How To Plan and Host a Historic Cemetery Tour
When many individuals think of history, they conjure up images of clunky, thick textbooks filled with facts of long-ago events and historical figures. Living history, however, is a fun, educational concept that is perfect for kinesthetic learners of all ages. I first became aware of living history through Civil War reenactments, but soon discovered that bringing history to life doesn't end there! Across America, history enthusiasts are engaging audiences of all ages in understanding--and appreciating--the importance of history by hosting historic cemetery tours. I hosted the first annual cemetery tour for my community in 2017 as the sole individual who worked on planning, hosting, and finding reenactors for the tour. Since then, I've hosted the cemetery tour annually, incorporating scores of historical figures, from statesmen and Civil War soldiers to abolitionists and musicians. Along the way, I've discovered much about event planning--most of which came through trial and error. If you're interested in hosting a cemetery tour for your community (or you're just curious about what event planning entails), read on for a few tips I've compiled:
Tip 1: Pick A Tour Venue
It might sound surprisingly simple, but it's, unfortunately, not. In fact, choosing a venue for the cemetery tour I host is always one of the most difficult aspects. The reason I found picking a cemetery venue so challenging was the dozens of variables that would factor into the tours success. For example, I needed to decide on a venue that would have an ample amount of parking space for my cemetery tour attendees (I have about 100 tour attendees each night), which ruled out many small, rural cemeteries. Further, I desired to gain permission from the cemetery's caretaker to host the tour, which could be arduous. Perhaps one of the most important factors that would help decide where I hosted the annual cemetery tour was the information I found on those interred in the cemeteries. To keep the tour engaging, I change venues each year, while also attempting to find an array of interesting individuals who could be portrayed, such as War of 1812 veterans, pastors, doctors, Civil War veterans, musicians, and much more.
Tip 2: Get to Researching!
One aspect of cemetery tour planning that goes along with tip one is researching the individuals buried at your cemetery tour's venue. Keep in mind that you'll want to have a wide range of eras, unless you're specifically creating the event as a "Civil War Historic Cemetery Tour," "World War II Cemetery Tour," etc. You'll probably also want to include portrayals for both genders, encouraging inclusiveness within the historical community and the historic cemetery tour itself. Researching hundreds of individuals and attempting to select just a few historical people to be included in the tour can be a daunting task. I oftentimes meander through the cemetery before researching, jotting down names and taking photos of grave markers. Then, I'll commence researching, using a variety of outlets such as Ancestry, Fold3, Newspapers, etc. It may take some time (as in hours!) but I've found that every individual in a cemetery has a story...and, if you're planning a cemetery tour, it's your job to find peoples' biographies (unless a reenactor who's a reputable researcher asks to research an individual themselves). Pictured: Reenactors in the 2019 cemetery tour I hosted discuss the lives of the figures they're portraying--early citizens of my county (left) and a musician (right).
Tip 3: Pick a Date & Find Reenactors
When it comes to picking a date for your historic cemetery tour (or almost any event), the possibilities are virtually endless. I always like to consider the weather when I'm selecting a date for my cemetery tour. While it's impossible to know the weather forecast accurately months in advance to the tour's actual date, I can consider the temperature, which is why I choose to host my tour in October (be warned, though--many people think October cemetery tours are meant to be ghostly and spooky, hence why I add the word historic to every cemetery tour advertisement). I also try to consider conflicting events with my tour. For example, will most of my community be vacationing during spring/fall break, or is there a big event (such as a fair, etc.) that may hinder many individuals from attending the tour? In addition, you'll need to pick a time to host the cemetery tour. I host mine in the afternoon (after 5:00 p.m.), so that many people will be off of work and school.
Finding reenactors is an important (not to mention, occasionally stressful) aspect of hosting a cemetery tour. I like to have a wide range of reenactors for my tour, including teenagers and children (last year's tour included a one year old, which attendees enjoyed!). I feel that this encourages individuals--reenactors and attendees both--to understand that history is an important topic to study no matter one's age. To find reenactors, I reached out to high schools to inquire about any drama students who may be interested in reenacting. I contacted people I knew personally to see if they would have interest in becoming a reenactor. I've also involved my family with the cemetery tour, which has aided in the tour's success. Additionally, I have a historian friend of mine be the tour guide of the historic cemetery tour, ensuring that attendees stay on the well-marked, safe path.
NOTE: Finding period-correct clothing for individuals who haven't reenacted before can be challenging. I contacted local drama theaters to borrow old-fashioned costumes for my first annual cemetery tour, but obtaining the right size clothing for reenactors was very stressful. For the following years, I had each reenactor procure their own costumes, but would assist by giving them contacts to local theaters.
Tip 4: Advertise, Advertise, Advertise!
If you've decided on a tour venue, researched historic individuals, chosen a tour date, and found reenactors, it's probably not too far from "showtime." And that means advertising the cemetery tour to your community! I've always worked with my local tourism office to purchase tickets and flyers (I hang up the flyers at local businesses around my town). I use tickets--which are free--to ensure that the tour isn't inundated with too many attendees at once. This allows me to keep each tour more intimate, which I feel is important. I ask my local tourism office to house the tickets, which individuals can pick up at their convenience. I have two tours for a week in October, and each tour has two tours each night (with 50 tickets for each tour, each night...meaning 100 attendees for each evening). The tickets also allow me to gauge about how much interest I have in each tour. Besides hanging flyers at local businesses, I advertise for the tour on social media outlets, as well as local radio stations.
Don't be discouraged if your first annual tour has a fewer number of attendees. With each annual tour, I have more interest and attendance from the community--word of mouth is one of the best ways to advertise! Also, keep in mind that, as the planner of a cemetery tour, it's your right to choose whether or not you have tickets--feel free to make your tour unique and individualized!
Tip 5: Last-Minute Details
In the days leading up to the cemetery tour, there are always last-minute details, along with inquiries I like to make. A few days before the tour, I check with each of my reenactors to remind them of the tour's date, location, and time (once, I had three people drop out of the tour just a day or two beforehand...had I not contacted them, I wouldn't have known they had dropped out of the tour). If, for some reason, a reenactor is unable to be in the tour, you'll have a brief amount of time to either cut that portrayal out of the tour completely, or attempt to find another reenactor.
I also take the couple of weeks before the tour to craft signs with the names of the historical individuals being portrayed, like that pictured above, which says "Elisha Hedgepeth." Having signs with the historical individual's name is helpful to the tour guide, as it allows them to stay on track and anticipate their next tour stop. In the days before the tour, I also ensure that I have bottles of water on-hand for my reenactors, along with a light refreshment, such as cookies or cupcakes (be sure that the waters are hidden behind a grave marker or elsewhere once the tour begins, for the sake of historical accuracy!). I also like to give each reenactor a personal "thank you" card as a small token of appreciation for the time they spend in finding a costume and memorizing their lines.
For the tour held in the evening, I like to have lights (such as solar powered lights) dotting the trail. This helps attendees see the path and grave markers so that no is injured. Plus, lights just add a unique ambiance to the evening cemetery tour!
Historic cemetery tours are a wonderful way to bring the details of the past to the present. Cemetery tours show modern individuals that people who lived decades ago are no different than those of us in the 21st century--they laughed, cried, and held hopes and dreams for the future, too. So if you're searching for a way to educate people of all ages about the importance of history, consider hosting a living history event...you'll be shaping the next generations of historians.
About the Author: Kass Cobb is a genealogist, history enthusiast, and college sophomore who plans to double-major in history and military history. Kass first became obsessed with history in eighth grade through a unit on the American Civil War. She began researching her family's heritage and discovered that she is a direct descendant of ten Civil War veterans. Since then, Kass has desired to share the stories of United States veterans. One of the ways she does this is by obtaining grave markers for veterans. When Kass isn't busy planning historical events for her community, placing signs at cemeteries, or researching her family's past, you'll find her antique collecting, reading, singing, and enjoying nature with her many pets.