Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Easter Egg Hunt in a Graveyard?

One of many areas decorated for West Laurel Hill Cemetery's Easter egg hunt

So here’s a short blog about an Easter egg hunt in a graveyard. Sounds kind of morbid, I will admit. However, cemeteries are doing anything they can these days to engage the community, to bring people through the gates (live people, that is), with the expectation that perhaps they will garner business at a later date.

West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania (a suburb of Philadelphia) has been having Easter egg hunts for the past fourteen years, if I heard the announcement correctly at the March 19, 2016 egg hunt.

Indoor activities for 350 kids at West Laurel Hill's Easter Egg Hunt, 2016

Another benefit of public engagement is that you help people accept death, as inevitable as death is. Come to the cemetery with your kids, have a fun time, see the pretty spring blossoms on the trees and flowers. Subconsciously you think, hey, this is not so bad. Not scary at all. Kind of like all the techniques used by childrens’ dentists these days to allay kids’ anxiety and yes, fears.

We fear death. However, Rachel Wolgemuth, in her book, Cemetery Tours and Programming (2016, Rowman and Littlefield), suggests ways to increase a community’s respect for these spaces. She describes “the reuses of both historic and contemporary burial grounds through the lenses of recreation, education, and reflection.” Rachel happens to be a friend of mine and coincidentally, works at West Laurel Hill Cemetery – so she speaks with authority.

Children waiting to dash, just before the tower bell struck eleven o'clock.

Why authority? Because West Laurel has obviously found ways to generate good will toward the community and to help “reimagine what burial grounds can be through the creation of innovative tours and programming.” The first Easter egg hunt I ever attended was here, with my wife and not-quite-two-year-old daughter, in 2011. It was fun, and I wrote about it in this blog (click link to take you there).

I must say that five years later, this event has become something extraordinary. There were about 350 kids this time, and 8,000 eggs! (They had 3,000 eggs in 2011).) The coordination, parking, scheduling, announcements, and pre-hunt activities for kids were much improved from the last time. Greatest improvement? Sections of lawn designated by signage for all the different age groups! This way, the little tykes didn’t get bowled over by the bigger kids and end up with no eggs. EVERYBODY got a bag full of big colorful plastic eggs filled with candy.

Easter Egg Hunt at West Laurel Hill Cemetery

After the hunt, there were prizes drawn for those who registered when they first arrived – golden eggs with a five-dollar-bill inside! There was music over the P.A. system outside and announcements were made to let everyone know what was happening next. But I’m getting ahead of myself here (that’s kind of how exciting it all was).

Daughter Olivia with Easter Bunnies!
The event was well-advertised locally. Registration began at 10 a.m., with TWO costumed (human) Easter Bunnies greeting visitors at the door to the conservatory (a building at the back of the cemetery, near the oldest graves). As you registered, you got to pick out a giant Zitner’s candy Easter egg. (Zitner's donated TONS of Easter candies to West Laurel for this event.) There was someone making balloon animals outside, as well as an artist drawing kids’ caricatures.

Registration for Egg Hunt

If it was too chilly for some outside, a huge room was set up inside for kids to create all kinds of Easter-themed arts and crafts. There were people doing face-painting as well.

Kids having fun at one of the indoor arts and crafts tables

Mausoleum walkway lined with candy!
When eleven o’clock approached, everyone went outside. It was a cool, overcast morning, and the lawns were littered with thousands of colored eggs as well as clear cellophane-wrapped chocolate eggs. I rather liked how they lined the walkway of this mausoleum with candies! The announcement was made that when the bell tower struck eleven o’clock, children were free to run amidst the mausoleums and monuments and collect as many eggs as they could carry in their bags and baskets! My now six-year-old daughter had a wonderful time.

Leaving the cemetery was well-coordinated, with orange traffic cones lining the roads and helpful cemetery employees pointing the way. West Laurel Hill Cemetery is a rather confusing place, but thanks to the dedicated professionals running it, a very welcoming place.