Before she settled in among the tombstones with a bottle of wine, Kimberlee Gee said a little prayer, just to let any lingering spirits know that she knew she was in their crib. Even if she was using it to watch “Psycho.”
“I believe people’s souls survive,” said Gee, a 37-year-old lawyer from Maryland. “There’s no need for anything weird to happen tonight.”
Even though the screening of the Alfred Hitchcock classic was rained out that late September evening in Capitol Hill’s Congressional Cemetery, merriment among the dead continued apace a week later at the annual five-kilometer “Dead Man’s Run” and at an adoption event for black dogs and cats. Then, in the chapel, there was “Yoga Mortis” and a “Notes From the Crypt” concert.
In the heart of Washington, a patch of graves best known for housing long-dead lawmakers has become one of the hippest cemeteries in America.
It’s not the only one. Graveyards across the country are starting to host not just funerals, but movie nights, music festivals and poetry readings, including Laurel Hill in Philadelphia, Green-Wood in Brooklyn, and cemeteries in Oakland and Atlanta as well.
“We either call them our sister cemeteries or our nemeses, because sometimes they come up with a more clever name for a movie night than we do and they use it first,” joked Paul Williams, president of Congressional Cemetery, which also hosts the “Tombs and Tomes” book club and sets up a place for “Rest in Bees” honey to be sold — harvested straight from the crypts.
And presiding over it all, at Congressional, is Doug Graves, the cemetery’s unofficial skeleton mascot.
Cold economic calculation is behind the amusements. As historic cemeteries age, preservation costs mount while new burial income withers. Movie nights and dog runs are a way to close the gap.
“It’s a trend for a lot of historic cemeteries,” said Lucy Goddin, president of Alexandria’s Ivy Hill Cemetery Historical Preservation Society. “They’re having to start getting creative in getting people there for reasons other than dying.”
Indeed, in 1996, Ivy Hill banned joggers and dogs. Now they welcome both, along with a theater troupe and a professional medium.
Twenty years ago, Congressional was all but abandoned, vandalized by satanists and strewn with drug users’ hypodermic needles.
The 200-year-old site was revived not by official intervention but by dog walkers, who began raising money to fix the place up. Now 750 dog walkers pay dues to the cemetery; there’s a waiting list of several hundred hoping to join the club.
Cemetery aficionados like to say that Victorians used graveyards as public parks, often picnicking alongside the dead. But Victorians were also obsessed with death. Funerals were lavish, mourning was extensive and ritualized, portraits and hair from the dead were preserved. (That culture still exists: We call them goths.)
Today’s social cemeteries, by contrast, seem defiantly cheerful. Death is lightly mocked, brushed up against but never quite confronted, the better to sigh deeply and revel in being alive.
“The Victorians were much more attracted to the idea of death and the dead body, and much more comfortable around dead bodies,” said Deborah Lutz, a Victorian literature scholar at the University of Louisville. “There was much more of a sense that death and life were intertwined.”
But cemeteries were also some of the most beautiful and accessible public parks of the day, Lutz added, and some Victorians enjoyed them just as dog walkers use Congressional Cemetery.
Visitors to Congressional are more likely to mention the greenery than the graves. Several suggested that the cemetery was a safer place to roam than the city that surrounds it.
“If you take a walk, you don’t feel like you’re going to be strangled,” said Diana Havlin, a 35-year-old local government employee and cemetery regular. “It’s a calm, peaceful place.”
At the same time, she said, if she were buried here, she would appreciate the liveliness and the cheeky sense of humor.
There are lines to that liveliness that everyone agrees exist and no one can articulate, between cheeky and distasteful, creepy and crude. To swallow a hint of death with a bit of wine is refreshing; to spit beer on it is not. Hitchcock is welcome, Wes Craven no.
“A lot of these people were murdered back here,” said Williams, the cemetery’s president. “I don’t want to leverage them for making money. We could have a great murder trail, but that’s kind of sad.”
Well, except for the occasional murder-suicide. Two Victorians who spent time on the grounds were a married couple — married, that is, to other people. They held their trysts in the cemetery, one spouse found out, and now it’s a point of interest on a Congressional tour.
Public blowback of the cemetery’s new social uses appears to be minimal.
“Somebody Will Be Offended by This,” read a post on the Web site Prince of Petworth when “Yoga Mortis” started this year, but even that blog’s often aggrieved commenters were only amused. There was a protest outside the first movie night by a woman from Maryland who asked, “Have we lost all sense of decency and respect?” Williams dismissed her as a “professional protester.”
Lauren Maloy, who runs programming for the cemetery, said that concerns are usually allayed when she explains that “if we didn’t have programs, a lot of these people would be forgotten.” All programming ideas go through a board of directors that includes three members of Christ Church, which owns the property.
One substitute did stop teaching yoga “because she felt like there might be bad spirits” in the small chapel where classes are held, said instructor Ingrid Benecke. “There are definitely some unspoken implications, just to thinking about our mortality.”
Despite all the puns, Williams does hope that visitors will, possibly, contemplate their own demise. He is quick to say that the cemetery still performs about two burials a week. When the cemetery holds an event, “sites available” signs go up in strategic places.
Are the millennials who come to movie nights thinking about their own burials?
Williams says he hopes that in a few decades, when they start planning for forever, they might remember the cool cemetery of their youth.
“So part of it is a long-term plan,” he said. But some programming he deemed “a short-term plan” — for example, chamber music, which attracts an “older” (closer to death) crowd.
“Why not hang out in a place where you might end up spending eternity?” agreed Jason Hebert, 26, a woodworker who came to the “Psycho” showing with friends.
A resident of Capitol Hill, he was part of an art show in the chapel last year and likes to walk through the quiet paths in the winter.
“There’s a tree that I’m enjoying right now,” he said, gesturing to a crooked oak. “In a number of years, I may be feeding it.”
His friends grimaced. Then they laughed.