Herman: More time needed for Austin grave decoration rules

Months (more of them than one might have anticipated) after the process started, there’s a tentative date for the Austin City Council to review the proposed master plan for the city-owned cemeteries.

All of the pertinent city panels — guess which one of these I made up: Historic Landmark Commission; Urban Forestry Board; Parks and Recreation Board; the Committee on Commissions and Boards; Environmental Board; Planning Commission; and the Open Space, Environment and Sustainability Committee — have put in their two cents.

The City Council is set to address the proposed master plan at its meeting Sept. 17, subject to change.

So everything is teed up and ready to go, right? If you said yes, let me be among the first to welcome you as a newcomer to Austin, where at times we tend to mull and ponder whether we should mull and ponder.

One thing for sure at this point is that one of the most controversial topics – the one that helped put this whole process in motion — won’t be addressed Sept. 17. Turns out more time is going to be needed to deal with rules about grave ornamentation, the fancy name for the practice in which some people put old beer bottles (and, to be fair, more tasteful items) on the graves of loved ones.

I first told you about this back in October 2013 as the city told folks they had a few weeks to remove the decorations — some serious, some whimsical — that festooned some graves at city-owned cemeteries, including Austin Memorial Park on Hancock Drive where the decorations have reached impressive levels.

To some, the decorations were appropriately weird for Austin. To others, they’re inappropriate for a cemetery. And for cemetery workers, they can be an obstacle. Shortly before the Nov. 1, 2013, deadline for removing the stuff, Austin Council Member Kathie Tovo won unanimous council approval wait on stripping out the decorations, pending a comprehensive review of policies at city-owned cemeteries.

That’s the review that since then has been run through the gauntlet of city boards and commissions, as well as a series of input-seeking sessions at “stakeholder” meetings. (Because I’m a bad person I can’t help but thinking about Dracula whenever the word “stake” appears near the word “cemetery.”)

The grave ornamentation section of the proposed master plan makes no recommendations on grave ornamentation but merely states the situation.

“In part,” it says, “this is increasingly a cultural issue. Mexican American traditions include a strong and ongoing relationship with the deceased, which is demonstrated by decorating the grave for holidays and special occasions.”

The report also notes the city’s Asian population is growing “and many of those cultures maintain burial traditions that include grave offerings.”

And the report reports that in death, as in life, some Anglos have a penchant for adopting traditions of other cultures. At Austin Memorial Park, according to the report, Anglos with loved ones buried in Section Five “have either appropriated these cultural practices or created their own decorating traditions.”

“Many of the additions are colorful; some are designed to move in the wind,” it says. “The effect is exuberant and lively, but the number and general coverage of these items creates a challenge for maintenance staff, who are charged with mowing and trimming grass in these areas.”

Then we get to this: “In addition, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and these decorations are either considered attractive or an eyesore, depending on who is doing the considering.”

Yes, that’s how life works and it’s why this topic is so dicey, perhaps especially in a diverse city like Austin.

Tovo insists the grave ornamentation issue is headed for some resolution, though I doubt it will be anything that makes everybody happy.

“We’re really near the end,” she recently told me. The consultants will produce a supplemental report “talking about cultural practices regarding grave ornamentation in a general sense, and also in a specific sense, as to what’s present at our Austin municipal cemeteries.”

Tovo said that report won’t be ready until after the Sept. 17 council meeting. There will be another “stakeholder process” to seek input. All together now: Here we go again.

She said the goal is to “survey some best practices and provide a broader context as to how Austin might make some of those decisions.” She anticipated some potentially negative feedback “about the process starting up again” but “I think it’s appropriate to take more time.”

Meanwhile, the moratorium continues so I guess you’re free to add more bottles of Old Grand-Dad to ol’ granddad’s grave if he was a bourbon fan. Tovo knows consensus could be elusive.

“We all have our own ways of honoring and respecting our loved ones, and we need rules that accommodate those differences,” she said.

Good luck with that.

“Sometimes you think you’re beginning a six-month process and three years later you’re talking about the same subject,” she said.

Something about eternity seems appropriate here.

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