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Cemetery Tourism, the New Catchword in US

Historic cemeteries in the US, desperate for money to pay for badly needed restorations, are reaching out to the public in ever more unusual ways, with dog parades, bird-watching lectures, Sunday jazz concerts, brunches with star chefs, Halloween parties in the crematory and even a nudie calendar.

The cemetery tourism fever is catching on.

A recent nine-course re-creation of the last supper aboard the Titanic made many gasp for breath. It looked as if people could not wait to die any longer!

The dinner was first-class, with butlers serving hors doeuvres and the strains of Blue Danube tastefully muffling the festive din.

It was the culmination of Titanic Day at Laurel Hill Cemetery, one of a growing number of historic cemeteries to rebrand themselves as destination necropolises for weekend tourists!

As Americans choose cremation in record numbers and structures are going to seed or have fallen victim to vandalism, Victorian cemeteries like Laurel Hill and Green-Wood in Brooklyn are doing whatever they could to consolidate their customer base, projecting themselves as repositories of architectural and sculptural treasures, like weeping marble maidens atop tombs.

At a daffodil brunch in April at the Oakwood Cemetery in Troy, N.Y., omelet chefs whisked eggs amid Siena marble walls and soaring Tiffany windows, in the Gardner Earl Memorial Chapel and Crematorium.

The 1848 cemetery has burial space for the next 200 years and an annual operating deficit of more than $100,000, according to Theresa Page, president of the board of trustees.

To raise its profile and money, Oakwood will stage a Renaissance fair this summer, with jousting matches among knights in shining armor. It was inspired by a medieval-style wedding there, for which the groom made his own armor.

We want them to think, Wow, I think Id like to spend my eternity here, Ms. Page said of efforts to lure visitors. Its a way of saying, We would love you to stay with us permanently.

Gary Laderman, a professor of religion at Emory University and the author of Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in the 20th Century says there is a sense in which, like sex, death sells.

But he also sees cemetery tourism as a chance for civic engagement. The mobility of society and the growth of the death care industry have served to isolate these historically significant places from the mainstream, Laderman said.

Of course, some think that cemeteries are sacred spaces, and that Halloween flashlight tours and historical re-enactors jumping out from behind tombs crosses the line in taste.

A 2005 fund-raising calendar for Oakwood Cemetery in Troy inspired by the movie Calendar Girls and featuring socialites who appeared to be naked was a tad too risqu to repeat, some thought. After objections, Green-Wood scuttled plans to show horror films.

Trust though the cemetery managements, hard-pressed for money, to look for more and more out-of-the-earth ways of luring the living to the abode of the dead.


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