On the Saturday night of Memorial Day weekend, nearly 300 Buster Keaton fans spread out their blankets on a south Minneapolis cemetery lawn and waited for dusk.
As “The General” played silently on a portable screen, a band added a live soundtrack with accordion, piano and drums. One filmgoer had positioned his lawn chair so close to a headstone that he could have set his beverage on it. Not that he would have. Attendees of the Pioneers and Soldiers Memorial Cemetery’s summer film series have been nothing but respectful.
By hosting film screenings, concerts and even food trucks, Pioneers has joined a growing movement to lure the living through graveyard gates. Cemeteries around the country are expanding their activities beyond the typical Memorial Day services and history tours with everything from beer tastings to 5Ks.
In doing so, they’re redefining the balance between honoring a sacred place and welcoming the public to enjoy it — as well as teaching lessons about the past, generating revenue and returning to their original role as a parklike respite for urbanites.
Pioneers’ first such event was a 2011 rock show headlined by local indie pop darling Jeremy Messersmith, who played songs about some of Pioneers’ inhabitants from his album “The Reluctant Graveyard.” About 1,500 people showed up to enjoy the sun, music and street food.
The event was so successful that Pioneers started screening films, hosting more concerts (indie rockers Low, the jazz/blues group Cadillac Kolstad) and even an author’s book reading/signing (James Silas Rogers’ “Northern Orchards: Places Near the Dead,” which devoted a chapter to Pioneers).
This fall, the cemetery plans to host a series of three 10-minute plays featuring the stories of its underground residents, being written by local playwright Cynthia Veal Holm.
Susan Hunter Weir, chairwoman of Pioneers’ volunteer group, said she hopes these activities draw younger people to the cemetery to learn more about life in the city’s early days — the impact of immigration patterns, for example, or the ravages of disease — from the inhabitants’ burial records and personal stories.
So far, negative reactions have been limited to an angry Facebook rant or two.
“The kinds of people who come are respectful,” she said. “We are very careful that our activities are family-centered; we’re never going to show an R-rated film.”
They’ve also chosen to avoid showing creepy or spooky films, as well as activities that could risk harming the cemetery’s reputation.
“Somebody suggested we be part of the Zombie Pub Crawl and I’m like, ‘Mmm, I don’t think so,’ ” she said. “All you need is one person urinating on a headstone and 20 years’ worth of built-up goodwill just disappears.”
America’s first parks
In America’s early days, communities buried their dead in small, informal sites in town centers or churchyards. That changed with the construction of the country’s first landscaped, garden-style cemetery, in 1831, which led other cities to create large, grand green spaces at their outskirts, separating the material and spiritual worlds with decorative gates.
This was a time when cities lacked public parks, botanical gardens or other respites from urban life, so people not only picnicked in cemeteries, but raced carriages and hunted, or even grazed cattle, said Keith Eggener, author of the book “Cemeteries.”
“My standard joke is that they’re parks without the crowds. Many of these old 19th-century landscaped cemeteries are as nice as, if not nicer than, most city parks, and they simply haven’t had people going into them much, apart from Memorial Day and funerals and such.”
The practice of recreating in cemeteries waned with the rise of the public park system, until it was revived, perhaps most famously, by Los Angeles’ Hollywood Forever.
Each summer since 2002, several thousand people have gathered at the palm tree-lined cemetery to hear DJs and see films projected on a mausoleum wall. During Pride weekend this year, attendees were encouraged to get gussied up and take photo-booth pictures before watching a drag queen road trip comedy. The cemetery has also served as a rock venue for the likes of Depeche Mode and the Arctic Monkeys.
But that’s L.A. This is Minnesota. And at Minneapolis’ stately Lakewood Cemetery, burial site of some of the city’s most prominent figures, movies would probably be “a stretch,” said its president, Ron Gjerde. As would the beer tastings and 5Ks hosted by the country’s second-largest cemetery, Spring Grove in Cincinnati.
Deciding what’s acceptable is up to individual communities, Eggener said. While one cemetery might plant vineyards, another might ban Pokemon Go.
With burials taking place daily, Lakewood must be more mindful of the needs of its mourners than an inactive cemetery such as Pioneers, so it doesn’t allow pets, picnicking or bicycling. “We are first and foremost a cemetery, and you have to maintain a certain decorum when visiting,” Gjerde said.
But inviting the public to enjoy its grounds and engage in activities beyond visiting a grave has been a part of Lakewood’s mission since its 1871 founding.
This spring, Lakewood decided to roll out a new monthly concert series at its chapel, going beyond the usual string quartets and harpists to book popular folk performers such as Dusty Heart. The chapel’s 170 seats have sold out so rapidly that Lakewood is planning a holiday concert with gospel singer Robert Robinson. It’s also considering developing a lecture series revolving around end-of-life topics.
And, yes, these events can also serve as marketing tools, a concept that isn’t as crass as it seems, considering that Lakewood is a nonprofit, with revenue from plots, cremations, interments and weddings devoted to maintaining its grounds into perpetuity. As burial grounds fill up, and growing interest in cremation reduces demand for physical grave sites, cemeteries must look for other ways to make money.
“Cemeteries are catching on and realizing the importance of events and inviting people to have an experience beyond the funeral,” Gjerde said. “And who knows, maybe someday when they need our services they might remember us.”
Questioning your mortality
Before Lakewood’s Dusty Heart concert in June, Michelle Manno and her friends gathered on the chapel’s front steps and looked out over the vibrant green lawn pressed with worn gray headstones and stately mausoleums.
Manno said she had visited Lakewood before, just to walk around and be a part of the beautiful space.
“I think cemeteries, for me at least, can feel ominous and intimidating, so there’s something interesting about them having more social events bringing people into the spaces,” Manno said. “You question your mortality a little bit more than maybe you would if you were going to a concert at the Xcel Center.”
And maybe that’s not such a bad thing, in light of American culture’s collective denial of death. Perhaps integrating cemeteries into our lives might make us more accepting of our own mortality.
It was something to contemplate inside the chapel, where Molly Dean and Barbara Jean sang, “Bury me deep down in the blue that lies in the black,” accompanied by spare banjo picking.
The crowd sat rapt, as if listening to a sermon, a little stiff in their pews. Notes resonated off the domed ceiling’s millions of tiny tiles, suggesting individual souls already passed on, colors glowing in the late afternoon light.