Herman: Austin’s grave decoration rules discussion continues

Looking for a permanent hobby? How about getting involved in the city of Austin’s ongoing and potentially everlasting study of rules for its five municipal cemeteries, a process that might outlive us all?

Please pardon the snark here, but this process began in 2013.

The next step is set for 6 p.m. Thursday at the Britton, Durst, Howard and Spence Building at 1183 Chestnut Ave. The meeting notice says it all: “We are entrusted by the families and descendants to care for these sacred places, and the cemeteries are indelible and essential parts of the neighborhoods in which they reside. The department is embarking on a public process to update the cemetery rules and develop a plan for enforcement.”

The city actually embarked on this process in 2013 after backlash against an aborted plan to enforce new rules and require people to remove some grave decorations, including some of the more eclectic ones in Austin Memorial Park on Hancock Drive. That cemetery is the final resting place of dearly departed from an impressive array of ethnicities and religions, some with differing sensibilities of what’s appropriate in a cemetery.

Some folks think items such as beer cans, UT pennants, solar-powered lights and other memorabilia are appropriate. Others do not.

The agenda for the Thursday meeting is pretty simple: “What we’ve heard — previous community engagement regarding cemetery rules.” “Goals and objectives and community engagement process.” “Staff concerns and constraints.”

In September 2015, the City Council approved an ambitious master plan for the cemeteries but opted to set aside the grave ornamentation rules section for further input and discussion. Tonja Walls-Davis, the city cemetery manager, says several more community input sessions will be scheduled in coming months.

The master plan summed up the grave decoration challenge thusly: “Many of the additions are colorful; some are designed to move in the wind. The effect is exuberant and lively, but the number and general coverage of these items creates a challenge for maintenance staff, who are charged with mowing and trimming grass in these areas.”

There’s also this: “In addition, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and these decorations are either considered attractive or an eyesore, depending on who is doing the considering.”

While this has dragged on, there has been other progress on the city cemetery front.

“We have exciting news!” the Parks and Recreation Department, which oversees the cemeteries (I’m done making jokes about that), reported back in Austin. “The City of Austin Cemeteries Administrative Office will be getting a new clay tile roof, restoring it to its original Spanish Colonial appearance.”

The construction began in August and is done. The next project, scheduled to start this week and take eight months to complete, is the restoration of the historic chapel in the Oakwood Cemetery. The chapel, designed by noted local architect Charles Page, was built in 1914. It’s been damaged as a result of uneven foundation settlement and the dreaded “deferred maintenance.” Money from a 2012 bond package will pay for what the city is calling “a full rehabilitation of this historically and architecturally significant structure.”

So that’s good.

Walls-Davis is still relatively new on the job, getting it in March. She’s a licensed funeral director and embalmer. A city press release noted she “has been in the death-care industry for over 20 years,” including working as an insurance agent specializing in what the industry calls “pre-planning.”

“Tonja’s wealth of experience in the cemetery and funeral industry will further enable the Parks and Recreation Department to effectively operate and manage our five city-owned cemeteries in a manner that respects their historic integrity while serving the needs of the Austin community,” the city said when her appointment was announced.

As I told Walls-Davis, I think the city should build a monument to anyone who can lead us this toward anything approaching consensus on the difficult topic of grave decoration. She said she’s hoping the ongoing public discussion will lead to something the City Council can consider around the first of the year.

It’s past time to lay this issue to rest.

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