Herman: Council to call time out on removal of cemetery decorations?


Looks like the Austin City Council is going to get involved in — and possibly block — the Parks and Recreation Department’s plan to force the removal of decorative items from graves at the city-owned Austin Memorial Park on Hancock Drive.

The enforcement of rules long on the books is set to begin Nov. 1. But Council Member Kathie Tovo tells me she’s ready with a resolution, backed by Council Member Mike Martinez, that would instruct city officials to hold off on enforcement until after a comprehensive review of cemetery rules. The resolution is set to be considered at next Thursday’s council session.

Cemetery Manager Gilbert Hernandez has said enforcement is needed because the wide variety of decorations and plantings added by friends and relatives of loved ones buried at Austin Memorial Park have caused maintenance problems and drawn criticism from some people who think some of the items are inappropriate.

Tovo said a time out is appropriate.

“I feel strongly that the city should pursue a broader, more balanced set of rules for grave ornamentation,” she said. “How we remember and memorialize our deceased loved ones is very personal and reflects our different religious and cultural traditions. For many, decorating the graves of loved ones with meaningful objects or plantings is an important part of their grieving process.”

A draft of Tovo’s resolution notes that “for centuries humans have decorated graves with images and objects” and that the city has not consistently enforced the cemetery rules “for many years.” Still to be determined is how far the council can go in issuing orders concerning enforcement of administrative rules.

Some of the rules in effect date back to the 1970s, according to Tovo’s staff. She said rules are needed “to ensure a safe and respectful environment for workers and visitors alike.” But she thinks there’s a way to balance “those needs against the desires of families and friends.”

Good luck with that. I think we are going to find that to be a potentially tricky balance. I’ve made several trips to Austin Memorial Park in the past week and was intrigued by the items placed at graves, including solar lights, a baseball cap, unopened cans of beer, a pair of flip-flops and other items that personalize the burial places. There also are many benches, many of which are not on the purchased grave sites.

Tovo hasn’t been to Austin Memorial Park recently, but plans to get there soon and has reviewed photos provides to her by city staff.

“I would say what I saw in the photos is very traditional in terms of what you might see at most cemeteries that I’ve visited,” she said. “You see plantings. You see statuary and other kinds of personal objects, perhaps a stuffed animal. I haven’t made it through all of the photos but I haven’t seen anything that causes me serious concern.”

But she also understands that the planned rules enforcement was spurred, in part, by complaints from people who believe some of the decorative items don’t belong in a cemetery.

On the front of Sunday’s Insight section, I’ll give you a look at some of the items in the cemetery. I’ll have a video at mystatesman.com from my visit to Austin Memorial Park with Danny Camacho, who has cousins buried there and who believes many of the decorative items are way beyond the bounds of what should be in a cemetery.

Check it out and see what you think. And I’d encourage interested parties to participate in the process concerning the cemeteries.


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