The dinner was first-class, with butlers serving hors d’oeuvres and the strains of “Blue Danube” tastefully muffling the festive din. This nine-course re-creation of the last supper aboard an ill-fated ocean liner 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.
Historic cemeteries, 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.
Laurel Hill, the resting place of six Titanic victims, promotes itself as an “underground museum.” The sold-out Titanic dinner, including a tour of mausoleums, joined the “Dead White Republicans” tour (“the city’s power brokers, in all their glory and in all their shame”), the “Birding Among the Buried” tour, and “Sinners, Scandals and Suicides,” including a visit to the grave of “a South Philly gangster who got whacked when he tried to infiltrate the Schuylkill County numbers racket.”
As Americans choose cremation in record numbers, Victorian cemeteries like Laurel Hill and Green-Wood in Brooklyn are repositioning themselves for the afterlife: their own. Repositories of architectural and sculptural treasures, like Tiffany windows and weeping marble maidens atop tombs, the cemeteries face dwindling endowments, years of vandalism and neglect, shrinking space for new arrivals and a society that, until recently, collectively distanced itself from their meandering byways.
Although their individual circumstances vary ”” Green-Wood in Brooklyn, a newly crowned National Historic Landmark, has space for two more years of in-ground burial, while Laurel Hill is virtually full ”” what they share is a daunting number of tombs in need of repair. Woodlawn, in the Bronx, the final home of Whitneys, a Woolworth, Jay Gould and jazz greats like Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton, has 95,000 grave sites.
Only 9,000 have endowments, said Susan Olsen, the executive director of the Friends of Woodlawn. “You’re a conservator,” Ms. Olsen said. “You can’t have someone up there with a bottle of Windex cleaning a Tiffany window.”
The new cemetery tourism ”” a subterranean version of the History Channel ”” is also a means of developing brand loyalty in the wake of what Joseph Dispenza, president of the historic Forest Lawn in Buffalo, calls a “diminishing customer base.”