The Velvet Coffin

Cemetery plot, Austin
Plot 1081 Dement. [All images David Heymann, 2020]

The architect Billie Tsien taunts me by calling Austin — where I live — “the Velvet Coffin,” an apt nickname. Relative to other cities, Austin is lush with big trees, and swimming, and all kinds of quiet (even with the music scene). As with Madrid and Washington, D.C., there was only a rudimentary settlement here when the location was designated as a capitol, and for most of its history Austin has had little industry beyond the white-collar undertakings of the Texas state government and the big university. With its many neighborhoods of small houses on lawns, it still seems like a town. The whole is given order by a turn in the powerful Colorado River, and by a series of deeply eroded creeks that feed into it, forming ridges and hills. There are only a few sensible routes through, and they draw the traffic. My neighborhood, for example, though fairly close to the center, is essentially an immense cul-de-sac. Over the years I have found all this to be a productive condition, and I’ve long enjoyed walking in the calm to think.

My neighborhood seemed more intensely itself, the silence more profound. But that wasn’t long-lived.

Perhaps because of this characteristic stillness, restrictions on movement enacted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic initially had little effect on activity outside downtown, aside from fewer cars moving. My neighborhood seemed more intensely itself, the silence more profound. But that wasn’t long-lived. Within a week or two of shelter-in-place orders — and even with the coming heat — people were suddenly out everywhere, all day, walking dogs or infants, working or sitting or drinking at sunset in their yards. Alone, as couples, as packs of kids, as families, or as unreadable assemblies (probably including adult children bunkered at their parents’ homes with partners and/or roommates), they were biking, running, striding, strolling. Distancing was mostly observed. But few wore masks, though that was required by city ordinance for anyone outside.

Four plots in Austin cemetery
Four plots 840, 841, 852, 853.

Plot in Austin cemetery
Plot 549 Quinn.

I found it discomfiting. Then, by accident, I started walking in cemeteries. Despite the lockdown, I’d had to regularly pick up proofs left outside a graphic-design office, for a book I’m completing on the house that the architect John Chase built for himself. 1 The drive took me past the Austin Memorial Park Cemetery. On the third or fourth pass, I realized that this immense green space was open; all of Austin’s parks and pools — and the trails along the river — had, of course, been closed. It took a while for me to grasp the exception. Access to cemeteries in some major cities, like Boston, had been prohibited, but here it was still considered “urgent and necessary.” I began walking in the grounds on each proof trip. There weren’t many other visitors, though twice I came upon the same foursome, seated in shade on folding chairs, playing bridge. Old gravesites are often just over three feet wide and six feet long. So, with the dummy laid out on the central headstone, the players were spaced three graves in the short direction, two half-graves in the long.

Eventually I realized that the cemetery’s immense green space was open.

Yet Memorial Park Cemetery was busy, in the sense that there were many fresh gravesites. I initially found this compelling enough to start photographing: I assumed the new burials were related to the pandemic. I couldn’t verify that hunch. The names of people dying of COVID-19 were (are) not being made public, and private obituaries rarely mention cause of death. Plenty of people die of other causes every day in Austin, as elsewhere. I had to admit that, as my walking led my thinking or vice versa, any correlation I imposed was probably corrupt. Still, an empty cemetery felt correct as public space at this time, at least to me. I found excuses on sporadic errands to get to other local graveyards, and eventually I started frequenting Oakwood, on high ground east of the University of Texas (which was closed too, though I was going in weekly to fetch my mail).

Oakwood is one of the oldest cemeteries in the city. It was established in 1839 as the municipal burial ground, and you come across all the familiar local-historical names. Occasional interments still take place, but it has long been effectively full — all the sites sold and nearly all the bodies placed — even though its configuration and density seem suburban, for lack of a better term. Oakwood’s roughly 40-acre main tract was set out as a tartan grid. (A later addition across the street is half as large, and is organized around an oval drive.) Narrow, one-lane roads once meant for horse-drawn wagons — most of which are still dirt — subdivide the whole into large square sections; each section is further sub-divided into a grid of square family plots with grassy foot paths between. Following the fashion of an earlier era, most of the plots are also grass, lined with granite curbs set flush to the ground, like tops of buried walls. The effect is like the family box pews in a Puritan New England church. Each plot holds a grouping of often several generations, in geometries of stones that vary from plot to plot.

All this bustling propriety laid out in stone is remarkable, I think; it must have seemed best for the long bet.

The plots are rarely full, though. Sometimes you’ll find the same peculiar last name married into another plot nearby; or there are spaces unclaimed by people who moved away, or broke off relations, or were honored with interment at the Texas State Cemetery, not far away — where, incidentally, most of Austin’s Confederate dead are buried. Sometimes a segment of a family plot seems to have been deeded to a friend, or sold, and that subdivision is distinguished with another curb. The bustling propriety of all this laid out in stone is remarkable, I think; it must have seemed best for the long bet. Even so, the whole terrain of Oakwood now undulates unnaturally, in the way of long-established cemeteries. The curbs on older family plots and individual graves have shifted horizontally and vertically, probably due to the decomposition of caskets and corpses, root growth of the sporadic shade trees, or fluctuations in the water table. Some original stone curbs have been replaced with concrete, which in the early 20th century seems to have become the material of choice for new curbs as well. There is no underbrush, just mown grass between the trees, which makes it easy to perceive the cemetery’s full extent, and to see other pedestrians (and avoid them).

Plot in Austin cemetery
Plot 1022 — Altheim.

One sixteenth of the older Oakwood tract is a big, open lawn, also approximately square, which is not divided into plots and holds relatively few markers. Referred to on historical maps as “Colored Grounds,” it was reserved for burials of African Americans, out-of-towners who died in Austin, and the poor. Or all of the above: according to a brochure available for visitors, the first person buried in the cemetery was an enslaved man; records for this sector are incomplete and his name went unrecorded, but we are told that he was murdered while traveling to Austin from Bastrop, some thirty miles away. The brochure explains that, historically, grave markers here often consisted of wood, or even flowers or other ephemeral artifacts. It also mentions that, as space ran out in other parts of the cemetery, a few family plots were sold here and duly delineated.

The unmarked graves likely include victims of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, as do the marked ones with their telltale dates.

In all likelihood, this section includes a substantial number of victims of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic (as do the zones of Oakwood that have markers, with their telltale dates). According to the journalist Michael Barnes, the death toll from that virus, like that of COVID-19, was disproportionately high among African Americans. 2 In addition, two of three state institutions that, as Barnes notes, were lethally struck by that pandemic a century ago would have buried some of their dead here: the Texas Institution for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb (which was renamed often: today it is the Texas School for the Deaf), and the Texas Deaf, Dumb and Blind Institute for Colored Youth (closed and demolished in the 1960s). The third hard-hit institution, the Texas State Lunatic Asylum — now the Austin State Hospital — has its own burial ground, though that is no longer active.

All these photographs were taken in Oakwood Cemetery. Each is stitched together from many continuous exposures shot while pacing there, alone, in a sort of walking meditation. I used my iPhone, not a drone. But I like the way the photographs, made just a few feet above the ground, suggest floating overhead. One thing that is hard to convey in the small electronic reproductions here is that each image invites attention to range from overall order to immediate detail. The files are immense and easily print large, so that each blade of grass, each stone, each word is legible.

There are other ways to walk today, not in silence, and with different purpose. Yet photographs’ world-making capacity remains relevant.

To me, the potential for invention inherent to digital photographic processes, which are remarkably accessible when compared to the mute and unforgiving difficulty of analogue photography, offers the opportunity to convey qualities of place that do not reside primarily in photography’s (traditional) perspectival depiction of form or space. Like others, I’m bothered that the limits of typical architectural photography in turn limit what can be conveyed about place. In these photographs, I’m interested in capturing the scalar disjunction between apprehension of place by an individual — the conventional domain of most photographs — and landscape organization, the conventional domain of plans or maps. I’m also interested in the tension that arises between these two modes: these images are cartographic in intent, but still engage in the world-making capacity of photographs.

I also need to say that these images were all made before the murder of George Floyd. Like many, I’m trying always to observe, to understand, to express our changing circumstances by various means and media. There are other ways to walk today, not in silence, and with different purpose. Yet I feel these photographs remain relevant to this moment.

Plot in Austin cemetery
Plot 946 1/2 Campbell.

Plot in Austin cemetery
Plot 928 Thiel.

Plot in Austin cemetery
Plot 969 Moeckel.

Plot in Austin cemetery
Plot 879 Pearson.

Plot in Austin cemetery
Plot 543 Burt.

Plot in Austin cemetery
Plot 871 Breuggemann.

Plot in Austin Cemetery
Gravesite in “Colored Grounds” — Tallie.

Plot in Austin cemetery
Plot 216 (in part) Unknown.

  1. David Heymann and Stephen Fox, John S. Chase – The Chase Residence (Tower Books / UT Press, forthcoming summer 2020).
  2. Michael Barnes, During the worst pandemic in modern times, Austin shut down for almost a month,, March 7, 2020.
David Heymann, “The Velvet Coffin,” Places Journal, August 2020. Accessed 30 Sep 2020.

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