AUSTIN (KXAN) — After a decades-long process, the City of Austin may update its cemetery rules early next year for the first time in 45 years.

Austin Parks and Recreation’s (PARD) cemetery operations manager Tonja Walls-Davis plans to bring a set of draft rules to the city council in the early spring of 2023. She hopes that these new rules will help PARD’s cemetery division employees balance death care and governmental duties.

“I started with Parks and Recreation under cemeteries in 2016. This process had already started in 2013. What I did is pick up the debris from someone else,” Walls-Davis said. “Our 1978 rules were not completely clear, and I feel like the updated rules are a little less restrictive than the 1978 rules.”

You can read the 1978 cemetery rules here. A PDF of the draft rules can be read and downloaded below:

“I’m hoping that people will be open-minded about these rules. Even if they don’t accept them all the way, I’m hoping that some of their suggestions will be a happy meeting point for cemetery operations and for our stakeholders,” Walls-Davis said.

Austin Parks and Recreation will hold a community engagement meeting via Zoom to discuss the new rules on Oct. 10 at 6 p.m. You can register for the meeting here, or submit comments online. The rules are scheduled for an additional 31-day public review and comment period in January 2023.

What would change?

The City of Austin maintains seven cemeteries: Austin Memorial Park, Evergreen, one at Longview Park, Oakwood, Oakwood Annex, Plummers and one at Garrison Park. Under the city code, cemeteries are classified as a public health service, but are currently maintained by PARD. Previously, Austin Public Works maintained them.

The Chapel at Oakwood Cemetery also serves as an office for the PARD cemetery division. (KXAN Photos/Cora Neas)

The draft rules change several aspects of Austin’s cemeteries. One change for those with spaces in the city’s cemeteries is a requirement for written approval before cleaning or repairing a memorial. Cemetery operations may provide notice to a space holder about a repair, and make repairs if necessary 180 days after notice. The cost of said repair would be expensed to the space holder.

Currently, city employees are not permitted to clean, maintain, repair or replace damaged memorials in their cemeteries. Under state law, a burial site is the private property of the space holder; this ownership is passed on to next of kin or as laid out in a will.

The rules also change what ornaments and decoration can be placed on a grave:

  • Fresh and artificial flowers in an invertible vase or non-breakable container
  • Commemorative stones
  • Stick flags less than 18 inches long
  • Items made entirely of cloth.
An example of flags at Oakwood Cemetery that would remain permitted under PARD’s draft rules. (KXAN Photos/Cora Neas)

Benches, previously prohibited by the 1978 rules, would be allowed under the proposed rules as part of a memorial installation.

Save Austin Cemeteries founder opposes new rules

Feedback and criticism to the new rules has already begun accumulating on the public comment page.

Dale Flatt, the founder of Save Austin Cemeteries, spoke with KXAN about his personal opposition to the proposed rules.

A unique Victorian-style burial plot, the only of its kind in Austin. (KXAN Photos/Cora Neas)

“There’s a lot of us who are not happy with these proposed changes. They’re trying to erode the rights of lot owners and descendants to care for their graves,” Flatt said. “The 1978 ordinances are very well written, they could use a little bit of tweaking, but for the most part they address the issues with the city’s responsibilities and the rights of lot owners.”

Flatt particularly opposes changes involving memorial repairs and says that the city shouldn’t force repairs on descendants, who may not even know of a relative’s grave.

Flatt adds that he believes that PARD is not following proper protocol for rule adoption.

“Nothing has been vetted by city legal, and so the process we’re in the middle of is not valid. Because again, this person either knows the law and is disregarding it, or is ignorant of the law, and thinks that they can just push this through,” Flatt said.

“We have a very good working relationship with SAC, they will continue their programming with us and we are collaborating with them,” Walls-Davis said. “So I’m really not sure where this comes from.”