Cemeteries Hold Parties to Die For

August 25, 2010

DENVER ? The mortuary chapel smelled of brownies.

The tissues tucked discreetly at the end of each pew were being used not to dab at tears, but to wipe away fried chicken crumbs. And as the big band burst into ?Stompin? at the Savoy,? two couples?one with dog in tow?jumped up to boogie in the aisles.

It was just another rocking evening at Fairmount Cemetery.


In a marketing move that has drawn some criticism, graveyards across the nation are opening their grounds to concerts and clowns, barbecues and dance performances?anything that might bring happy families through the wrought-iron gates.

The goal: to nurture warm feelings about the cemetery, in hopes that folks who come to cheer sky-divers today will return in more somber tomorrows.

?It gets them into the cemetery, but not in a scary way, and if they have a nice experience, maybe they?ll say, ?I want my family there,? ? explains William F. Griswold, Jr., executive superintendent of Cedar Hill Cemetery in Hartford, Conn., which holds regular scavenger hunts.

A few cemeteries have been doing such outreach for years. Hollywood Forever in Los Angeles draws thousands to summertime films projected on mausoleum walls. Michigan Memorial Park in Flat Rock, Mich., has long invited disabled children to fishing derbies held at a serene pond amid the headstones.

But the trend seems to be accelerating, industry leaders say. Because more Americans are opting for cremation, demand for burial plots has been slack. To attract more customers, cemetery superintendents say they must lighten up their image.

So Davis Cemetery in Davis, Calif., plans poetry workshops, bird walks and art shows. Wyuka Cemetery in Lincoln, Neb., hosts a Shakespeare festival and rents its quaint chapel for weddings. In Wheat Ridge, Colo., Olinger Crown Hill Cemetery staged a Memorial Day party with fireworks and sky divers.

And Evergreen Memorial Historic Cemetery in Riverside, Calif., recently hosted its first fair, drawing a crowd of 700 for face painting, live rock and In-N-Out burgers. The audience skewed young, but organizer Stephen Whyld feels certain the fair will boost business in the long run. ?A lot of these families have parents and grandparents, right?? he asks.

Cemetery superintendents plan many of their festivities for evenings, when they aren?t likely to interrupt a funeral. Daytime events are often staged in the oldest sections of the graveyard, which tend to draw the fewest mourners.

Still, ?there?s always a tension between mourners?and picnickers,? says Jeff Richman, a historian at the Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, N.Y. In the 1850s, the cemetery had its own police force to keep the two groups apart. Nowadays, discretion is the watchword: ?If there?s a funeral going on over there,? Mr. Richman says, ?the tour will come this way.?

That doesn?t satisfy everyone. ?These are sacred grounds?they?re consecrated,? says Rob Visconti, who runs the Catholic Cemetery Association for the Boston Archdiocese. ?We understand the need to market?but we certainly wouldn?t have a party? in a graveyard.

Cemetery directors who have brought entertainment to their grounds say they have received very few complaints. Kelly Dwyer, who organizes the fishing derbies in Michigan, remembers only one irate letter, from a woman who didn?t want her late father disturbed by shrieking kids.

?She said cemeteries should be for the dead,? Ms. Dwyer says. ?I don?t know what her problem was.?

True, a recent sock hop at Fairmount Cemetery in Denver didn?t go over too well. That wasn?t because of protests, though. Many of the cemetery?s Friday Fun Night regulars are on the elderly side, and it turned out ?they couldn?t dance much, to be honest,? says Jim Cavoto, a vice president for family care.

He didn?t let the flop deter him.

Armed with a new motto, ?Meet us before you need us,? Mr. Cavoto and his colleague Diana Kandt are constantly dreaming up potential community events: A soapbox derby! A costume party! An Easter egg hunt!

?How ?bout an Oktoberfest?? Ms. Kandt asked.

Mr. Cavoto looked at her sharply.

?With root beer,? she said quickly. ?It would have to be root beer. Root beer and brats.?

He promised to consider it.

?People have a tendency to think of cemeteries as gloom and doom,? Mr. Cavoto says. ?We want them to get to know us as part of the community, so they know that when the time comes, we?re here to help.?

More than a century ago, cemeteries were social hubs. They were often the greenest spots around. Families would visit on weekends for carriage rides, boating, or picnics by a loved one?s grave. Brooklyn?s Green-Wood Cemetery drew half a million visitors a year in the mid-19th century, on par with Niagara Falls.

No more. ?Not many people say, ?Oh, it?s a beautiful day, let?s go to the cemetery,?? says Robert Fells, a lawyer for the industry trade group, the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association. ?Cemeteries need to reestablish their place in the community.?

On a recent Friday night, Fairmount Cemetery aimed to do just that with a concert by the Denver Municipal Band. It was supposed to be outside; balloons bobbed in front of the mausoleum where the musicians were setting up. But rain drove the party?and the picnic?inside to the red-carpeted chapel.

Some in the crowd admitted to fretting about the venue.

?I was thinking, ?Is it sacrilegious? Am I out of line??? says Ron Torbet, a mailroom clerk.

Then the band launched into ?In the Mood,? and few in the mortuary seemed able to stop their feet from tapping.

Ken Katuin, an entrepreneur who had come with a singles group, says he appreciated not just the music, but the marketing strategy behind it.

?People tend to go to places they?re familiar with,? Mr. Katuin says. ?That?s why McDonald?s has Happy Meals. You start out there as a kid, you have a happy memory of the place, and then when you?re an adult, you keep coming back.?

Standing outside the mortuary, Mr. Katuin looked at the couples strolling through the darkening graveyard to hear jazz. ?Maybe this,? he says, ?is their Happy Meal.?

Source: The Wall Street Journal


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