Opinion: Flawed cemetery rules process violates city council resolution, betrays public trust: Austin Department of Parks and Recreation is trying to impose new rules that could lead to the desecration of hundreds of graves – Columns

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In 2006, my 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 across the grave. Noticing that other graves were covered with memorial gardens, often marked out with stone, Tina twice contacted the AMP office to request permission to plant a garden at Shoshana’s grave. When she received no response, she and my brother designed 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 asked AMP not to put sod on his grave; instead, we lined his grave with stone and planted a memorial garden.

In September 2013, we learned that the Austin Parks and Recreation Department (PARD) planned to force families to remove gardens from gravesites and other memorials, many of which had been in place for years. PARD said these burial memorials did not comply with the Cemetery Rules and Regulations of 1978. These rules were never made public, nor were they included in the City of Ordinance Code of Austin. For more than three decades, PARD failed to enforce these rules, allowing Austin citizens to create memorials at gravesites as part of their grieving process. Many of these long-established memorials cannot be removed without causing significant damage to the graves. 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 long-neglected cemetery rules. In response, City Council passed a resolution asking the City Manager, working with stakeholders and a Parks and Recreation Commission task force, to assess whether the cemetery’s current policies regarding grave ornamentation were sufficiently sensitive to the personal and cultural expressions of mourning, while preserving the necessary safety of cemetery workers and respect for the values ​​of all families. This process was to take six months.

Instead, PARD engaged in nine years of bureaucratic footsteps, equivocations and broken promises in violation of Council resolution, failing to work with stakeholders and blocking participation and public input. Meanwhile, not only are public cemeteries in Austin suffering from continued neglect, but PARD has flagrantly violated state and local laws regarding the Perpetual Care Trust Fund and wasted the dollars of taxpayers for external consultants. Now PARD is once again imposing rules that give it unchecked authority over Austin’s historic cemeteries, excluding the public in violation of the Board’s resolution. These rules are generally the same rules that PARD has tried to impose since 2013, even though they actually contradict PARD’s own 2015 Historic Cemetery Master Plan, which cost Austin ratepayers nearly a quarter of million bucks. Although it does not have the legal or moral authority to do so, PARD intends to apply these rules retroactively, which could result in the desecration of hundreds of graves. While PARD claims to lack funds for the most basic upkeep of Austin’s cemeteries, such as restoring fallen headstones, it is apparently willing to expend resources and public funds to harass families and uproot memorials that have been in place for decades.

Stakeholders understand that reasonable regulation of cemeteries is necessary. All we want is to sit down with PARD as envisaged in the Council resolution. I urge concerned Austinites to contact their city officials and demand that the irreparably flawed rules process be revived in a truly open and transparent process.


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

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