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Herman: A cemetery dilemma

Shortly after my recent front-page article about the City of Austin’s decision to force the removal of decorations on graves at city-owned cemeteries, I heard from Danny Camacho, a retiree who has cousins buried in Austin Memorial Park.

Camacho noted the comments from people who object to removing items they’ve added to graves at the Hancock Drive cemetery. Camacho, whose interest in genealogy has made him familiar with local cemeteries, wanted to speak for the other side.

“The cemeteries are public spaces open to all and not arenas to conspicuously display private grief,” he said in support of the city’s decision to start enforcing rules in place for several years.

So last Sunday morning I picked Camacho up at his East Austin home and we went to the cemetery to look around. It didn’t take long for us to find decorations that could be — should be, he says — targeted by the city enforcement set to begin Nov. 1 when violators will be given 30 days to remove items. That plan could change, however, next Thursday when the City Council is scheduled to consider a resolution halting enforcement until after a comprehensive review of the cemetery rules.

Camacho doesn’t want to be the cemetery grinch, and he understands differing sensitivities — some along cultural lines — about what should be in public cemeteries.

“In the sense of a cemetery as a whole, this is very garish,” he said as we stood at a grave that had five pinwheels, metal yard art and other adornments that could be in violation of city rules, including one that says “Only one memorial will be permitted on one grave space.”

Nearby, at the grave of Heath Eiland, a 16-year-old Anderson High School student who died in 2011 after a skateboard accident, Camacho looked at eight solar lights outlining the plot and two that illuminate the gravestone, as well as the yard sign noting Eiland played soccer at Anderson.

“What’s the purpose?” Camacho asked about the lights. “This place is closed at night. You don’t have access. It’s a decoration, not a headstone.”

What’s in violation of the rules, I asked Camacho as we stood at the grave.

“Other than the headstone, everything,” he said.

“I’m not hating on any individual,” Camacho said. “It is a sensitive issue but that is no reason for you not to be a responsible property owner. And when it comes down to it that’s all you are. You’re a property owner with limited rights, and if you’re not adhering to the rules and regulations than, I’m sorry, the birdbath has to go because it breeds mosquitoes.”

Nearby, he noticed an open Bible displayed at a grave. Pages, he said, will “end up flying around.”

“I understand your loss,” he said, “but take it out.”

Moments later, we met Nan McCone, who comes out once or twice a week to the grave of her son Scott, who died of cerebral palsy complications at age 22 in 2009.

“Y’all figuring out what to keep and what not to keep?” she asked, assuming Camacho and I were visiting a grave.

Scott McCone’s grave is decorated with well-maintained solar lanterns, plants in urns and a bench and tree. The bench and tree might not be on the gravesite she purchased, and Nan McCone understands some items may have to be removed.

“At the time when my son passed away it was just so bare and it helps,” she said, sobbing, of the decorations.

“When I lost him, I wanted to be able (for) him to have some light. (And) I could see the lights from the road,” she said as she leaned on the gravestone between the lanterns.

McCone doesn’t want to remove anything, but won’t fight if forced.

“To me, moving things is nothing,” she said. “Losing a son is a lot.”

Larry Plunkett, whose wife JoAnn is buried nor far from Scott McCone, sees no reason for enforcement, something he sees as a solution in search of a problem.

“They’re even wanting to get rid of the wind chimes,” he said. “How on earth does that cause a problem?”

Perhaps, I said, someone looking down at graves might walk into hanging wind chimes.

“What if somebody comes out here and trips and falls and breaks their arm?” he said “Maybe they should lock the gate so that nobody comes out here and trips and falls.”

As Camacho and I walked on, we found graves personalized with a faded Boston Red Sox cap, an unopened can of Coors, a Big Peach soft drink bottle, packaged guitar strings, state and college flags in various states of decay, benches of various materials in various states of repair, more solar lights, a photo of a deceased (before he died) holding a beer, metal yard art, an action figure, a bottle of Tabasco, broken glass and statuary, various sporting goods, ceramic animals, rock gardens, assorted plantings and a golf-themed bench bearing the Masters motto “A tradition unlike any other.”

All or some of the aforementioned could be in violation of the rules.

“This is not a theme park,” Camacho said as we looked at the golf bench.

It is not a theme park. It is a publicly-owned cemetery in which more than 25,000 people are buried and into which many people, each with their own idea of what a cemetery should look like, come each year to visit deceased loved ones.

Within the cemetery are examples of different ways different people remember those loved ones. This is Austin, so there is whimsy and weirdness, all of it intended as remembrance, none of it intended to offend.

But this is a public, shared space with rules. And, the city says, some folks have complained about other folks who haven’t followed the rules. “More times than not,” said city cemeteries manager Gilbert Hernandez, “it has to do with the aesthetics.” And some decorations cause maintenance and mowing problems, he said.

“The rules and regulations we have were established for a reason and it’s our job as the staff to apply those rules,” he said, fully grasping the sensitivity of the issue, a sensitivity driven home to me in an email from retiree Jan Justice, who has a sister buried at Austin Memorial Park. Another sister buried a deceased infant daughter there.

“We place toys on the baby’s grave and hang wind chimes near our sister’s,” Justice told me in an email. “It is a comfort for us to sit on a bench and spend some time.”

The sister who buried a child at the cemetery “burst into tears and left the room when I told her what the city intended to do,” Justice wrote.

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