Herman: New proposed rules for Austin cemeteries. Again

April 28, 2018
Austin Memorial Park Cemetery in Northwest Austin is one of five cemeteries owned and operated by the city of Austin. The city has been rethinking rules on acceptable decorations and items that adorn tombstones and grave markers. RALPH BARRERA / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

The Austin Parks and Recreation Department, keepers of the five city-owned cemeteries, is out with revised proposed rules. Again.

These may or may not turn out to be the final version of the final rules for the final resting places.

Quick background: Back in 2013, the Parks Department upset some folks by proposing rules that would have forced the removal of lots of decorations and benches and plantings at the cemeteries. Public pushback pushed Parks and Rec back to rethink the whole thing, which began due to concerns about how the decorations – some quite elaborate, some quite whimsical, many that probably could offend someone – were a challenge to mowing and maintenance in the cemeteries.

Now up for public review are revised proposed rules that look far less restrictive than the ones that started this whole prolonged process.

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Remember, this all started back in 2013. Lots has happened since then, including the fact that I bought a plot in Austin Memorial Park and have spent some time thinking about how what my loved ones might think is appropriate when I become an Austin Memorial Park resident. I’m thinking something with a “Let’s Go Mets” motif.

The latest rules on memorials and benches says the goal is to allow for cultural and religious expression.

“Memorial benches can be a meaningful way to honor a deceased loved one, while offering a restful spot for people to sit,” the notice says. “We have revised the proposed rules to accommodate existing benches with restrictions. … New memorial benches are more than welcome; however, we require that they be placed at the head as a memorial.”

And here, with my apologies to FDR, is the new deal on memorialization and Ornamentation: “Ornamentation will be permitted with restrictions to ensure the safety of individuals coping with a loss, the visitors and the staff tasked with maintaining the cemeteries. The intent is to allow for cultural and religious expression. Stones, flowers and memorabilia may be placed at the head of a space or on the headstone.”

The proposed rule on plantings has been updated to say, “Trees, shrubs and other live plants are permitted with the approval of the cemetery administrator.” Said administrator, of course, “may remove any tree, shrub or other plant in a cemetery that is dead, deteriorated or interferes with mowing or other cemetery maintenance.”

Public comment on the latest revisions, which are under what the Parks Department calls internal review, will be posted for public comment, perhaps in early May.

“We understand implementing these rules poses challenges and we are more than willing to discuss individual needs with the understanding that we must preserve overall safety for our visitors and crew members,” the notice said in what sounds like a concise restatement of the challenge that began this whole process: People of widely diverse religious, ethnic, cultures and other sensibilities are buried in city cemeteries.

It’s apparently just as challenging to bury all of us altogether as it often is for all of us to live together. My condolences to those in city officialdom who continue to have to try to work this out.

FROM THE ARCHIVES: Dozens of graves may be under Oakwood Cemetery chapel

Another cemetery update: I wrote recently about the ongoing renovations of the chapel at the city’s Oakwood Cemetery and how research work is being done on 39 remains exhumed as part of the project. I also wrote that the exhumations were in a non-white section of the old cemetery. African-American residents and others with ties to the nonwhite section of the cemetery favored exhuming the graves under the chapel and reburying them nearby, as opposed to leaving them in place under the refurbished chapel.

Terri Mirka, secretary of Save Austin’s Cemeteries, tells me the area around the chapel was used for people of all races and ethnicities. The city’s April 2017 report on the chapel project says, “The 1914 chapel was constructed in an area of the cemetery that was designated as a racially segregated section beginning in 1859. Within this section, designated for people of color, there is scarce burial documentation and comparatively few remaining gravestones.”

Also in the report is research from Save Austin’s Cemeteries citing, “evidence of ‘Negro,’ ‘Mexican’ and ‘Stranger/White’ burials within this section of the cemetery — with at least one example of each community in close proximity to the chapel.”

The report said the Oakwood “burial patterns are products of incremental development and growth, and no section of the cemetery contains a monolithic community of people or a singularly consistent form of documentation.”

And there was this inconclusive conclusion:

“With few grave markers still existing today and no direct descendants who have come forth with knowledge of ancestral location, it is unknown at the time of this report’s issuance what communities are represented by individual graves underneath the chapel footprint.”

It’s going to be interesting to see what the researchers at Texas State University’s Forensic Anthropology Center in San Marcos can figure out about the exhumed remains. Regardless of the findings, it is important that the remains be re-interred with due respect.

Whatever their color or ethnicity, they were people who, in their own way in their own time, helped build Austin.