Over the past two years, Paul Williams has learned a thing or two about throwing a party in a cemetery.
For one, serving alcohol is fine, but no one should get falling-down drunk. There are too many tombstones to trip over.
Since the historic preservationist was hired as president of Congressional Cemetery in Southeast D.C. in 2012, he has worked to showcase its 32 acres as more than just a final resting place for the 60,000 souls interred there.
“I want to remind people that cemeteries in the Victorian era were used as public parks. The general public came to the cemetery, whether they had family interred there or not, to picnic all day,” Mr. Williams said. “We’re trying to bring back a tradition that was there 150 years ago.”
But while Victorian-era families picnicked amid the tombstones, they weren’t running foot races, attending costume parties or practicing their downward-facing dog atop gravesites — activities that can still seem unorthodox in that setting.
On a recent weekend afternoon, runners fresh across the finish line of a 5K ambled up to a beer tent as a DJ cranked dance tracks. The scene resembled an outdoor festival, except the beer tent was pitched on a patch of grass about 15 feet from the gated grave of former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
The Dead Man’s Run attracted about 250 people — some of whom dashed past tombstones in running shorts and sweat-wicking tops while others participated in Halloween costumes calibrated to endure the track.
For Kristine Enderle, outfitted in skeleton tights and temporary tattoos that transformed her face into a Dia de los Muertos-style sugar skull, Congressional Cemetery is like a “cozy little park,” not a macabre burial ground.
“They always have super fun stuff here,” the 48-year-old Capitol Hill resident said, ticking off at least a half-dozen events she has attended on the cemetery grounds over the past year.
“They just started doing yoga classes that they call ‘yoga mortis,’” Ms. Enderle said with a chuckle. “They just have this really funny sense of humor that I really appreciate.”
Breathing life into a cemetery
The 207-year-old Congressional Cemetery has a bit of experience at the unconventional. For more than two decades, it has been a favorite spot for dog owners, thanks to a club that allows paying members to let their canines run off-leash.
To those who cringe at the thought of pets running freely across gravesites — including those of 80 members of Congress, a handful of Indian chiefs and composer John Philip Sousa — members of the dog-walking crowd say it beats the sort of activity that was common on the grounds in the 1980s and 1990s.
“There was drug trade, there was prostitution,” said 62-year-old Renee Dworakowski, who has walked her dogs at Congressional for 25 years. “There was a caretaker at the time who invited the dog community in to try and still the business of neighborhood unwanteds.”
The dog walkers organized cleanup efforts and donated money to cut the knee-high grass, and the increase in four-legged foot traffic helped rid the cemetery of illicit activity.
The efforts to breathe life into the cemetery, which still holds about four funerals a month, have generated interest from potential future tenants. About a third of recent plot purchases have been made by members of Congressional’s dog walking club, Mr. Williams said.
More live bodies
Donations, plot sales and fees paid by dog walkers fill only so much of the cemetery’s coffers, and the type of restoration needed — repinning broken headstones and maintaining abandoned family vaults — costs big bucks.
“Gravity and Mother Nature are not your friend in a cemetery,” Mr. Williams said.
So when the former president of Historic Dupont Circle Main Streets took over the cemetery, he knew Congressional needed to broaden its fundraising options.
“You have to be respectful, but at the same time I have to raise $1 million a year to run a cemetery. And that’s a big, tall order,” Mr. Williams said.
So he and his team of six employees started experimenting.
They contacted a group of food truck operators in the District and held an aptly named “Graveyard Grub” food showcase with a full bar, bocce ball and corn hole. They drew fawning publicity by engaging a herd of goats to “mow” the cemetery’s grass. There was a free dog-play day, featuring a “bob for hot dogs” competition for the canines.
“We’ve tried to grow some of our annual events with a lot of, just, bodies,” Mr. Williams said. “No pun intended. Live bodies.”
Then they embarked into truly uncharted territory — for the typical graveyard anyhow — by advertising a Living Social deal for their annual Halloween costume party, “Ghosts and Goblets.”
It worked. Word got out, and suddenly a wine-and-cheese affair that usually drew about 60 attendees had a guest list of more than 500.
“It was a little nerve-wracking,” Lauren Maloy, the cemetery’s program director, said about last year’s soiree. “They had done this event for a few years, but it had just never attracted that type of audience.”
For this year’s “Ghosts and Goblets,” on Saturday, Ms. Maloy said, organizers expect more than 700 people — and the cemetery will be ready. Guides will lead tours to the gravesites of some of the cemetery’s famous “residents,” a live band will entertain the living and the dead, and drinks will be served in the cemetery’s public vault.
Respect for the dead
As goth as it sounds to party in a graveyard, the trend is catching on at historic cemeteries across the country.
Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill Cemetery was founded in 1836 as a suburban sanctuary where city dwellers could take relaxing strolls against the backdrop of the Schuylkill River. The graveyard still lures visitors with its views, but it also has packed in crowds with a recent concert by the satirical punk band the Dead Milkmen, movie nights and a murder mystery show.
Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery, founded in 1850, also has embraced its history as part of the rural garden cemetery movement by hosting a Victorian street fair to showcase the winding footpaths and idyllic gardens within its grounds. In its 35th year, the street fair attracted more than 5,500 visitors this year.
Oakland marketing director Pamela Henman said the cemetery has tried to expand its programming to appeal to a wider audience in order to sustain its funding levels.
“We are really trying to get that next generation to invest in us,” said Ms. Henman, noting that special events can net $50,000 to $150,000.
There are, of course, differing opinions on the type and tone of activity deemed suitable for a cemetery. In a scene from the Netflix TV show “House of Cards,” which is set in the District, Claire Underwood is chastised by a woman who calls her “disgraceful” for jogging through a graveyard.
In real life, cemetery etiquette isn’t governed by a single standard.
Arlington National Cemetery bans all recreational activities. Rock Creek Cemetery in Northwest doesn’t have a policy for runners, but it bans dogs.
“We do not like dogs disturbing mourners,” cemetery manager Alan Davis said.
Those who plan cemetery events say the fine line between appropriate and disrespectful is a constant concern.
“We have families with loved ones who are buried here who would prefer that we don’t even have visitors here,” Ms. Henman said. “It’s not controversial, but it is something that we are sensitive to when we are planning events. We don’t want people to be dancing on graves.”
At Congressional Cemetery, Mr. Williams said, event planners haven’t received any complaints about activities, but trial and error has weeded out a few events.
A zombie bike ride and afterparty last year had a great turnout with 300 cyclists, but it got a little too wild.
“They were a little more collegiate and bigger drinkers than we had anticipated, and it just went a little over the line,” Mr. Williams said.
As Congressional brainstorms upcoming events, Mr. Williams said, he turns to the cemetery’s residents for inspiration as a way to keep the programming tasteful. A Valentine’s Day tour highlighting “Romance and Tragedy” among the cemetery’s interred proved popular, as did a D.C. Pride week 5K race that started and ended in a corner of the cemetery where several gay military veterans are buried.
“We always try to tie it into some historical aspect of the cemetery, and I think that helps,” said Mr. Williams. “We say no matter what event in American history happened, we probably have a connection to it.”