City rules will force removal of grave decorations

Shortly after her 13-year-old daughter, Shoshana Weintraub, died in 2006 of an undiagnosed illness, Tina Huckabee, a gardener, planted a flower garden on her grave at Austin Memorial Park Cemetery.

“One of the reasons I put it there was because during the first year after she died, I would go and visit and there would be tire tracks over it,” she said.

Other graves had gardens at the city-owned cemetery off MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) and Hancock Drive, but, out of an abundance of caution, Huckabee tried to contact officials to make sure it would be OK. She heard nothing, she said. In a limestone border around the grave, she planted lilies from her garden and purple coneflowers — Shoshana’s favorite. Since then, Huckabee lovingly has taken care of the maintenance.

“There’s never been any issue,” she said.

Until now.

“Cemetery Rules Compliance Begins November 1, 2013,” say signs at the cemetery entrance.

Because of that, Huckabee and many others might have to remove items added to personalize graves. Gilbert Hernandez, the city cemeteries manager, said that “hundreds, if not into the low thousands” of the 25,000 graves at Austin Memorial Park might not be in compliance.

“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,” says a notice on the city website.

On Nov. 1, the city will begin posting notices on graves that violate the rules, which Hernandez said have been in place — if unenforced — since 2006 or earlier. Enforcement will begin Jan. 1 at the city’s Evergreen Cemetery on East 12th Street. Officials also plan to monitor compliance at the three other city-owned cemeteries, which Hernandez said are less active.

The change comes after the city, which previously contracted for cemetery maintenance, took over the chore in April.

“What has happened in the past few years is there has been an expansion on the types of memorials and other items the public has placed” at graves, Hernandez said. “So we are trying to get a handle on it and work with the public in identifying those items on graves that fall outside the rules and regulations.”

Violators will have 30 days to remove noncomplying items or the city will do so. The notice form includes boxes for violations concerning “bench/bird bath/statue,” “vegetation/shrubs/mulch,” “glassware/wind chimes,” “bricks/pavers/stones” or “other.” Hernandez said such items cause problems with mowing and other maintenance. Complaints have come in about the aesthetics of some decorations, which include flower beds, college flags, benches, lanterns, wind chimes and wind socks.

He also said wooden benches degrade and “become a public safety issue,” and all of them probably will have to be removed.

Among the most decorated graves at Austin Memorial Park is that of Nicholas S.V. Perez, a 19-year-old Marine killed in Iraq on Sept. 3, 2004. His grave now includes autumn-themed items, two trellises, flags, wind chimes, Marine-related items and some paving stones; some or all of which could be in violation, Hernandez said.

“We will work with the family to develop a strategy to memorialize this fine young man in a method that is acceptable to our rules and regulations,” he said.

Anne Dingus fears she might have to remove the bench her family placed at the grave of her son, Parker Redman, who died at age 20 in March 2007 after combining prescription and recreational drugs.

“Part of the charm of this cemetery was because it has that old-fashioned Austin feel. It’s laid back, it’s calm, and we just felt like Parker would be at peace there,” she said. “To suddenly turn it into one of those very soulless cemeteries — bland and with maniacally manicured plots and so on — we just didn’t want that.”

Sharon Weintraub said the rules might prevent her from planting flowers on the grave of her father, former University of Texas law professor Russell Weintraub, who died in December. He is buried next to Shoshana, his granddaughter.

Sharon Weintraub, a lawyer with the Texas Senate Research Center, said it sounds like “what the city wants to do is just rip everything out so they can run a giant lawnmower through it.”

“This is not Arlington. This is not a military cemetery,” she said. “This is part of Austin. And it’s part of the grieving process to personalize these graves, and I think what makes this such a beautiful and peaceful place is you look around and you can see how people express their love for their deceased ones by creating these little memorials for them.

“It shows that these people aren’t forgotten,” Weintraub said of the decorations, “that people remember them and still care about them.”

Hernandez said the city’s goal is to balance the Austin feel with providing a “dignified place” for the deceased.

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