10 Things Happening in Cemeteries That Aren’t Burials or Entombments
We can probably agree that opening up a funeral home’s event center for weddings, baby showers, or family reunions is a great way to let your neighbors explore your space, get to know your team, and appreciate your community service in a non-deathcare capacity. But why should funeral homes have all the fun? Cemeteries can also share their often-vast spaces with their townsfolk year-round. Here are 10 things that are happening in cemeteries today that are bringing life back into the land of the dead.
In 2021, a UK cemetery planned a “Stargazing in the Cemetery” event, where a local astronomical society would share refreshments, talks, and telescopes with participants. When you think about it, cemeteries can be ideal stargazing spots, especially those with few trees and dozens to hundreds of dimly-lit acres of land. One astronomer actually recommended in his blog a local cemetery in the Adirondacks as an ideal spot for sky-watching. “The cemetery offers easy access and relatively minor light pollution from the nearby businesses,” he writes. “Bats flutter overhead, barred owls hoot…all surrounded by the perennial yet eerie coyote song. It’s all sort of surreal. But it gets lonely, and it soon became clear to me that stargazing is an activity best shared.”
Birdwatchers in Hamilton, Ontario have named Woodland Cemetery “one of the best birding places around.” According to one report, groups have flocked to the 100-acre burial ground for more than 70 years, having documented 242 distinct species since 1950. The Audubon organization actually endorsed the practice of cemetery birding in 2018, calling cemeteries “unappreciated” places for the activity and naming Mount Auburn Cemetery in Massachusetts as an ideal spot. However, Audubon also offers a “checklist of must-dos” for respecting the property’s caretakers, inhabitants, and loved ones, which should always be the first objective of any visitor.
Movies and concerts
Since 2002, the world-famous Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles has hosted outdoor classic film screenings every summer, where thousands of attendees sprawl across the lawn on blankets and in chairs to watch a movie that is projected on the side of a mausoleum. This is just one of a full slate of cultural events, including concerts and comedy shows, offered within the walls of this landmark cemetery. Other cemeteries across the U.S. have followed Hollywood Forever’s lead, including New York’s Green-Wood Cemetery, which offers “Cemetery Cinemas” and “Cinema in the Cemetery” at Philly’s Laurel Hill Cemetery.
The Tombs and Tomes Book Club of Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C. first met in 2013, and it’s still going strong both onsite and virtually. Members attending in-person club meetings in the cemetery’s chapel are asked to bring a $5 donation, food, or a wine selection. Meanwhile, the Lakewood Book Club meets at the garden mausoleum at Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis to discuss grief-themed selections.
Last year, the Kuala Lumpur Hokkien Cemetery in Malaysia hosted the “Jelajah – Heritage Nature Park” art exhibition, featuring “mixed-media installations and photographs by nine artists” across its 100-year-old Chinese burial ground. Every fall, Lowell Cemetery in Massachusetts invites artists to “visit the cemetery from January to September to become inspired by our monuments and grounds” and submit inspired pieces for judging in the Annual Art Exhibition, which also takes place in the cemetery. And last year, artist Cooper Sanchez exhibited his cemetery-inspired works in the ruins of Atlanta’s first public greenhouse, which are on the grounds of its historic Oakland Cemetery.
Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah, Georgia is nothing if not breathtakingly beautiful. Even so, it’s still a little surprising to find out that it’s a popular spot for weddings. Recently, the Bonaventure Historical Society wrote that “more and more couples are beginning to appreciate the quiet majesty of a well-kept cemetery as the site for their special day.” There are rules, of course, to preserve the sanctity of the 160-acre property, but with proper licensing and guidance by the Society, weddings and engagement photos are ramping up at Bonaventure.
Cemeteries are inherently spiritual, zen-like, and contemplative spaces, but some cemeteries have gone the extra mile to create areas dedicated to meditation and open to everyone. Several years ago, an Eagle Scout in Columbus, Ohio created a meditation space in the small cemetery connected to his church, St. John’s. West Philadelphia’s 54-acre Woodlands Cemetery regularly hosts meditation workshops on its grounds in addition to other wellness events. And in the medieval city of Gubbio, Italy, an architect’s recent addition to a local cemetery introduces “courtyards and site-specific installations to help define a new space for silence and reflection within the city.”
Some folks in Zimbabwe have taken to the “leafy, multi-faith Warren Hills Cemetery” for early morning aerobics classes due to a “lack of facilities in the townships.” However, all kinds of folks are turning to local cemetery grounds not because they have no other choice, but just because they can. Seven Stones Cemetery in Littleton, Colorado offers yoga classes in its botanical gardens, “providing students with a tranquil place to learn and practice their craft.” Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia is another favorite haunt for yoga instructors to gather their students.
A group of teenagers in Africa used the brick sidewalks in a Capetown cemetery as a runway for a fashion show. The audience lined the walkway as they watched participants model trendy outfits (to mixed reviews, we must say).
Nearly four years ago we shared, “Party Like It’s 1899: Are Picnics in Cemeteries Making a Comeback?” here in Connecting Directors. It looks like the answer to the question we posed is a definite “Yes!” Last year, Food & Wine magazine published “How to Respectfully Picnic in a Cemetery,” outlining etiquette for dining with the dead. Also last year, a travel publication recommended Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill Cemetery’s annual Victorian-themed group picnic on their grounds.
While some of these ideas are more unusual or unexpected than others, most could be easily integrated into cemeteries of any size, utilizing existing areas like mausoleums, chapels, or open green spaces in new, community-friendly ways. Any of these could serve as a complement to your existing and traditional events like wreath-layings, historical tours, scavenger hunts, and plant sales.
If your cemetery hosts a non-traditional community event, we’d love to hear about it! Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.