Tonja Walls-Davis has a new favorite grave site: one for a child, where the headstone is in the shape of a single Lego.
“I’ve traveled these grounds so many times,” she said. “But, like I said, every time I come I see something new. Their life a lot of times is represented on their headstones.”
She tries to find the Lego headstone on a recent Monday, but to no avail. We sat in a golf cart, drifting through Austin Memorial Park Cemetery, one of five cemeteries that the city manages – and that Walls-Davis now manages, as the city’s newest Cemetery Manager.
For Walls-Davis, the gig was a natural progression. She managed Austin’s Fuller-Sheffield Funeral Services on E. 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 takes over from Kirk Scanlon, who served as the city’s interim Cemetery Manager for nearly a year. The former funeral home manager also comes into the division 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 its local cemeteries.
But while the master plan was years in the making, it didn’t include any funding to make 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 non-profit partners with the city sometimes – in one case, helping to create a survey of headstones needing to be repaired or replaced.
Kim McKnight with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, and 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 going to pay for it,” she said. “That’s something I have not been exposed to in 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.
This story was produced as a part of KUT's reporting partnership with the Austin Monitor.