Opinion: Flawed Cemetery Rules Process Violates City Council Resolution and Betrays Public Trust

The Austin Parks and Recreation Department is trying to force new rules that could result in the desecration of hundreds of graves

Opinion: Flawed Cemetery Rules Process Violates City Council Resolution and Betrays Public Trust

In 2006, my vibrant, brilliant 13-year-old niece, Shoshana, died suddenly of myocarditis and was buried in Austin Memorial Park (AMP). While visiting her daughter's grave, my sister-in-law, Tina Huckabee, was distressed to discover tire tracks from maintenance equipment cutting over the grave. Noticing that other graves were covered by memorial gardens, often outlined in stone, Tina twice contacted the office at AMP to request permission to plant a garden on Shoshana's grave. When she received no response, she and my brother outlined Shoshana's grave in limestone, planting a garden using native and adapted plants, which continue to thrive. When my father died in 2012 and was buried next to Shoshana, we requested that AMP not place sod on his grave; instead we outlined his grave with stone and planted a memorial garden.

In September of 2013, we learned that the Austin Parks and Recreation Department (PARD) planned to force families to remove gravesite gardens and other memorials, many of which had been in place for years. PARD declared that these gravesite memorials were not in compliance with 1978 cemetery rules and regulations. These rules had never been publicized, nor were they included in the city of Austin Code of Ordinances. For over three decades, PARD failed to enforce these rules, permitting Austin citizens to create gravesite memorials as part of their mourning process. Many of these long-established memorials cannot be removed without causing extensive damage to gravesites. By failing to enforce these rules, PARD has effectively waived them and these rules are now null and void.

On October 17, 2013, members of the public appeared before the Austin City Council, protesting PARD's sudden declaration that it would enforce the long-neglected cemetery rules. In response, the City Council enacted a resolution requiring the city manager, in collaboration with stakeholders and a working group of the Parks and Recreation Board, to evaluate whether current cemetery policies related to grave ornamentation were appropriately sensitive to personal and cultural expressions of grieving, while preserving necessary safety for cemetery workers and respect for the values of all families. This process was to be completed over six months.

Instead, PARD has engaged in nine years of bureaucratic foot-dragging, equivocations, and broken promises in violation of the Council resolution, failing to work with the stakeholders and stymying public participation and input. In the meantime, not only do Austin's public cemeteries suffer from continuing neglect, PARD has blatantly violated state and local law regarding the Perpetual Care Trust Fund and squandered taxpayer dollars on outside consultants. Now PARD is again pushing through rules that give it unchecked authority over Austin's historic cemeteries, effectively shutting out the public in violation of the Council resolution. These rules are generally the same rules PARD has tried to impose since 2013, even though they actually contradict PARD's own 2015 Historic Cemeteries Master Plan, which cost Austin taxpayers nearly quarter of a million dollars. Although it lacks the legal or moral authority to do so, PARD intends to apply these rules retroactively, potentially resulting in the desecration of hundreds of graves. While PARD claims to lack the funds for the most basic maintenance of Austin cemeteries, such as resetting fallen headstones, it is apparently willing to spend public resources and funds harassing families and ripping out memorials that have been in place for decades.

The stakeholders understand that reasonable cemetery regulations are necessary. All we want is to sit down with PARD as envisioned by the Council resolution. I urge concerned Austinites to contact their city officials and demand that the irredeemably flawed rules process be restarted in a truly open and transparent process.

Sharon Weintraub is a longtime Austin resident and is retired from the Texas Senate Research Center. She has created a website making all the information she has gathered over the past nine years available to the people of Austin so that they can judge just how well PARD really cares for their friends and families resting in Austin’s public cemeteries: saveaustinscemeteries.blogspot.com/2022/09/protect-austins-cemeteries-from-pard.html.

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Austin Parks and Recreation Department, PARD, Austin cemeteries

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