Sandra Lawrence is the cemetery services coordinator at Oakview/Riverside Cemetery on Jackson Street.
ALBANY — Sandy Lawrence rattles off the names without a trace of hesitation.
“Albany’s founder, Nelson Tift, and his family are here,” Albany’s cemetery services coordinator says. “Judge Asa Kelley’s here; Dr. Joseph Gordon and Dr. Carl Gordon. The Elliott family who founded Elliott Funeral Home — Mr. George Elliott and his family — is here, and so is Mr. Walter Poteat of Poteat Funeral Home and his family.”
“Mr. Buck Stern and Mr. Bob Kimbrell — the co-owners of Kimbrell-Stern — and their families are with us,” she says. “And Mr. C.B. King and Mrs. Carol ... There are soldiers who fought in the Civil War, World War I and World War II.”
Lawrence’s use of the terms “with us” and “here” indicate a personal connection to the final resting places of some of Albany’s best-known citizens.
Spend a little time talking with the lady who has coordinated activities at historic Riverside and Oakview cemeteries in the heart of Albany’s old downtown district for the past 27 years, and you won’t begrudge Lawrence her possessiveness.
“Ms. Sandy is absolutely wonderful,” Albany Recreation and Parks Director Suzanne Davis, who under some quirk of the city’s charter is in charge of the five-person team that oversees all activities at the cemeteries, says of the longtime services coordinator. “She takes so much time with each family who buries a loved one at the cemetery, and she genuinely shares their loss.
“When you talk with her about the families who have buried loved ones in the cemeteries, you’ll hear her say ‘my people.’ She is at all times professional, but she makes a genuine connection with people who must deal with her at a very emotional time in their lives.”
Cemetery General Manager Judge Ashe echoes Davis’ sentiments when he notes, “I rely on Ms. Sandra; she is my backbone.”
Lawrence didn’t necessarily plan on a career in which she spends her days surrounded by the city’s dead. But she quickly learned that the job fit her like a glove.
“It’s actually quite fascinating,” she said during a recent conversation. “I look out on this place, and the history of Albany is here.”
The Riverside portion of the city-owned cemetery complex was founded in 1852, and there are graves there that date to that era. All burial plots on the site were either bought or filled by the late 1920s, so the city opened the Oakview portion.
Even with more than a century and a half of burials, though, Ashe said the cemetery is not in danger of running out of space any time soon.
“As long as this city exists, I believe this cemetery will exist,” he said. “We have around 100 acres of property, and we have enough space to bury another 1,500 to 2,000 people.”
Lawrence, Ashe and their three-person maintenance crew — Arthur Royal, Felisha Pitts, Darrell Bryant — have played a prominent role in helping write the final chapter of the lives of many of Albany’s most prominent citizens.
“Nothing happens in this cemetery that we’re not a part of,” Ashe, who has overseen the facility since 1996, said. “We prepare the burial sites — no one digs in here but us — we do all the maintenance, we issue permits and we make all the burial arrangements with the families or funeral homes.”
Lawrence, meanwhile, keeps precise records of all burials, a process whose importance became more evident in the aftermath of dramatic area floods in 1994 and 1998. During the Flood of ’94, 503 caskets bearing remains from the cemetery washed up and were carried south by the waters of the Flint River.
The ’98 flood, while devastating in its own right, was not as severe as the natural disaster four years earlier. That fact, and action taken by the Albany City Commission at the insistence of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, limited the number of flood-related disinterments to 10.
“No, the flood wasn’t as bad in ’98, but we also took measures after the ’94 flood,” Ashe said. “The GBI strongly suggested, and the Albany City Commission approved an ordinance that said grave depths must be changed from 3-3 1/2 feet to 6 feet.”
Davis said that while original paper records of cemetery burials will remain on file at the facility, the Thronateeska Heritage Center has started compiling electronic backup records that will keep one of the sad elements of the ‘94 flood’s aftermath from recurring.
“We were able to rebury all of the remains that washed up from the flood in their original grave space except for 97 people whose remains we did not have up-to-date contact information on,” Lawrence said. “We worked with state and local officials and with the local funeral homes to try and identify the bodies, but we could not find their information.
“Those 97 were interred in an unknown section by FEMA with military-type equipment.”
Davis also plans to try and work a line item into her next budget that will allow her to create a link on the city’s website that will contain information about the graves in the cemetery and will allow family members to add additional information about or photographs of the deceased.
“From a genealogical standpoint, that would be really cool,” she said. “I’m hoping we can fit that into our budget.”
In addition to the professionalism and empathy that she shows families who have lost loved ones, Lawrence’s legacy will include a detail that has never been properly noted by civil rights advocates. It was she who “integrated” the cemetery in the mid-1980s.
“When I came here in 1985, the cemetery was segregated with black families on one side of the fence and white families on the other,” she said. “I did some research and found nothing in the official records that said any person should be buried on one side or the other. So I guess I started a new era when I opened up all sections of the cemetery to all people.
“The only exception is the Jewish section of the cemetery. It’s not a race thing; their custom is for only Hebrews to be buried in their section.”
Lawrence said she finds the cemetery peaceful and walks among the graves at least a couple of times a week. She often stops to have conversations with regular visitors.
“I think a lot of people would be amazed to know there are some family members who come to see their loved ones seven days a week,” she said. “You get to know the people, and you realize how sweet a thing this is. Their love is a beautiful thing.
“We also have people who picnic regularly or take their walks around the cemetery. These are really wonderful people.”
Although she insists she’ll leave Riverside and Oakview behind in three years when she has her 30 in, more than a few have wondered how the cemetery will continue to function without Lawrence.
“Yes, it will be hard to leave behind, but it’s almost time,” she said. “I have other things I want to do. But this place will always be special to me; I love these old oak trees. I love this cemetery.”