Herman: New rules would restrict grave decorations at city cemeteries

4:53 p.m Thursday, Oct. 19, 2017 Opinion
Austin Memorial Park Cemetery in is one of five cemeteries owned and operated by the city of Austin. Two community meetings on the proposed new cemetery rules are scheduled for Monday and Oct. 26. RALPH BARRERA / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

The Austin Parks and Recreation Department on Thursday released long-awaited proposed new rules for the five city-owned cemeteries.

Four years is long, right? Even in the cemetery biz. And Tonja Walls-Davis, the city cemetery manager, expects the proposed rules, including tight restrictions on grave decorations, will draw the same kind of objections voiced in 2013 when the city tried to force the removal of lots of such decorations.

“For the most part, all we did was just update the rules,” she said, acknowledging that, if enacted, the rules would force the removal of decorations on many graves.

RELATED: City rules will force removal of grave decorations

The decorations, Walls-Davis said, have become a big problem for “maintenance and manpower.”

“Our mowing cycle has been highly impacted by the amount of time our guys have to get off the mower to remove things,” she said. “And then it’s a hazard.”

Mowing and maintenance also were the primary reasons given for the aborted 2013 effort to force removal of some ornamentation and benches.

To be sure, some of the graves at Austin Memorial Park on Hancock Drive (where, coincidentally, I will be selecting my plot next week) have been festooned over the years with items some folks might think are inappropriate in a cemetery, including college banners, solar-powered lights, sporting goods, wind chimes, benches and containers of the deceased’s adult beverage of choice.

Back in 2013, before complaints forced the city to pull the plug on the proposed enforcement, Gilbert Hernandez, then the city cemetery manager, told me “hundreds, if not into the low thousands” of the 25,000 graves at Austin Memorial Park might have been out of compliance for various reasons.

WATCH: Austin cemeteries include some nontraditional memorials

A notice on the city website back then said: “This effort is to address a number of complaints that the city has received regarding the addition of benches, statuary, trellis, permanent pavers, vegetation and other memorials that are not permitted as per cemetery rules.”

The proposed rules announced Thursday say “an ornament or decoration” is permitted if “placed on a memorial” is “no longer than six inches in any dimension” and “the ornament or decoration will not interfere with mowing or other cemetery maintenance.”

In addition to Austin Memorial Park, the other city-owned cemeteries are Evergreen Cemetery, 3310 East 12th St.; Oakwood Cemetery and Oakwood Annex, 1601 Navasota St.; and Plummers Cemetery, 1204 Springdale Road.

The 2013 attempt to restrict decorations brought impassioned opposition from some Austinites who had buried relatives in Austin Memorial Park. But the effort was supported by some people who believe the decorations had gotten out of hand and were inappropriate.

Walls-Davis is expecting to hear from folks upset about the proposed restrictions.

“I’m expecting that,” she said. “I’m preparing for that.”

RELATED: City approves master plan for public-owned cemeteries

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