls-Davis will have to reckon with.

“You have a plan for something, but then you have to figure out how we’re gonna pay for it,” she said. “That’s something I have not been exposed to in the private sector.”

The city will host a meet-and-greet with Walls-Davis tonight at the Austin Memorial Park Cemetery, beginning at 4:30 p.m.

Photo of Oakwood Cemetery courtesy of the city of Austin. This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT. The Austin Monitor’s work is made possible by donations from the community. Though our reporting covers donors from time to time, we are careful to keep business and editorial efforts separate while maintaining transparency. A complete list of donors is available here, and our code of ethics is explained here.

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