Joe Mitchell, the late bestselling author, used to take long walks in cemeteries, wandering among the graves, reflecting on the fate that “awaits us all.”
In one his New Yorker stories about a Staten Island cemetery where the area was so empty that it looked “as if everybody had locked up and gone off somewhere,” his companion that day pointed out that “stones rot the same as bones rot, and nothing endures but the spirit.”
Those words, written more than 50 years ago, still ring true about the interred in cemetery graves, but Mitchell might be surprised at the life celebration events currently conducted around the departed.
Take the very traditional 31 acre Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts. Founded in September of 1855, Sleepy Hollow is an interment ground for the literary “who’s who” of the early days in America — Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson are among the most notable residents. A tasteful arrangement of prominent resting spaces are featured on Authors Ridge.
In a low-key, understated manner, the cemetery has become a tourist destination — it is part of the community folklore, highlighted on the Concord Walking Tour; it also has a marked presence on the web. No “locked up” and forgotten atmosphere here.
Same can be said of the similarly named Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Westchester County, New York. The 90 acre memorial garden was established in 1849. Its permanent occupants include Brooke Astor, Walter Chrysler, Andrew Carnegie, and Elizabeth Arden, among others.
This cemetery offers events like a Lantern Tour, a Murder and Mayhem Tour, Spooky Stories from Six Feet Under, and Champaign Cocktails with the Dead. Despite the social pedigree of those buried there, this cemetery has made every effort to connect with the local community in an appropriate, but not ostentatious fashion.
The best example of this approach comes during the Halloween season, when the association of the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery with the Washington Irving story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, is in full bloom. The story was first published in 1820 and due to the number of films, television shows and live presentations, has had a resplendent two hundred year shelf life — the cemetery participates in this revival each year with very popular Washington Irving readings for all ages.
The prototype of community involved cemeteries is the magnificent, 48 acre Oakland Cemetery, which is located blocks from downtown Atlanta, Georgia.
Here’s how Oakland, which was opened in 1850, now describes itself: “Historic Oakland Cemetery is Atlanta’s oldest public park and the final resting place of many of the city’s most noted citizens…it’s a wedding venue, a green space, an art gallery, a classroom space and a place to celebrate the city’s rich and fascinating past and future.”
Oakland has it all — events that encompass every imaginable use of cemetery space including the Tombstone Trotters Run Club, Tunes from the Tombs musical performances and Halloween tours that are sold out months in advance. The latter include graveside performances where volunteers portray various people who are buried in the cemetery and tell their life stories — those who have been represented in past tours include the first decedent buried in the cemetery, the grandmother of a famous local philanthropist, and the person buried in the tomb of an unknown soldier.
The crux here is that Oakland, Sleepy Hollow and many other cemeteries have evolved from only being burial grounds — they are lively arts centers where those “sleeping on the hill” are part of the contemporary cultural mosaic. Joe Mitchell would still be able to take his long walks, but he would probably find himself in the company of other living kindred spirits.