Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Gravediggers' Ball

Great name for a story, don't you think? And it's not made up! Left to my own devices, I might have instead titled this blog "Nightmare on Shark Mountain" or something stupid like that. The Gravediggers' Ball is the name given to the annual black-tie fundraiser organized by Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill Cemetery.

This past month, Laurel Hill held its sixth annual Gravediggers' Ball, for which hundreds of guests each pay $175 for a night of dinner, dancing, entertainment, and a silent auction. Adding to the festivity, guests are encouraged to dress in Victorian costume, or as their ghoul of choice. As successful as the last five Balls have been, it’s the original (held in 2005) I hold near and dear. While subsequent Balls have been held in a splendid and fancy event hall called the Crystal Tearoom in downtown Philadelphia, the initial one was held in the cemetery itself, on a cold night near Halloween.

I volunteered as a worker at the original ball, where I donated my time and some framed photographs (the image you see at right is my 2010 donation—a winter scene at Laurel Hill). I helped to deliver and lay out the auction items, as well as prepare the space. At the time, holding the Ball in the actual cemetery, at night, near Halloween, seemed a great idea (but then, so did hopping trains when I was a kid). The idea had a certain cache, and drew a large crowd of attendees.

That First Annual Ball could easily have been the Last Annual Ball due to its expense! Being outdoors in a cemetery (where there is a decided shortage of running water, electricity, and other amenities), the event required that tents be set up for the hundreds of guests, the live band, food, drink, and auction items. In addition, sanitary facilities, generators for electricity, and furniture needed to be provided.

All that notwithstanding, what’s cooler than a Halloween party in a cemetery at night? Answer: Nothing! That is, unless you ask the facilities workers, who had to push partygoers’ cars out of the cemetery mud afterward. And therein lies the rub—the elements conspired against us. No one counted on a rainstorm!

There we were, outside on the cemetery grounds at night, dancing, eating, whooping it up, when the torrents of rain began. True, we were covered by massive circus tents, but since it was cold, there were electric heaters going and electric lights throughout. In case I need to draw you a picture, water and electricity don’t mix. Several times the power cut out, leaving the band’s lead singer without amplification. Now if that person had been Linda Perry from the rock band 4 Non Blondes, there wouldn’t have been an issue; however, things repeatedly went dark and quiet as a tomb. The facilities supervisor would fix the problem and the party would continue.

Between blackouts, I found myself chatting with the likes of early-eighteenth century American astronomer David Rittenhouse, who remained in character (and spoke in dialect) the entire evening. At one point I tried to strike up a conversation with some Civil War general, but he went on a rant about Robert E. Lee. Historical re-enactors laughed and danced with zombies and witches, and we all gorged ourselves on decadent deserts. At least I assumed at the time that they were reenactors. Oddly, the individuals I just mentioned (George Meade and David Rittenhouse, both buried at Laurel Hill) failed to appear at the subsequent Balls which were not held in the cemetery… go figure. All in all (for me, anyway), it was truly a magical time.

Laurel Hill’s been a favorite haunt for me since the late 1990s when I “discovered” it. This was about when it received its National Historic Landmark designation and people (in the U.S. anyway) began to pay attention to cemeteries once again, to restore and maintain them, to celebrate cemeteries instead of avoiding them. Since then, I’ve supported Laurel Hill any way I could, as a way of giving back to the cemetery for being (for me) a source of personal and professional growth. I’ve donated my time and art, written about Laurel Hill on my websites, handed out their brochures at art shows in which I’ve participated. Since 1997, I’ve seen considerably increased interest in cemeteries in general, and an astounding display of interest in Laurel Hill itself. Much credit goes to the people who work for Laurel Hill on marketing and promotion. Thanks to them, events like The Gravediggers' Ball, the various tours, theatrical productions, and the annual Champagne Toast to General George Meade are collectively a resounding success. The events help provide much needed income and publicity to maintain the cemetery’s place in our history.

People may wonder if such things are disrespectful to the dead. I believe they are anything but. Whatever we can do to keep our deceased in our memory is respectful. “Fun” events in these cemeteries honor the wishes of the Victorian planners who meant for them to be used for social gatherings, for art appreciation, and for dispelling the gloom of death. At least that’s my view—the disrespected spirits of Titanic survivors interred at Laurel Hill may have thought otherwise and put the water damper on that First Annual Gravediggers' Ball...

Related links of interest:

Laurel Hill Cemetery Website

Laurel Hill on Facebook

Champagne Toast to General George Meade