“Cemeteries Hold Parties to Die For”

Last week’s the headline on the front page of the Wall Street Journal told the story:

“To Attract Future Customers, Cemeteries Hold Parties to Die For”
Graveyards Plan Concerts, Sky-Diving, Clowns; ‘Meet Us Before You Need Us

This was an interesting piece, and not just because I was quoted in it, though that doesn’t hurt. It was interesting because it reflected a story that goes back to the founding of cemeteries in America in the 1830s–the cemetery, open to visitors, a tourist attraction. Green-Wood was founded in 1838 (April 18 to be precise–I know that’s the day because that happens to be my birthday–fate perhaps?–but I digress); it struggled in its early years. But, by the 1850s, Green-Wood was attracting half a million visitors a year! Well, what was the point of that? There was no admission charge. Then, how did the cemetery benefit from visitors? The theory was simple: attract visitors with plantings, sculpture, a guided carriage ride, and those visitors will be so impressed they will buy a plot. And that theory worked.

Now move ahead to the 1990s. Green-Wood has gone through a rough time–funds were limited, and rather than invite visitors in to see the results of deferred maintenance, gates were closed to visitors in the 1970s and 1980s. But, by the late 1990s, things were changing. Rich Moylan, president of Green-Wood, backed by our board of trustees, decided it was time to go back to our heritage of tourism. And that’s what we’ve done. We haven’t gone with sky-diving or clowns, but we have established an ever-expanding calendar of walking tours, trolley tours  (which allow us to tour the entire grounds with themed tours: women, baseball players, painters, composers, murderers and murder victims, etc., etc.).

I started doing tours of Green-Wood in 1990. At the time the Historic Fund didn’t exist, and the cemetery ran no tours itself; it allowed guides to come in and do their own tours. Our Historic Fund was founded in 1998, and soon afterwards I was leading walking tours for it. Here I am leading a recent Halloween tour. We’ve added another tour guide to do walking tours and a regular schedule of trolley tours (every Wednesday and the last Sunday of each month) with another tour guide. We’ve held book signings by Pulitizer Prize-winning authors, concerts, dance performances (the crowd above is from last year’s Angels and Accordions performance). We’ve published books and maps and self-guided walking tours. We’ve recruited volunteers to greet visitors and answer their questions, to process our archives, and to write the biographies of our permanent residents.

Much of this is driven by a simple fact: Green-Wood is running out of room for new sales of land. So, the Green-Wood story is different from the story told in the WSJ, about cemeteries that are trying to attract lot purchasers by entertaining them in the cemetery. Here at Green-Wood, this is the issue: when there are no more lots to sell in just a few years, what becomes of this place? What is it in 50 years or 100 years? Well, hopefully visitors become members of our Historic Fund and become part of a community that cares for Green-Wood, preserve it as a green historic oasis in urban Brooklyn.

To read Stephanie Simon’s article in the Wall Street Journal, click here.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.