Cemeteries Seeing New Life as Racing Destinations | Sports Destination Management

Cemeteries Seeing New Life as Racing Destinations

Mar 20, 2019 | By: Mary Helen Sprecher

Trying to find a unique venue for a sports event has gotten pretty challenging these days. We’ve seen wrestling meets held on beaches, marathons courses leading through vineyards and pickleball games playing out on cruise ships. There is even a triathlon that invites participants to Escape From Alcatraz. So to find someplace really different – something that captivates the imagination of participants – takes some work and ingenuity.

But this is one that has.

Across the U.S., cemeteries are seeing increased use as grounds for sports events. And once you get past the knee-jerk factor, it makes sense.

The cemetery is basically a park; it just has bones in the ground,” Tim Grotenhaus, a runner and race director who lives next to Riverside Cemetery in Asheville, North Carolina, noted in an article for Blue Ridge Outdoors. And, he adds, the cemetery, which is known for its famous literary residents and hilly terrain “is a good place to reflect while you’re running.”

And when you think about it, cemeteries offer an environment a lot of race directors want: they have paved pathways, they can be closed off to traffic without as much permitting as would go into a road race, and they tend to be fenced, closed courses.

Nationwide, an increasing number of event owners are discovering the benefits of hosting events, particularly running events, in cemeteries. And if staged correctly, a morning 5K can be held – and broken down – before passersby come to visit graves.

The Philadelphia Inquirer published an article on the growing use of cemeteries for such events, noting that activity in the area is actually beneficial rather than disrespectful. Not only do these events help raise the cemeteries’ profiles and raise funds, they help protect the cemeteries from vandalism, says Laurel Hill Cemetery CEO Nancy Goldenberg. “A cemetery with no living people in it is much less secure than one that is activated and full of people,” she says.

Plenty of other events exist, and can be found at the Running in the USA site by using keywords such as “cemetery” and “graveyard;” many races are scheduled in the fall, to take advantage of the Halloween drive. Some events encourage costumes while others say it’s disrespectful. Many encourage costumes within limits, asking runners to adhere to steampunk and Victorian-themes, rather than zombie or horror movie villains.

Because cemeteries, particularly the older, park-like Victorian cemeteries, offer attractive features such as landscaping, a great variety of trees and plantings, and abundant history, they often become places people want to return for tours, birdwatching or simply just walking around. (For an interesting background on the evolution of modern cemeteries, check this article in Smithsonian Magazine.)

Those who want to form partnerships with cemeteries need to abide by the regulations set forth by the owners of the desired venue. Owners, in addition to being able to provide information on hours, rules, decorum and so forth, can also provide information about local historical societies, preservation groups or others associated with that venue. They will also be able to help address specific concerns – such as parking, since most cemeteries do not have large parking lots – or in some cases, any parking lots. (It will be incumbent upon event owners to make arrangements for places for participants can leave their cars, and ways they can get from their cars to the cemetery.)

Most importantly, though, it is necessary to understand that while cemeteries are excellent venues, most are actively engaged in their regular business – and that business is not only difficult to predict but deals with grieving families.

Laurel Hill, for example, has an active calendar of events, including yoga nights, movies, entertainment and more. However, its owners also struggle to balance all activities with the needs of it being first and foremost an active cemetery.

“We’re not going to put on a hot-air balloon race in the middle of the day when there are two funerals going on,” Goldenberg says.

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