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Arts and leisure in historic cemeteries

A jazz musician playing the bass in the outdoors

As towns and cities grow and the pace of modern life becomes increasingly frenetic, historic cemeteries are finding new life as community spaces shared by both the living and the dead.

Sculpture, movie, theater and music events draw crowds among the graves, in what’s regarded by some as a contemporary revival of the garden cemeteries movement. Also known as the rural cemeteries movement, this began in the 19th century, as urban populations began to increase and churchyards became full.

New cemeteries, with landscaped grounds, sweeping vistas, beautiful masonry and planted with glorious flowers and spectacular trees, became among the first parks open to people from all walks of life to enjoy – as well as providing places of rest for their loved ones.

The beauty of these special places is being rediscovered by new generations, with events including cemetery tours, walks, talks and festivals bringing cemeteries back into the heart of our communities. Sculpture exhibitions, aerial acrobatics displays and even yoga classes bring new, appreciative visitors to these spaces, helping support the cost of maintaining many beautiful cemeteries and rescuing others from neglect.

Here, we take a look at how local communities have made five beautiful U.S. cemeteries a hub for modern life.

Chekhov at Davis Cemetery, Davis, California

Cherry blossom in bloom at Davis CemeteryPicture:Susan Finkleman/localwiki.org

Opened for burials in 1855, Davis Cemetery’s beautiful landscaped grounds include labyrinths mown into the grass and the state’s newest arboretum, with more than 150 species of trees and plants.

The historic cemetery, which is still open for new interments including green burials, has long been a tranquil space enjoyed by local people. Its vision is to be an inviting natural space for remembrance, contemplation and healing, as well as to preserve the community’s history and memory of Davis residents who have been laid to rest there since 1855.

The grounds are home to an art gallery which stages regular exhibitions and opportunities to meet the artists, as well as walking tours and free outdoor theater events.

Take a virtual cemetery tour here:

Love stories at Oakland Cemetery, Atlanta, Georgia

Oakland Cemetery looking green and tranquil on a summer day, with the city skyline behindPicture: Mike Schinkel/commons.wikimedia.org

Many of Atalanta's pioneers lie at rest at Oakland Cemetery, which is a much-loved public park, with pretty vistas and winding paths, botanics, beautiful funeral art and architecture.

Its famous residents include religious leader John Gaines, the theologian who spent his early years as a slave and became a bishop, author and founder of Atlanta’s Morris Brown College. Oakland Cemetery is also the final resting place of Gone With the Wind author Margaret Mitchell.

A beautiful example of the 19th century’s garden cemeteries movement, visitors can take a guided graveyard tour, or simply take time to enjoy nature and art in this special sanctuary.

Arts, jazz and community events support the cost of maintaining this historic cemetery as the green and tranquil heart of the city. Oakland Cemetery’s packed events calendar includes its annual summer music festival Tunes from the Tombs with the city’s favorite bands playing, kid’s activities, food and more.

Movies at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Hollywood, California

A Hollywood Forever movies night at the Hollywood Forever cemeteryPicture:vmiramonte/Flickr

Jayne Mansfield, Tyrone Power, Nelson Eddy and director John Huston are among the film and music stars laid to rest in the magnificent grounds, chapels and mausoleums of the Hollywood Forever Cemetery.

Founded in 1899, the cemetery attracts visitors from all over the world and is still an active cemetery and funeral home. It is a hub for cultural events, often held in the cemetery's Masonic Lodge, with many Hollywood Forever movie screenings in the cemetery at night, as well as music and literary events.

The cemetery grounds are also a venue for outdoor cinema experience, Cinespia.

Yoga at Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Staues and stone mausoleums at Laurel Hill CemeteryPicture:BestbudBrian/commons.wikimedia.org

Opened in 1836 on a scenic bluff commanding spectacular views high above the Schuylkill River, Laurel Hill cemetery fast became the place of choice for Philadelphia’s citizens to be laid to rest.

Now a designated National Historic Landmark, city residents enjoy the wonderful botanics, sculpture and history of this cemetery and parkland, which is still open for new burials.

At the turn of the 20th century, as many as 150,000 visitors a season would come to enjoy the sights and tranquil surrounds of Laurel Hill.

Members of the public are still welcome today and can join a cemetery tour or cemetery walk program, or simply enjoy a picnic in its 78 acres of beautiful grounds. Regular yoga sessions take place among the trees, with students encouraged to honor the energy that surrounds them, as they form a deeper connection with their minds and bodies.

Cultural events are an important part of keeping the cemetery at the heart of the living community, with talks on architecture, history, nature and ritual a part of its busy program of events including cinema in the cemetery at night.

Many talks at Laurel Hill Cemetery focus upon the life stories and secrets connected with the graves and people at rest at Laurel Hill. It’s also thought that many of author Edgar Allan Poe’s tales may have been inspired, as he walked and mused amidst the graves and gardens.

Historical re-enactments at Concordia Cemetery, El Paso, Texas

Bright flowers on a grave at Concordia cemeteryPicture:Carol.M.Highsmith/commons.wikimedia.org

More than 60,000 people are buried at Concordia Cemetery, including Buffalo Soldiers, Civil War veterans and early Mormon pioneers.

Now a historical site looked after by non-profit organization Concordia Heritage Association, it attracts thousands of visitors every year. Members of the public can take a graveyard tour on foot (or ride by tractor) and learn about El Paso’s history. Cemetery events include dramatic re-enactments of scenes from El Paso’s wilder times.

Outlaw John Wesley Hardin is among the gunfighters interred here – there’s a ‘secret’ society named for him, which meets and stages its own version of the fateful evening he was shot by Constable “Uncle” John Selman.

Concordia also marks the Day of the Dead – Dia de los Muertos – a time when relatives tend and dress family graves and other visitors dress up and paint their faces to mark the day, remember the dead and hear stories about the cemetery’s history.

In Glendora, California, Oakdale Memorial Park also holds an annual Dia de los Muertos cemetery festival. This cemetery is still open for new burials and also offers families the opportunity to hold life celebrations in its beautiful grounds.

It says its Dia de los Muertos festivities embrace a rich culture and tradition of celebrating the lives of loved ones that have passed with dignity and respect. Members of the local community create and decorate beautiful altars which tell the stories of their loved ones.

Notes on scandal and music at Green-Wood, Brooklyn, New York

A chapel of rest at Green-Wood CemeteryPicture:Rhododendrites/commons.wikimedia.org

In the latter half of the 1800s, Green-Wood cemetery was second only to Niagara Falls as the nation’s greatest tourist attraction.

Then, a half million visitors a year took cemetery tours and carriage rides through Green-Wood’s spectacular 480 acres, which inspired the creation of New York City’s Central and Prospect Parks. People still flock here today, on graveyard tours to admire the sculpture and mausoleums, enjoy the wildlife that thrives in its woodlands and valleys and to seek out the graves of famous names among the 560,000 people laid to rest.

Visitors can take a vintage trolley ride cemetery tour, with themes including Green-Wood’s history, birdlife, Brooklyn’s brewing history and notes on historic scandals.

Past cemetery events have included immersive theater experiences in the grounds, while Green-Wood’s Memorial Day in May is a much-anticipated annual fixture. The free concert features the ISO Symphonic Band and includes the works of composers Fred Ebb, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Leonard Bernstein, and many others now lying at rest at Green-Wood.