Cemeteries Across the Country Are Embracing New Roles as Performance Venues

Cemetery leaders have turned to cultural events as they aim to drum up awareness, ward off potential vandals, and support the upkeep of their lawns and aging monuments

By Brian Wise | From the July-August 2023 issue of Strings Magazine

Plenty of novel concert formats surfaced at the height of the pandemic shutdowns, from drive-in operas to socially distanced porch performances to “mosaic” videos shot and assembled in remote bedrooms. While some faded as reminders of a dark period, the cemetery concert is one that (ironically) continues to grow, in part because its historical roots predate Covid-19.

After the Cleveland Orchestra began cancelling months of concerts and overseas tours in 2020, Isabel Trautwein, a first violinist in the orchestra, pitched the idea for an outdoor “musical safari” to Lake View Cemetery, a historic 285-acre space in East Cleveland. “My idea was that musicians would be at the graves of the founders of our orchestra, along with maybe John Severance, who built our hall,” says Trautwein, referring to Severance Hall. “Someone would tell their story and then we’d play some music relevant to that site.”

Lake View was already presenting an extensive menu of jazz, pop, and rock shows among its headstones and winding paths, along with “bat nights” and “hawk walks.” “We build our programs to bring people into the cemetery so they can enjoy the grounds,” says Katharine Goss, president and CEO of the 154-year-old space, which has more than 100,000 residents. “Before people have to have a sad event in the cemetery, they’re enjoying it, and it feels like home to them.” (The concerts also double as donor cultivation opportunities.)

Though Trautwein’s initial vision for a safari was downsized to a stationary chamber music performance, mostly by Cleveland Orchestra musicians, she has since organized concerts both outdoors and in the cemetery’s airy mausoleum. Future plans include a musical portrait of President James Garfield, who is buried at Lake View, and a salute to members of Cleveland’s abolitionist movement who are interred there. “I’m really finding that to be a great place during this time,” she notes, “when everyone is so frazzled, stressed, and anxiety ridden.”

Cemetery leaders across the US and parts of Europe have turned to cultural events as they aim to drum up awareness, ward off potential vandals, and support the upkeep of their lawns and aging monuments. Laurel Hill Cemetery, founded in 1836 in Philadelphia, annually hosts the Dead Milkmen, the satirical punk band, and the Divine Hand Ensemble, a cabaret-style group that features a theremin and string quartet. The concert series is organized by Friends of Laurel Hill Cemetery, a nonprofit that was founded in 1978 to help restore the cemetery to its founding glory after a period in which it was vandalized and in a state of disrepair. 

Tequila, Yoga, and Frankenstein 

The 478-acre Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York, is home to the Angel’s Share, probably the most-discussed cemetery series of its kind, due to events like “Tacos, Tequila, and Tavener’s Protecting Veil,” which took place in May and featured cellist Joshua Roman and the ensemble Contemporaneous premiering an arrangement of John Tavener’s spiritual The Protecting Veil (this issue went to print before the performances). More than 600 tickets at a cost of $65 each were sold for the outdoor event, which was prefaced by tacos from local vendors, a tequila and mezcal tasting, and a swing jazz performance at sunset. Other concerts this summer will be held in the cemetery’s barrel-ceilinged catacombs and include a recital by violinist Eldbjørg Hemsing and the Calidore String Quartet performing Beethoven’s Opus 130 quartet.


Advertisement


The Calidore Quartet performs Beethoven in the Green-Wood Cemetery catacombs.
The Calidore Quartet performs Beethoven in the Green-Wood Cemetery catacombs. Photo: Kevin Condon

“It’s very interesting to observe what an environment does to people’s attention,” says Roman, who previously appeared in the 2018 season of the Angel’s Share. “Often, these venues like a graveyard or a crypt are places where people have a heightened sense of awareness, and a reverence. Also, a lot of tourists go to Green-Wood because it’s such an iconic graveyard. So, it’s not just people visiting their relatives and missing them, but it’s also this sort of joyful, curious exploration of something that’s historic.”

Previous Angel’s Share performances have been staged alongside the plots of famous residents, who include Leonard Bernstein, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, and Elliott Carter, as well as politicians, inventors, baseball legends, and Civil War generals.

Andrew Ousley, whose nonprofit organization Death of Classical produces the concerts, estimates that half of the audience members are not aficionados, but “culture seekers who are not diehards in any one area, but just enjoy experiences.” With its conceptual focus, the Angel’s Share has helped drive attendance at Green-Wood, which attracted a record 600,000 visitors in 2020, a 78 percent jump from the previous year. While attendance had fallen to 400,000 in 2022, that number is still above pre-pandemic levels (Green-Wood also hosts annual artist residencies, walking tours, and concerts separate from Angel’s Share).

Meanwhile, the Angel’s Share is spreading its wings. Ousley plans to co-produce a classical program this November at Los Angeles’ Hollywood Forever, a cemetery long known for its edgy and youthful events, including indie-rock concerts, yoga classes, and film screenings. Details are still emerging, but Ousley predicts that the event will be “more nonlinear, with various spaces activated by very intense, short performances” before concertgoers gather for a lawn performance of music by the late composer Jóhann Jóhannsson. “It will be all about mental health,” he says. “Not in a soapbox, preachy way, but in its emotional, visceral connection.”

While Ousley has occasionally explored gothic themes—a Halloween event in the Green-Wood catacombs featured musical theater works based on Frankenstein and Edgar Allan Poe—Hollywood Forever favors a more upbeat tone. “We tend to avoid dark and gothic themes,” says Jay Boileau, the cemetery’s director of cultural events. “The cemetery is not a scary place.” He adds that his programs are so well established that families of residents attend the events themselves.


Advertisement


Even so, Hollywood Forever has drawn some online pushback on its Instagram posts showing Angelenos sweating it out on yoga mats while headstones loom in the background. But in some ways, its programming philosophy mirrors that of Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, whose artist residency program was started in 2014 and is billed as the first of its kind in the US.

“We try to make this an inspiring, beautiful place, and never tied to anything spooky or involving ghosts,” says Jessica Bussmann, Mount Auburn’s director of education and visitor services. One of this year’s resident artists is Eden Rayz, a Boston-based cellist, composer, and singer who has fronted the death metal bands Angel Grinder and Scaphism. Her project will involve reconstructing a pipe organ that was recently removed from the cemetery’s chapel into a new instrument “which will be played like a gamelan,” according to a description.

Mary Bichner Spring Suite concert at Mount Auburn Cemetery
Mary Bichner Spring Suite concert at Mount Auburn Cemetery

Garden Cemeteries Favor Outdoor Activities

Mount Auburn is considered the first garden cemetery in early 19th-century America. These spaces were created in response to the overcrowded, often unsanitary conditions in urban churchyard burial grounds and took inspiration from Père Lachaise, the Parisian “city of the dead,” developed in 1804. “Wealthy Americans were traveling in Europe, and they got wind of this idea in England and France,” says Goss of Lake View. “The idea was to get the dead out of the city and make a beautiful garden out of it. The cemeteries were also a place for the living. Yes, you could bury someone, but in a beautiful setting where families could gather after church on Sunday and have a picnic.”

The new urban escapes were filled with hills, dells, creeks, bird-filled trees, and magnificent statues, and thus represented a more pastoral and comforting side of death. They took on a significant role in Victorian society and were even considered tourist attractions. A British visitor to Boston in the 1850s wrote, “Cemeteries here are all the ‘rage.’ People lounge in them and use them (as their tastes are inclined) for walking, making love, weeping, sentimentalizing, and everything, in short.”


Advertisement


While early visitors came to read poetry or take carriage rides, by the mid-20th century, patriotic concerts and flag placement ceremonies were staged around Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day. The 21st century has brought more freewheeling approaches. John Luther Adams’s Inuksuit, an outdoor work for up to 99 percussionists, was staged at Lake View in 2014, with listeners invited to move around freely and discover their own listening points.

Lake View’s Goss stresses that concerts don’t take place during funerals, and spooky, supernatural themes are avoided. She also avoids Halloween. “That’s where I say, ‘You know what, Halloween is everywhere,’” she says. “And it’s a commercial, silly thing. You don’t need to come to Lake View for Halloween.” But other venues embrace the holiday. In London, Kensal Green and Brompton Cemeteries have hosted performances by Gothic Opera, an enterprising troupe that specializes in works on supernatural and fantastical subjects, among them Heinrich Marschner’s opera Der Vampyr and Pauline Viardot’s Le dernier sorcier.

Cemetery officials often say that they carefully avoid sales pitches for burial plots during concerts, and in some cases, such as Green-Wood Cemetery, space is limited regardless (single graves there begin at $21,000). But concerts do prompt inquiries about longer-term stays. “We’re not dancing on top of people’s graves,” Harry J. Weil, Green-Wood’s vice president of education and public programs, told me for a 2021 article. “We’re very respectful of people buried here, whether they were buried 200 years ago or last year. But we have to keep people coming. Many cemeteries across the country get forgotten, or fall into disrepair if they don’t stay vital.”

The gregarious Goss describes her approach as relationship building. “Hopefully we’ll have another chance to be in front of them,” she says. “And the more times they have a chance to be with us, the more they’re not going to want to go other places, because other cemeteries aren’t like us.”