This October, two Halloween events were scheduled to be held in cemeteries – one was canceled due to community complaints and backlash; another was a success with record-breaking attendance.
What was the difference? Is it okay to host an event during Halloween at a cemetery or funeral home? Or is it irreverent?
Event 1: The “Tour of the Dead” was to take place at Stockton Rural Cemetery in northern California and was advertised as a “guided evening tour of bone-chilling scares and true stories from 1861 and beyond.” The cemetery hoped to follow the trend of other historic cemeteries that hold events during Halloween and wanted to use the event as a way to raise awareness about their urn garden and to enlighten the public on the rich history the cemetery possesses. The tour cost $10 per person and was meant to be a fundraiser for the cemetery, but it wasn’t advertised that way.
The community’s response was immediate and overwhelmingly negative — community members on social media were concerned “drunken revelries” would take place during the tour and headstones would be disturbed. Others were upset the cemetery was charging for the tours. A historian who has an interest in the cemetery stated on his Facebook page that the cemetery has refused to do tours during other times of the year and charging for their first one during Halloween was in bad taste.
The community’s complaints were heard, and the cemetery board canceled the event but not before the cemetery received bad press.
Event 2: Interestingly enough, across the United States in New Jersey, another Halloween event was held last week but with much more success. In its twelfth year, The Ghost of Uncle Joe’s Halloween party hosted twelve hours of live music at the Historic Jersey City & Harsimus Cemetery where musicians and revelers alike dressed in costume. Charging a $15 entrance fee, the event raised money for the historic cemetery which dates back to the Civil War. The cemetery “relies solely on donations for its upkeep and renovations,” and this year they raised money for improvements to the caretakers’ house. They broke attendance numbers, sold over 2,000 tickets, and got lots of positive press from it (Check out photos here or see social media posts here).
So what’s the difference? Both events were marketed as Halloween festivities. Both were held at cemeteries. Why was one so successful and the other canceled? What can we learn from this?
- The approach matters. Is the event for a good cause? Who does it benefit? Does it border on irreverent? Stockton Rural Cemetery doesn’t hold tours throughout the year and holding their first one on Halloween for a fee angered the community. While they later said the tour was meant to raise money for the cemetery, it wasn’t advertised as such. The Historic Jersey City & Harsimus Cemetery, on the other hand, regularly holds events and uses the music festival to raise money for the upkeep of the grounds. The community has been attending the party for over eight years and attendance continues to grow each year.
- The location of the festivities is relevant. The rural cemetery’s tour was to take place in all parts of the cemetery, not just in the historic section. Family members of loved ones who’d been buried there more recently were upset that graves might be disturbed. The Jersey City cemetery event, in contrast, is exclusively historic, and no one has been buried there in recent years.
- Community partnerships can be the key to success. Hosting an event at a funeral home or cemetery is better done with community support. The Ghost of Uncle Joe’s Halloween party is organized by a promoter of a former rock club, who has been successfully raising funds for Harsiumus Cemetery since 2010. The cemetery will host a Veterans Day parade, honoring veterans next month, and regularly hosts all sorts of community events on its grounds in partnership with other organizations (i.e. painting under the stars, volunteering in the gardens, a “Pushing up Daisies Annual Festival”, and an oddities market). They’re successfully creating a space for the living in the resting place of the dead.
Conclusions: Cemeteries (or funeral homes) can be used successfully as gathering places for the community and even for non-traditional events. It’s all in the approach and the amount of community support.
Have you seen unusual events successfully hosted at funeral homes or cemeteries during Halloween or other times of the year? Leave a comment below.
By Jessica A. Smith
OGR Assistant Executive Director