Only The Dead Listen

Some people find this offensive.

P1040709.new

These are the graves of my daughter, Shoshana, and my father-in-law, Russell.  I planted a little garden atop Shoshana’s grave in the year after she died (2006) because I didn’t like the tracks the lawnmowers left on her grave.  I called (at least twice) and asked permission from Austin Memorial Park officials to plant the garden.  I never received a reply. So, I planted.  I’ve tended that grave garden since. I chose the plants for sentimental reasons and also because the plants are either native to Austin or are drought tolerant perennials.  I thought I was doing a good thing.

Russell’s grave is mulched and ready for planting, but no garden exists.  My sister-in-law, Sharon and I were discussing what to plant on Russell’s grave when, in September, quite by accident, a volunteer with the synagogue where I’m a member, mentioned to my husband that everything on Shoshana’s grave would need to be removed.  On Sunday, September 8, I emailed Austin Memorial Park and was consequently forwarded a long list of “you can’t do this” rules.  At that time, we were told the rules had been in force since 2006, but since then, city officials have suggested the rules have been in effect since the 1970’s.  What everyone agrees with though, is that the rules have never been enforced and that those who have buried loved ones have never been informed of those rules.

After Ken Herman of the Austin American Statesman contacted Sharon, myself and others, he wrote several articles about the kerfuffle. A bit of public outcry ensued and Austin Parks and Recreation Department (PARD) delayed the scraping of the graves until November. During  a City Council meeting on October 17, several council members agreed to place a moratorium on any action until “more nuanced rules” could be set in place.  The Austin city council gave PARD six months to develop rules, utilizing citizen input.

On October 24, Austin PARD held a cemetery stakeholders meeting where this issue was allotted a few minutes as the last item on the agenda.  Involving myself in this issue, I visualized a process where city officials and concerned citizens would work together to develop cemetery rules.  The Bureaucrat in charge of Austin Memorial Park (and the meeting) disabused me of that idea at that time.  The meeting was adversarial from the start. Two police officers were posted in the back of the room. Really?  For a general public meeting?  I guess citizens who have loved ones buried at Austin Memorial Park are a particularly scary bunch.  I don’t think there was anyone under 40 at that meeting. I was disgusted at the attitude displayed by The Bureaucrat in charge.  He was dismissive and rude to anyone who disagreed with him.  When asked a direct question, he circumvented the answer.  Several people asked the same simple question, When is our next meeting/where do we go from here?, because he never answered it.   Apparently, he has been adversarial for years.  This was my first experience with this issue and the players involved.  Attendees filmed and recorded the meeting–I remember thinking how odd that was, but by the end of the meeting, I understood.   Having the police officers at the meeting was a clear message: it was meant to intimidate the citizens.  After that meeting and regardless of the City Council’s moratorium, I had no confidence that PARD was going to listen to input from citizens which didn’t jibe with what they had already decided to do.

Except for general email updates (usually only after our request for information), there has been essentially no action toward involving the public in discourse.  From the beginning, the process was behind a wall of city bureaucracy.  There was no action and little communication until toward the end of the six-month moratorium and in March 2014, the city hired a company to “facilitate” discussion.  On April 29, the first formal movement to involve citizen input was announced.   As mentioned,  I envisioned a process in which I, along with other stakeholders would partner with city officials in regular, monthly meetings and work toward developing guidelines, appropriate and fair to all.  Instead, a generic online survey, made available May 1 and which closes May 27, is all the input there will be.   There are two public meetings scheduled over the next few weeks: one is set for June 5 to present the final rules and one on June 18 to finalize those rules.  There is no interim meeting to amend any concerns between the presentation and the finalization of the proposed cemetery rules.   After nine months, the process will be pushed through over a two-week period with little time for genuine public participation.  My initial impressions from that original October meeting were spot on.

There are already some who have exhumed their loved ones’ remains and others who will be doing so because they do not believe the city of Austin and PARD are respectful and understanding of cemetery owners.

There are so many issues with this process that’s it’s hard to know where to begin.

1) My family owns our grave sites; the city of Austin does not own them.  Austin Memorial Park is a  public/private entity.   I don’t believe that I can to anything I want with my private property, regardless of community standards.  But those graves are owned by individuals and as long as what I place there is not profane, dangerous, and is maintained by myself (or my delegates) and I don’t expect the city employees to maintenance the graves, I should be able to place private memorials.

2) There are clear and important cultural differences in how a cemetery is perceived.  Apparently, there were complaints from visitors who walk through Austin Memorial Park (but don’t have loved ones buried there), which may have been the original impetus of the rules implementation.  Some people believe that a cemetery should be nothing but grass and gravestones and that there should be little, if any, personal mementos on graves.  If you read about or visit Mexican or European graveyards, you’ll find a very different aesthetic. In Jewish tradition, we place rocks on graves when we visit–is that going to end at Austin Memorial Park because someone doesn’t think that’s okay?  For those who celebrate Dio de los Muertos, will they no longer be allowed to place items important to their loved ones on their graves?  The placing of flags on veterans’ graves is a violation of the proposed rules.  Will it become a thing of the past to place flags on the graves of veterans?

P1040721.new

If you don’t like gardens or toys placed on graves (private property), that doesn’t mean that others agree with you or that you have the right to force your aesthetics.  There are many sweet mementos around this beautiful cemetery.

A few:

P1040717.new

P1040719.new

P1040720.new

And there are many, regionally appropriate perennials which would be removed.

P1040713.new

P1040715.new

P1040716.new

3) Aesthetics aside, should the city of Austin, which touts itself as a leader in “green initiatives” be planting grass?    And watering that grass with our impending water shortages? And mowing the grass, thus adding more fossil fuels to our atmosphere and ozone?  What if everyone at Austin Memorial decided to do what I did and plant a xeric, pollinator-friendly garden?  Wouldn’t that actually reduce maintenance?  Isn’t that what the city is promoting  for our home landscapes and couldn’t that idea be extended to a large swath of public/private land?  It seems to me that one set of goals in Austin government is deeply conflicted with another.

4) I do believe in rules–I’m quite the rule follower, actually.  I agree that anything which could realistically cause harm to a worker should be removed. Items not placed directly on graves, but left in common city ground and inappropriately or dangerously placed, should be removed.   But one of the examples of banned items are benches.  The city of Austin does not place benches in the cemetery, a place where people go to rest and contemplate.  Therefore many cemetery stakeholders have supplied their own benches.  I agree that if a bench (or anything else) is dilapidated, dangerous, or in the way of workers enough to cause problems,  the city has the right to remove it.  But safe, well-maintained benches are an asset to the cemetery and the rules should allow benches. I am sympathetic with the employees of Austin  Memorial Park.  It’s their job to remove unsafe and long-forgotten items.  Working around individual graves isn’t the easiest task, either. However, Austin Memorial Park isn’t a general use park, it is a place where the people of Austin visit and honor those important in their lives who have died.

It is sacred ground.

5) In Ken Herman’s article in the Austin American Statesman on Saturday, May 24, the PARD official mentions how much money has been spent to bring the process to this point. Your tax dollars paid for the “facilitator” and this waste of money could and should have been avoided.  A once-per-month meeting, consisting of a panel of city employees and concerned citizens would have been more fitting for this sensitive issue.  That is what I thought would happen.  Silly me.

Perhaps a better use of those tax dollars could have been to pay PARD employees to pick up trash along the green-space of our filthy roadways.  (Has anyone else noticed how dirty Austin roadways are?)  Or, maybe they should be employed to remove the bastard cabbage (and other invasive plants) which are infesting our green spaces and replace those invasives with our beautiful, native wildflowers.  Lady Bird must be turning over in her grave.  (Glad she’s not buried at Austin Memorial Park.)

Or, maybe they could be paid to fix the wonky fence around Austin Memorial Park.

P1040711.new

There’s a thought!

5) Why has this taken so long?  PARD wasted the six-month moratorium and now wants to cram proposed rules through within the next three weeks.

I know this is a rant.  I’ve been stewing about this all week and I’ve believed from the beginning that PARD was not serious about working with citizens to develop “nuanced rules.”   I hoped to partner with city officials in regular, monthly meetings to develop guidelines which were appropriate, fair and reasonable. But from the beginning, city bureaucrats shrouded the process and blockaded true public input.

If you want Austin to maintain some semblance of a creative, richly diverse community which promotes individuality, please lend your voice by answering the online survey at:

http://speakupaustin.org/surveys/city-of-austin-cemeteries

Many, many thanks to Ken Herman for his perseverance with this issue.

P1040710.new

Sleep well, Shoshana and Russell.

 

20 thoughts on “Only The Dead Listen

  1. Tina, I did not know this was happening, but I am angry about it too. And I am sorry you’re having to fight this battle over the place your daughter is buried, and where I am sure you go to try to find peace.

    I used to live next door to Austin Memorial Park, and my family would walk through its shady lanes from time to time. We always loved the personal displays people put up. A woman who was active in the neighborhood association complained to me on two occasions about people “junking up” the cemetery, which she found distasteful. I believe she saw the place as her personal park and wanted it to be very uniform. Which is odd considering she lived in a neighborhood prone to diverse expression, completely the opposite of an HOA neighborhood. I can easily imagine that she might have been the busybody who complained about personal displays. It makes me sad to think that a vocal few might take from the bereaved items that ease their pain a little and bring some pleasure.

    You are quite right that different cultures treat cemeteries in varying ways, and since AMP is a public-private cemetery, it seems that the stakeholders should have a voice in changes to the rules or enforcement of the rules. We lived in the neighborhood next to AMP for 7 years, from 2001 to 2008, and in all that time personal displays were allowed and not removed.

    If you like, I would be glad for you to guest post this article at Digging to reach a few more people. Let me know if you’d like to do so. I’ll go fill out the survey now.

    Like

  2. Great! Thanks so much for your support, Pam. Of course I remember your cute house and fabulous garden across Hancock! AMP (why can’t I ever think to write acronyms???) has allowed personal expressions on graves for many years and I suspect that it is a vocal minority who’ve complained–I don’t know that for certain though. Many people are upset about this and I cannot understand why PARD doesn’t tackle real issues. They’re so concerned about someone placing a ceramic angel on a grave, but make no mention of potholes in the road or poorly maintained turf. I appreciate your offer to guest post–please do!

    Like

  3. Just reposted this on Facebook with a plea to the Austinites in my circles to please read your post and fill out the survey. This is really a shame, and diametrically opposite so many values Austin is known for (individual expression, cultural diversity, responsible use of natural resources…)

    Going to fill out the survey now. Thanks for bringing this to my attention!

    Like

    • Thank you, Mary–I appreciate your support. You’re right, the behavior and draconian methods employed by PARD are not in keeping with how Austin should be. Thanks for completing the survey.

      Like

  4. Hope you don’t mind me appending a copy of a letter I sent on May 22nd to the mayor and each member of City Council. I also sent a copy to the “facilitator” paid for with our tax dollars, but have not received a reply:

    I am writing you to express my concerns with the current process for the public review and revision of the cemetery rules and regulations. After more than six months of inaction by the Austin Parks and Recreation Department (PARD), the process is being rushed through in less than one month, and I and other stakeholders reasonably question whether public input is going to be sincerely and fully considered in the revisions.

    I will begin with a detailed history of the revision process. On October 17, 2013, I and a number of other members of the public appeared at the meeting of the City Council to question and protest the sudden declaration by PARD that it would be enforcing long-neglected cemetery rules. We asserted that the current regulations, which had not been revised, publicized, or enforced since the 1970s, needed to be revisited and revised and that the public and stakeholders must be involved in developing reasonable alternatives that balance the rights of families and friends to uniquely honor their loved ones and the need to maintain cemetery grounds. We argued that grieving families should not be forced to dismantle grave site memorials, many of which have been in place for years, simply because PARD had failed to fulfill its duties. Further, we stated that for PARD to retroactively enforce such regulations would arbitrarily punish those with family and friends memorialized in the park, and that these citizens should not suffer because of the city’s neglect and dereliction of its duties. We also noted that there was no urgency, as PARD already had the authority to remove any neglected or abandoned memorials and dead flowers and shrubs without the sudden and arbitrary enforcement of over broad and vague regulations. In response to our concerns, City Council enacted a resolution requiring PARD to begin a process to engage the public and stakeholders in reviewing and revising the cemetery rules and regulations.

    Following the city council resolution, at PARD’s quarterly stakeholders meeting on October 24, 2013, we were told that PARD would be developing a process to come up with the new rules for the cemetery within a week to 10 days and that interested parties would be informed then how they could participate in the process. On November 15, 2013, after repeated contacts by various interested persons, including me, we were informed by PARD that it was drafting the meeting schedule and work plan for the public comment portion of this process and engaging a facilitator to coordinate the stakeholder meetings to ensure effective and transparent public participation. However, we were told that because of the upcoming holidays, these stakeholder meetings would not begin until after January 1, 2014. During the quarterly cemetery stakeholders meeting on January 30, 2014, Gilbert Hernandez announced that that the attempt to hire a neutral facilitator for the review had fallen through and that PARD was going to put out a request for bids for such a facilitator.

    On January 27, 2014, I e-mailed a very rough draft of proposed regulations to Patricia Jacobson of PARD. I explained to Ms. Jacobson that I was concerned because three of the six months allotted to process of developing a compromise on the current regulations had already passed and I thought at least we could begin with something on the table to discuss. In these proposals, I tried to preserve the long-established tradition of individualizing grave sites, as well as balance the right of certain religious groups to practice their traditions and the need for families to mourn and memorialize their loved ones with PARD’s need to maintain the cemeteries. To that end, I proposed limits on the type, size, weight, number, and materials of items to be placed within a space or on a grave. Certain items, such as items with political statements or offensive language, nonweather resistant items, and bird baths and bird feeders, are barred. The proposals made it clear that the space holder was responsible for maintaining any items or plantings within the space. However, the regulations also provided a simple process allowing PARD to remove noncompliant items. The proposals also clarified that PARD had the right to remove any dangerous or neglected materials without notification. Although the regulations grandfathered in existing grave site memorials within their allotted space, the proposed regulations also encouraged PARD to work with space holders to bring such sites within compliance. The proposals included specific regulations regarding plantings, limiting the type and sizes of plants that may be used within a space. There are also several alternate proposals regarding benches. Finally, there were provisions requiring the publication and distribution of the regulations to avoid future conflicts.

    Subsequently, I sent several requests regarding the status of the appointment of such a facilitator. On February 27, 2014, I received the following reply from Mr. Hernandez: “Quick email regarding the status of the Cemetery Rules Update process. We will release the Request for Quote (RFQ) for facilitation services today with the close next Friday. We will quickly then review and hopefully select a facilitator within the next week to begin the process. I regret that it’s taken this long, but we’re now ready to move forward.”

    It was not until April 29, 2014, when PARD finally announced that it had retained Smith/Associates to provide facilitation services and coordinate updating the rules and regulations. Interested parties were urged to provide feedback by commenting via the survey posted on Speak Up Austin, which would not be ready until May 1, 2014 or by participating in one of the open house meetings taking place in May. The open houses were not scheduled until May 20 and May 21, 2014. I attended the open house on May 20th. There was no business meeting or discussion of proposed regulations. The open house turned out to be nothing more than an opportunity to meet various employees of Smith/Associates and to answer the same survey questions that appeared on the Speak Up Austin Survey. However, at that open house, stakeholders were informed that the initial presentation of the recommended rules and regulations (RRR) would take place June 5, 2014, from 6:00 to 8:00 PM at the Zilker Botanical Garden Auditorium and that the final presentation of the RRR would be on June 18, 2014, at the same venue.

    At the open house, I and several other stakeholders expressed our concern regarding the proposed schedule. First, as we pointed out, PARD had six months to initiate a process with the public the review and review the current cemetery rules and regulations, and had done nothing during that entire time. After delaying the process for over six months, we questioned why PARD suddenly was requiring that the review process be rushed to completion in less than one month. Further, there was no provision that would allow stakeholders to actually read and review the RRR prior to the June 5th meeting, so that we could be properly informed and prepared. Stakeholders expressed their concern that they would simply be handed the RRR at the June meeting and have to try to read, review, and discuss the RRR within the two hour time period allotted. I pointed out that if the June 5th meeting was going to be a true forum permitting public input into the RRR, and Smith/Associates was utterly sincere in its assurances that public input would be fully incorporated into the revision process, than at least some of the recommendations and comments made by the public during the June 5th meeting should be incorporated in the RRR. Therefore, sometime between the June 5th meeting and the final presentation of the RRR on June 18th, there should be at least one interim meeting to review and discuss changes made in the RRR following the June 5th meeting. As I pointed out, the June 18th meeting was announced as the “final presentation” of the RRR, “final” indicating that there would be no further changes.
    I must note that I, and other stakeholders, are very concerned and, frankly, rather suspicious of the rules and regulations revision process. We question whether this truncated and rushed revision process will allow public input will be fully heard and properly considered and whether the stakeholders will truly be part of the revision process.

    I can tell you that if I and other stakeholders feel that this revision process has been nothing more than bureaucratic window dressing and the resulting revised rules and regulations turn out to be pretty much the same as the long-unenforced regulations, we will appear at City Council when the RRR are presented and ardently protest the entire process. As a result, all of us will be will essentially the same place we were when the City Council enacted its October 17, 2013, resolution requiring revision of the rules and regulations.

    Like

  5. All right Tina, now I’m angry too. I was unaware of what was happening and am grateful you took time to share the situation. This process has been extremely disrespectful and is reflective of a general lack of acknowledgement on many levels that Austin is (and has always been) a multicultural city. I will fill out the survey right away and send a heads up to friends in the area who might be willing to do the same.

    Like

    • Awe, thanks Deb. You’re such a good blogging friend! You’re right, though–the process has been disrespectful; and wasteful and incompetent. There was no reason not to directly include those who are immediately impacted. There is no reason that current conditions (dangerous/dilapidated items notwithstanding) can’t be “grandfathered in”–that happens all the time in cities. There was no reason to hire outsiders to obfuscate and manipulate the issue. Thanks for your willingness to complete the survey.

      Like

  6. I’m taking this advantage as a husband 🙂 to further the comments. In the post you write :

    | In Jewish tradition, we place rocks on graves when we visit–is that
    | going to end at Austin Memorial Park because someone doesn’t think
    | that’s okay? For those who celebrate Dio de los Muertos, will they
    | no longer be allowed to place items important to their loved ones
    | on their graves? The placing of flags on veterans’ graves is a
    | violation of the proposed rules. Will it become a thing of the past
    | to place flags on the graves of veterans?

    Actually in the original proposed rules all these (the stones, the Dio de los Muertos decorations, the Veteran and Memorial Day Flags) would be banned (it’s hard to know what the new rules would be since they haven’t told us yet). If you look at Shoshana’s grave, hundreds of people have visited her and left stones covering the top 1 1/2 feet of garden. I do not feel right removing stones left for my daughter because someone else thinks it unsightly in their tradition.

    Like

    • It’s only because you got on the computer first this morning, Steven. You’re correct though. Not only does this proposal show a lack of respect to bereaved families directly, but also to those who visit friends and companions who’ve died.

      Like

  7. Pingback: Guest post: Graveside mementos at Austin Memorial Park in danger of being prohibited | Digging

  8. Dear Tina, on this Memorial Day weekend, thank you so much for sharing this true tragedy of remembrance. I will respond to the survey and hope that someone listens. What society have we become that we can’t honor our loved ones with something special?

    Like

    • Thank you, Linda. What kind of society, indeed. I hope someone listens too, but I think this process is structured to give PARD the answers it wants. Apparently, the survey answers will not be made public, only PARD officials will know how responders answered questions or made suggestions, so we really won’t know what Austinites think. Thank you for lending your voice!

      Like

  9. Shoshanna’s grave is lovely and it’s unbelievable that such beautiful traditions would be ended by what must be just a few complaints. This makes me sad, my grandparents are buried at AMP as are a number of other close relatives representing several generations of my family. I don’t live in Austin but I encourage everyone who does to make some noise with their city officials about this.

    Like

    • Thank you, Shirley for your response. I didn’t know you had relatives buried at Austin Memorial. Unfortunately, PARD doesn’t have a particularly good track record at management of this cemetery (or any others in Austin, for that matter). I know quite a few people who’ve responded by completing the survey (lame though it is) since my post and Pam’s post. Power to the people!

      Like

      • Tina, I filled out the survey on behalf of my family. The wording of the proposed regulations were too vague and leave too much discretion to the city. They talk about “sacred and respectful” while defining away the cultural differences that make life in Texas so interesting.

        The proposed rules are stricter than those at the Ft. Sam Houston National Cemetery! I put a link in my survey comments and also told them they needed an open process which involved actual citizen input.

        http://www.cem.va.gov/cems/nchp/ftsamhouston.asp

        Like

      • Wow! You go girl!! That’s interesting that the rules are more strict than a military cemetery. Unbelievable. You’re absolutely correct that the wording is vague. The entire survey is designed so that PARD can read into it what they want. PARD also isn’t planning to make the results of the survey available for public scrutiny. Thanks for your input.

        Like

  10. My husband is currently buried at Austin Memorial Park Cemetery. For over 25 years I have dealt with the heavy handed attitude of Austin City Employees and their contractors over issues at the cemetery. I wrote the City Council, Parks and Recreation Board members, The Parks Department Director, and the City Manager on my thoughts of the rules process that is very inappropriate. Here is what I wrote:

    May 25, 2014
    Dear Mayor and City Council Members,

    Once again the Parks and Recreation Department (PARD) failed in their mission of protecting and caring for the Austin Cemeteries and the property owners of the cemetery. The cemeteries rules process is the ultimate example of BAD PUBLIC POLICY when PARD pretends there has been public input when in fact PARD hired consultants for the Rules process WHO say that the public comments will never be released to private individuals for their comment. The process is seemingly only on the internet or in paper boxes with lids, and the real data is kept behind closed doors. Only PARD will be allowed to see what the internet users have said, and then I presume, PARD will decide what will be presented to the Public on June 5th as the draft rules. To date there has been no distinction between citizens who have paid thousands of dollars to bury their dead in the Austin cemeteries and those persons on the internet who have not one dime invested in the cemeteries, but who have seemingly the same say as those who are true stakeholders (THE OWNERS). WHAT IS THE BIG RUSH AND COVER UP? WHY IS PARD INSISTING THAT THIS CEMETERY RULES PROCESS BE COMPLETED IN ONE MONTH’S TIME BEHIND THE WALLS OF THE INTERNET? MANY BELIEVE THAT PARD ALREADY HAS THE RULES THEY WANT WRITTEN WITHOUT TRUE PUBLIC INPUT.

    I ask you, as a leader, to SLOW THE RULES PROCESS DOWN AND ENGAGE THE STAKESHOLDERS IN OPEN MEETINGS OF DISCUSSION OF WHAT THE CEMETERY RULES SHOULD BE FOR THE FUTURE.

    Regards,
    Sharon Blythe

    Like

    • Thank you, Sharon. I know that you’ve worked diligently for years to attempt dialogue with PARD on cemetery issues. I can’t add anything to what you’ve said. Everyone I’ve spoken to or have had email correspondence with agrees that the survey is a farce, that PARD and the city of Austin officials are not interested in genuine public dialogue and that PARD has, more than likely, already decided on the rules. I think the “questions” posed in the survey are a glimpse into what the rules will be. Thank you for posting and for your efforts on behalf of so many.

      Like

  11. Pingback: A Camel Is A Horse Built By Committee | My Gardener Says…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s