Wooing the community with moonlight and monuments

Date Published: 
December, 2005
Original Author: 
Don Price
Greenwood Cemetery, City of Orlando, Orlando, Florida
Original Publication: 
ICFM Magazine, December 2005

A nighttime graveyard tour? It may sound like a Halloween event, but Greenwood Cemetery has found them to be a year-round way to reach out to the community and generate sales.

The history of any community can be studied in a variety of ways, by taking a look at events, buildings or points of interests. But the real history of an area is in its people, many of whom are buried in local cemeteries.

After our cemetery, Greenwood Cemetery in Orlando, Florida, had made the initial recovery from the destruction wrought by three hurricanes in 2004, we decided to use our store of local history to reach out to the community.

As a municipal cemetery, we have been part of downtown Orlando for 125 years, so we decided to offer educational tours and seminars about the city. We had not done this sort of thing in the past. After all, the cemetery—the only one in the city limits—was doing very well financially even without such efforts.

Greenwood cemetery was founded in 1880 by eight wealthy landowners who thought the city had been remiss in not properly providing for its dead. The new stockholders in the Orlando cemetery purchased 26 acres of land on the outskirts of their "one-mile square" city they felt would be an ideal, respectful burying place. But just 11 years later, the lands were overgrown and in disrepair.

In 1891, the city bought the cemetery and immediately passed an ordinance prohibiting the burial of human remains anywhere else within the city limits. The one other cemetery in Orlando was annexed by Greenwood in the 1980s. Today, the 100-acre cemetery is the final resting place of more than 60,000 people.

Despite our "exclusive" status, under the direction of our new city clerk, Alana Brenner, we have approached the cemetery with a new vision.  We have been challenged to offer new and inventive ways to bring people through our gates.

No ghost stories, just history
On January 28, Greenwood cemetery began a series of what we call Moonlight Historical Walking Tours. No ghost stories, just history. Each two-hour tour involves 3-4 miles of walking and visits to nearly 100 graves.

The first tour started at 9 p.m. during the full moon. We purposely sent the press release out late, since this was our first attempt and we wanted to start small. What a miscalculation! Somehow word spread through the city like wildfire.

More than 60 people attended, and most were folks who had never thought about or visited a cemetery—especially at night.

The weather cooperated in a strange way to highlight every stereotype that attaches itself to cemeteries It had rained all day and the night was balmy. During the tour, an occasional drizzling rain brought out a light haze of fog. The moon seemed to hide and reappear from behind the clouds, and it was a chilly 60 degrees (Yes, chilly—we're in Florida!)

Though our focus was on long-term results, that January evening led to $30,000 in land sales to families who decided during the tour they would like to make Greenwood their final resting place.

The success of this initial venture convinced us to make the moonlight tours a monthly event. Our second one was February 25. Again, we drew a large crowd of history buffs and curiosity seekers. Of the 42 people in attendance, only a handful had visited our cemetery previously.

The tours have continued each month during the full moon. The sky has been overcast a couple of times, but I carry a high-powered flashlight to "highlight" the memorials.

Usually the moon is bright enough to illuminate the areas where we walk. About 90 percent of the time the tour group stays on paved roads. I usually pick someone from the group to help me by training a flashlight on the small stones when we move the tour off the paved roads. We haven't had any problems so far. (When people call for a reservation, we let them know that open-toed shoes, worn everywhere in Florida, are prohibited.)

The tours have been an incredible marketing tool for the cemetery. We are no longer thought of as the scary place where bodies are buried, but as a lively historical garden.

The tours have been so successful we have even begun to take reservations a month in advance. In fact, though we don't charge a fee, we do require reservations. We decided to limit each outing to a maximum of 50 people and have averaged about 45. The Orlando Sentinel always mentions our upcoming tours.

I lead most of the groups myself, working from notes drawn from "History of Orlando" by Eve Bacon, material in the city archives and stories family members have told me.

Each tour is different, highlighting different people. Many long-time residents who join us on the tours add their own stories—some funny, some scandalous, some sad.

Another unexpected bonus for the cemetery is the fact that the tours have attracted attention from some of the families with loved ones buried at Greenwood. Family pride has led to us receiving histories of more and more of Greenwood's "residents" in the hopes that they will be included in future tours.

Making sales—and friends
In the past year, Greenwood has surpassed sales projections by almost two-fold and this was accomplished without a sales force.

But the most important side effect of the tours has been the overall air of caring our outreach effort has generated. We have found that if the community feels a sense of ownership in the cemetery, people are more inclined to contribute to its success.

We have asked the community for help with tree planting days, clean-up days, tours and hosted walks. The local newspaper has written articles about us and we even found a high school to "adopt" the cemetery and provide us with over 400 student volunteers as part of its curriculum.

We've found the trick to good community outreach is to schedule things year round, not just have one annual event. By making the cemetery more accessible and by inviting visitors through this type of "low-key" marketing, we have made Greenwood Cemetery an even more desirable resting place and attracted donations of cash, plants (including trees) and volunteer hours.

Who would have thought that inviting people into the cemetery under a full moon could accomplish so much?