Herman: Remains exhumed as part of Oakwood Cemetery chapel rehab

We have some interesting updates from the city regarding the rehabilitation project on the historic chapel at the city-owned Oakwood Cemetery.

First, some background: Oakwood, which is just east of Interstate 35 and just south of the University of Texas UFCU Disch-Falk Field, doesn’t have quite the cast of characters that the Texas State Cemetery has, but it’s still a pretty impressive list. Among the Oakwood residents resting in peace are Alamo survivor Susanna Dickinson, writer and humorist John Henry Faulk, and Texas Govs. Elisha Pease, Oran Roberts, Oscar Branch Colquitt, Andrew Hamilton and James Hogg and his daughter Ima Hogg. (And no, despite what you might have heard, there was no Ura Hogg.) Also, there is John Hancock (the Texan who served in the U.S. House, not the famous autograph/insurance company guy).

Last April, this newspaper reported on a delay in the chapel rehab project because of the November 2016 discovery of remains in the cemetery’s “Colored Grounds” section near the 1914 building.

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The discovery set off a what-to-do process. A city report issued in April 2017 said African-American residents and others with ties to the nonwhite section of the cemetery favored exhuming the graves under the chapel and reburying them nearby, as opposed to leaving them in place under the refurbished chapel.

“(They) feel that to leave the graves in place would perpetuate and condone the widespread practice throughout the United States of disrespecting the graves of African-Americans and other communities of color,” the report said. “If this chapel is to be used as a public space, people’s graves would unavoidably be walked over.”

Tonja Walls-Davis, the city’s cemetery manager, now reports that the archaeological team has exhumed 39 sets of remains during the project. Most of them were fully intact, though unidentified, skeletons. Some were only “disarticulated bone fragments.” Included is one discovered under the chapel’s north wall during drilling to set piers.

Walls-Davis reports that the exhumed remains have been sent to Texas State University’s Forensic Anthropology Center in San Marcos. At that facility, preliminary analyses will include “cleaning, inventorying and general recording of individual burial features into a relational database structure.”

“Next,” according to Walls-Davis’ update, “all human remains will undergo a non-destructive physical examination to discern information related to the biological profile (age, sex, ancestry, structure) as well as that associated with pathological, traumatic and/or skeletal change.”

The results are expected to be ready in late May, followed by a final report this summer.

The Austin Parks and Recreation Department (which oversees the city cemeteries) says there was no identifying information found for any of the exhumed remains. After the research is completed and whatever can be found out is found out, the plan is to re-inter the remains near the chapel.

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So after a yearlong delay, the cemetery construction project resumed last October. Masons are masoning, and carpenters are carpentering. The project’s completion is expected in June, with roof work and replacement of windows and doors still on the to-do list.

This has been an ambitious and important project. Dale Flatt of Save Austin’s Cemeteries has been keeping a close eye on the progress and said, “The building will serve the site well as an interpretive center for tourism.”

His research shows that as far back as 1891, it was reported the cemetery was full. There are over 22,000 graves of people of various backgrounds and ethnicities.

“It was not a surprise that they ran into unmarked graves,” Flatt said. “Sadly, we will never know who these people were. Laws changed a few years ago that require burials to have in-casket identification so this does not happen again.”

In other cemetery news, we might not have to wait too much longer for the long-awaited new rules concerning ornamentation at the city-owned cemeteries. The Parks and Recreation Department is having city lawyers look over some recent revisions in the proposed rules. When that’s done, the rules will be posted for (another) 30-day public comment period. After that, the department can enact and enforce the new rules, which could force lots of folks to remove lots of decorations on graves at the city-owned cemeteries. City Council approval is not needed.

One more thing/sneak preview: In my upcoming Sunday column I’ll help you pick a candidate in the race for lieutenant governor by offering an unprecedented, comprehensive, deep-dive analysis of each contender’s truck. You’re welcome.

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