Welcoming Wedding Parties

Date Published: 
August, 2005
Original Author: 
Tom Smith & Tom Pfeifer
Spring Grove Cemetery & Arboretum, Cincinnati, Ohio
Original Publication: 
ICFM Magazine, August-September 2005

Welcoming wedding parties
By: Tom Smith & Tom Pfeifer, Spring Grove Cemetery & Arboretum

WHAT: About 15 years ago, one of our employees asked permission to hold a family wedding at the cemetery. That was the start of what is now a wonderful service we provide to the community.

Today, not only can you be buried at Spring Grove, you can be married here, as well. We get requests for information about Spring Grove weddings almost daily. In fact, we project that next year we'll have more weddings than funeral services in our Norman Chapel.

Does this sound wacky? Well, it did to us, when we first decided to try allowing the public to use Spring Grove for weddings.

We wondered: ''Will people really do this—get married in a cemetery? Will the people who want to do it be a bit on the ghoulish side? Will they dress up in Halloween costumes? Will this backfire and leave us looking like a bunch of doofuses?"

Thank goodness, we worried for nothing. So far, the result has been so positive it's unbelievable.

WHY: The Norman Chapel is a beautiful 1880 building that's not used as much as it used to be for funeral or committal services—about 80 times a year. With the exception of some of the older, more traditional people, who prefer the Norman Chapel, families generally use the chapel at the Jon Deitloff Funeral Centre, which opened six years ago.

Booking weddings puts the historic chapel to good use and exposes people in the community who have never had occasion to use our interment services to our exceptional facilities and customer care.

Normally, the people who come to the cemetery are there on one of the worst days of their lives.

But if they came to a wedding, they've experienced something fun and unusual to tell friends and neighbors: "Wow, you wouldn't believe the webcam girls wedding I went to Saturday. It was at a cemetery—Spring Grove—and the whole thing was so neat!"

We had a sports figure get married here, and the PR from that event was unbelievable. Bengals players and local newscasters descended on us.

The exposure does lead to sales. Sometimes, within a week of a wedding service, we get a call that goes something like this: "My wife and I were at a wedding Saturday, and afterward we talked and agreed we ought to make burial plans, and we can't image being in a prettier place than Spring Grove."

HOW: The first thing you need to do is take a look at your buildings and grounds to see what the possibilities are. At Spring Grove, we offer wedding parties the following choices:

• The Norman Chapel, which accommodates 200 guests in a grand and formal location.

• The Lakeside Chapel, completed in 1991, which can handle up to 25 guests. The chapel overlooks Willow Lake. Couples may also choose to hold the ceremony in the chapel's outdoor plaza, by the Koi pond.

• The Garden Courtyard, located near the cemetery entrance, where a ceremony can be held outdoors, accommodating 1,000 people. Rugosa roses provide natural decorations. Spring Grove also allows the wedding party to set up a tent in a designated area. One couple set up a small gazebo for their wedding; we put up some chairs and a round system. (The Norman Chapel is made available in case of inclement weather.)

Note that one of the three locations we offer people is a scenic outdoor setting. Even if you don't have a chapel that can handle a wedding party, you might have a nice section of lawn bordered with flowers and attractive trees that would make a great place for an outdoor ceremony—not to mention wedding photos.

Picture this: Wedding photos taken at your cemetery
We don't charge the people who drive in to use our gardens as backdrops for their wedding photos. This is a service just about any cemetery should be able to provide. Think about all those couples telling their friends they had their beautiful wedding photos taken at your cemetery!

All you have to do is get the word out to the wedding photographers in your community. So. invite them to check out the places you think would work for photographs, and let them be the judge.

Couples often ask the photographer for ideas for wedding photos, and the photographer will be able to say, "Let me take you to the ABC Cemetery to their rose garden, or underneath the weeping cherries or to a spot in the back where there is unbelievable fall color."

On a Friday, Saturday or Sunday afternoon, it's not uncommon to see two or three limousine entourages waiting to use the premier wedding photography spots at the Grove.

We do charge people who hold the wedding at the cemetery. (We require a down payment to book a date and full payment before the ceremony.) To figure out a fair price, we checked around in our community to see what it costs to rent a Knights of Columbus hall or a large church comparable to the Norman Chapel.

We keep our price very reasonable, on the low end for comparable places, since we're looking at this as a way to get exposure, not as a moneymaker. (Though we certainly don't want to lose money.) We do make a little money, enough to take care of maintaining the building.
We charge much less for use of the Lakeside Chapel, since it's much smaller; though still beautiful. It has high, vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows, and overlooks scenic Willow Lake.

In our wedding policy handout, we suggest the Lakeside Chapel might be the right size for vow renewal ceremonies or second wedding celebrations. In one case, a couple was checking it out for a small second wedding. When the woman realized it was in the Lakeside Mausoleum, she said, "My Mom is buried in that building," and that was where she wanted the ceremony, where her mother was.

We've had one wedding in our waterfall area. We've got a request now to use the island area, which is very popular for photos, for a ceremony. We're checking to see if it's feasible.

If you don't have a chapel, see if any of the buildings you do have would be appropriate for a wedding ceremony. If you don't have anyplace for an indoor ceremony, you should have—or be able to create—a place for an outdoor ceremony, or at the very least for outdoor photos.

Staffing for weddings
For years, when we booked a wedding, we arranged for the security staff to help out. Someone from security was there anyway, so we just added a few things to their routine. They might have to change the time they closed the front gate and made the mail run in order to direct people to the chapel and tell them where to park.

Over time, as the number of weddings increased, the workload became too much to expect the security people to handle on top of their other duties, such as making rounds, checking the thermostat on the greenhouse, making sure the mausoleum door is locked and doing the mail run.

In order for people coming to Spring Grove for weddings to experience the "wow" factor we aim for in delivery of all our services, it was clear we needed to hire someone to handle weddings, so we decided to try to find a part-time wedding coordinator. We placed an ad in the paper and got several applications. The person we ended up hiring almost came in for the interview wearing a sign saying, "I'm the person for this job!"

She has personality plus and approaches the job with tremendous excitement, gusto, friendliness and customer-service thinking. She reassures the bride, that she'll do everything in her power to make sure nothing goes wrong on their special day.

We only schedule weddings on Friday nights, Saturdays and Sundays—which is when most people want to get married. Not everyone would want to work those hours, but our wedding coordinator is at home during the week with her young children, so a weekend-only job works out perfectly for her.

We trained her on troubleshooting and she's got a cell phone with her, so if she can't get a microphone to work or if the organ button is stuck or whatever, she can call Fife for help.

Having her there to help the wedding party with the setup makes such a difference, especially since she's so enthusiastic. It's not expensive, since she's a part-timer paid by the hour for the weddings she works, but the response from customers has been, ''Gosh, you people go overboard. If we go someplace else, they just open the door for us and say, ‘Hope your wedding goes well.’"

Security personnel still open the gates for guests, of course, and direct them to the parking lot. They are neatly dressed—blazer and tie are part of the wardrobe.

Getting a funeral chapel ready for a wedding celebration
We have couples fill out a form that detail, what they want. Do they want the cross left on the altar? (We have had people of many different faiths use the chapel.) Do they want the candles removed? Do they want chairs placed at the front of the chapel?

We use this information to get the room set up ahead of time. If we have two weddings back to back, which sometimes occurs on a Saturday or Sunday, we might have to change the setup between ceremonies. We have a cleaning team that works six days a week, sometimes seven, and covers the wedding setups when they are on the schedule.

The wedding coordinator attends the rehearsal and checks to see if there are any last-minute details that weren't covered by the form. Maybe the minister wants a small cloth-covered table to put the rings on.

Though we offer a lovely setting and the services of the security guard to direct traffic and the wedding coordinator to help out at the service, Spring Grove of course does not offer "one-stop wedding planning." We make our limitations clear in the material we hand out to couples. Among the things they need to know so that there will be no misunderstandings:

•    We do not have dressing facilities.
•    We do not provide valet parking (though couples can certainly hire their own valet).
•    We do not allow food, beverages or alcohol.
•    We do not allow smoking inside the buildings.
•    We do not allow the throwing of rice, birdseed, confetti or anything else.
•    We do not have musicians, photographers or ministers on staff, but we do provide a referral list on request.

People also must observe time limits on their usage of the chapel, particularly when two weddings are booked for the same day. This is not unusual, though, in the wedding world.

We didn't start booking two a day until we talked to a wedding guru. We were befuddled about whether it could be done, dreaming up all kinds of problems with doing it, but she straightened us out and assured us that many churches hold two weddings the same day.

The wedding guru suggested we have two time slots: 12:30-3:30 p.m. and 4:30- 7:30 p.m. We use those on Saturdays, and earlier ones (9:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. and 2:30- 5:30 p.m.) on Sundays. The hour between weddings gives our cleaning team time to scurry around and pick up rose petals and run the vacuum and get set up for the next group.

What about scheduling conflicts with funerals? What if someone wants to use a chapel for a funeral or memorial service and we've already booked a wedding? After all, weddings are booked months in advance, while funeral and memorial services are last-minute arrangements.

We did think about this when we started promoting our wedding business, and finally came to the conclusion that not having weddings doesn't mean there won't be scheduling conflicts. If Funeral A is scheduled for 11 a.m. and a funeral director asks to schedule Funeral B at 11 a.m., we simply say the chapel is already booked. The principle is the same.

We didn't think we'd have people saying, "Gee, you're letting a wedding take precedence over a funeral?..." and in fact no funeral director has said that or anything else negative about the fact that we have weddings at the cemetery.

Getting the wedding word out
When people are looking for a wedding location, they're not normally going to check out cemeteries. How do you let potential customers know that you've got a great site (or sites) for their ceremony?

1. Choose the right person to work with weddings. Whether it's a staff person or someone from outside you hire to do the work, make sure the person has a burning desire to make sure each and every wedding is special for that couple.

We're always reminding ourselves that we have funerals every day, but the family involved does not and the same holds true for weddings. You need an effervescent person who can attend to details while smiling and conveying an upbeat attitude to the couple.

2. Put your locations, policies and prices down in writing. We have a packet of material we give out that includes:
•    a list of facilities and how many people they seat;
•    a brochure providing more details about our Norman Chapel and our most popular venues for photographs;
•    a floor plan of the Norman Chapel, listing aisle width, foyer size, pews, etc.
•    our wedding policies, including costs, scheduling and rules; and
•    a ceremony reservation form.

3. Put it on your Web site. Spring Grove's home page lists weddings along with preplanning, grief support, activities, service schedule, etc. The wedding section includes a copy of the wedding policies, descriptions and photos of the locations where weddings and wedding photography generally take place and a wedding album slideshow of photos provided by local photographers. Check out the slideshow and you'll want to get married—or renew your vows—at Spring Grove, too!
4. Create a DVD presentation. We've gotten pictures of weddings from photographers (which we also use on our Web site slide show, with proper credit, of course), and we have our own photos of our grounds and facilities. We created a nice DVD with some music, photos and information about using Spring Grove for your wedding and/or wedding photographs. We've had a couple of people book weddings on the basis of the DVD without ever seeing the cemetery in person.

5. Contact wedding photographers in your area. Invite them to check out your garden spots and let them know if you're available for ceremonies as well. Also, information to wedding planners.

6. Participate in bridal expos. In Cincinnati, we have something called Bridalrama at the convention center every year. People go to check out the exhibitors and shop for a photographer, a DJ, a caterer, a facility-anything and everything they need for their wedding.

We checked it out one year and decided Spring Grove needed to exhibit, so we took our DVD and set it up on a viewer. People see the fabulous photos and they stop at the booth and ask questions, and we even give them a copy of the DVD if they want to take it home to show their parents or simply to mull it over.

Even if your city or town doesn't have a bridal show, the local newspaper probably prints a special bridal section every year. Take out an ad.

Though a wedding is a happy occasion and a burial is a sad one, we don't see any conflict in having both take place at Spring Grove. Everything is handled tastefully. Recently we had a wedding going on in the Norman Chapel at the same time a funeral service was being held about 100 yards away, at the Garden Mausoleum. It was kind of nice, to have people starting a new life together just as the end of another life was being observed. It's all a part of the cycle of life.