While we’re talking about what should be and what shouldn’t be in Austin’s city-owned cemeteries, City Council Member Mike Martinez wants us to talk about the annual “Murder, Mayhem and Misadventure” walking tours set for Saturday at Oakwood Cemetery.
This will be the seventh year that Save Austin’s Cemeteries, a nonprofit group that does a valuable job on behalf of local cemeteries, has hosted the event. This year’s promotional materials show an SAC member dressed as Beetlejuice.
The tours, according to SAC, “highlight the lives and deaths of Austin’s early citizens. These chilling tales of 19th and 20th century murders and other untimely deaths shed new light on Austin’s early history and put you in a ghoulish mood! Come listen to costumed actors portraying bygone Austin citizens recounting these unfortunate stories!”
Martinez raised his concerns at a council work session last week during a discussion about the appropriateness of decorations at graves in Austin Memorial Park and other city-owned cemeteries. The council last week called for a review of cemetery rules. A process for public input will be put in place. There was discussion about grave decoration during Thursday night’s quarterly public input meeting convened by the Parks and Recreation Department.
At last week’s work session, Martinez mentioned “haunted cemetery tours” at the city-owned cemeteries.
“That to me is pretty inflammatory if I have a loved one that I want to rest in peace, to have some commercial operation charging for tours to try to scare people on full-moon nights and Halloween nights,” he said.
Turns out it’s not what Martinez thought. In an email to Martinez, Gilbert Hernandez, the city’s cemeteries manager, said there are no commercial “haunted tours” at the facilities. And he said SAC’s annual event features volunteers who portray Austinites buried at Oakwood.
“These actors recite scripts that reflect the lives of these early Austinites and is respectful and historically accurate,” Hernandez told Martinez.
I looked at some of the current and older scripts used on the tour, and it’s pretty tame stuff, much more dramatic, costumed reading of history than spooky, haunty ghost stuff. In fact, I saw no spooky, haunty ghost stuff.
SAC does not charge for the tours, but accepts donations that are used for restoration projects. Martinez, who supports SAC’s efforts, now understands that, but he still has concerns.
“If the mayor and others are going to be concerned with things like a beer can or a photo being left on tombstones, I don’t know how giving tours called ‘Murder, Mayhem and Misadventure’ could not be offensive to some folks if they knew those tours were taking place at the gravesites of their loved ones,” Martinez told me.
He’s not calling for a halt to the event, but wants it to be “part of the discussion” about what goes on in city cemeteries.
SAC founder Dale Flatt, who expects 400 to 600 people Saturday, says the event raises awareness about Oakwood, the city’s oldest cemetery and one in need of work. The annual Halloween-related event features people portraying long-ago Austinites going back six or seven generations and events from the late 1800s and early 1900s.
“We are basically relating Austin’s history,” Flatt said. “We are not inventing things. We are not there at night trying to find ghosts or summon ghosts.”
Martinez credits SAC with providing “a very needed and noble service.”
“But I think if it could be done in a different context than ‘Murder, Mayhem and Misadventure,’ I think we should have that conversation,” he said.
Having not been on the tour, I’m not entitled to an opinion about it. The marketing seems close to being over the top, but I can understand why it might draw more people than if it was billed as an educational event.
If you’re interested in seeing for yourself, show up at Oakwood Cemetery, 1601 Navasota St., just south of the UT baseball stadium, Saturday. Tours last about an hour and start at 10 a.m. and end at 4 p.m. Details are at the calendar tab at sachome.org.
If you go, I’d like to hear what you think.