They say everybody has a story.
But when that someone dies, who gets to be the storyteller?
Local actors at cemeteries do, and the weeks leading up to Halloween are a popular time for cemetery tours and special storytelling events.
They don’t want to spook visitors; they want to entertain and educate.
“We don’t have any presidents or senators or anything,” says Stephen Zell, director of Valhalla Cemetery in St. Louis County, where actors tell the stories of people buried there at an annual event. “But to me, everyone is famous once you hear their story.”
Vintage Voices at Alton City Cemetery
For 17 years, the Alton Little Theater has taken its show to the city cemetery, which dates to the 1830s and is surrounded by high limestone walls. The experience is more lovely than spooky, says director Lee Cox.
“Ours is entertainment, but it is historical,” she says. “We pride ourselves on our glorious costumes. With the fall foliage and the huge trees and the beautiful masonry, I just adore it.”
“I like hanging out in the cemetery,” Cox says with a laugh.
The show changes from year to year, often with different characters offering new perspectives. Elijah Parish Lovejoy, who is buried there, was killed by a pro-slavery mob in 1837 while defending his anti-slavery newspaper. His story is told this year through the eyes of an actor playing Anson B. Platt, who was 14 years old when he witnessed the mob and later joined the Union militia, swearing to dedicate his life to fighting mob violence.
Robert Wadlow, Alton’s “gentle giant” who was the world’s tallest man at 8 feet 11 inches tall, isn’t buried at the cemetery but would have turned 100 this year. The actor who plays him will wear a costume that will make him appear as tall as Wadlow. He’s prepared to tell Wadlow’s story, Cox says.
“He stands on these legs in this mechanism, that fits all the way up to his thighs,” she says. “I think he can do it.”
When Noon-3 p.m. Oct. 6, 7, 13 and 14; nonwalking brunch at 10 a.m. Oct. 13 • Where 1205 East Fifth Street, Alton; brunch at Alton Little Theater Showplace, 2450 North Henry Street • How much $15, $10 for students under 18, $25 for brunch• More info 618-462-3205; altonlittletheater.org
Odd Fellows/Wildey Cemetery tour, Washington, Mo.
The Wildey Cemetery, established in 1865 by the Washington Odd Fellows, hosts a tour that features 10 to 15 people standing at the graves of the people they’re portraying.
“We try to pick out people who led extraordinary lives, or minimally died an extraordinary death,” says Marc Houseman, director of the Washington Historical Society.
A repeat favorite is the portrayal of Franz Schwarzer, an Austrian immigrant who became a respected zither maker.
A new character this year, Marianne Lindauer, was a spinster with a crabby reputation; she died in 1952 and made a permanent statement in the cemetery. She had insisted to family members that she be the last buried on the family plot, Houseman says. In her will, she specified that she be buried north to south, occupying three gravesites.
Family members complied. Her tombstone is the only one in the cemetery that faces south instead of east.
“I love the story,” Houseman says. “We know almost nothing else about her. It’s like she got the last laugh.”
When 6 p.m. Oct. 29 • Where 1123 Wildey Way, Washington, Mo. • How much $7 in advance, $10 at gate • More info washmohistorical.org
Voices from the Past at Wright City Cemetery
This is the third year for this event by the Wright City Memorial Society, established in the late 1800s to raise funds to care for the city cemetery. This year, the money goes toward grave markers for the unmarked family plot of John Vincent Hayes, who plotted the city in the 1850s.
Nine people will be featured. A great-nephew will play Harry Scheibe, who wrote letters to his sister in Wright City during World War II before dying in battle in the Philippines. Actors will also portray Eloise Hasekamp, who taught in one-room schoolhouses before becoming an elementary school principal, and John Case, the editor of the Missouri Ruralist who hired Laura Ingalls Wilder as a columnist.
Marie Hollenbeck, an organizer of the event, will portray Minnie Jaspering, who was 14 years old when she became involved with a man who had murdered his adoptive parents. While the stories they tell aren’t well-known, Hollenbeck says, they are just as compelling.
“We think they’re important because they shaped our community,” she says.
When 6 p.m. Oct. 7; 3:30 p.m. nonwalking program inside the fellowship hall • Where Tours leave from Immanuel Church of Christ, North Fourth and Elm streets, Wright City • How much $5; free for children 12 and under • More info facebook.com/wrightcitymo
Voices of Valhalla at Valhalla Cemetery
Nine years ago, when Valhalla Cemetery teamed up with the Florissant-based Hawthorne Players for the first Voices of Valhalla event, organizers wondered whether anyone would show up.
Now, it’s so popular that tickets to the hayride portion sold out within two hours. A limited number of tickets are available for a chapel matinee.
All year, director Larry Marsh researches new characters and writes scripts based on family interviews and newspaper clippings.
“It’s good storytelling,” he says. “This is in no way a Halloween event. It just happens to be in October. These are serious theater pieces.”
He often ties characters to local historical milestones, like this year’s 100th anniversary of the Muny. An actor will portray violinist Ernest Walker Jr., who joined the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra at age 19 and played briefly at the Muny. He eventually toured with Desi Arnaz.
As the wagon pulls up to listen to Walker, a violinist will play a song from the musical “Bitter Sweet,” Walker’s first Muny show.
This year’s characters also include a St. Louis health commissioner who saved thousands of lives and the sad story of two brothers buried at the cemetery — one died there when he shot himself in the head at his brother’s grave.
When Hayride is 6-9 p.m. Oct. 5, 6, 12 and 13; matinee in chapel 4-6 p.m. Oct. 6 and 13 • Where 7600 St. Charles Rock Road • How much Sold out; $15 for Oct. 13 matinee • More info 314-863-3011; hawthorneplayers.info, valhallafunerals.net
October is the second-biggest month for tours at Bellefontaine Cemetery, and it’s the flowers that draw visitors in its busiest month, April. The cemetery is an accredited arboretum with more than 7,000 trees and a quarter of a million daffodils.
“It’s a little oasis in an urban environment,” says Daniel Fuller, the cemetery’s event and volunteer coordinator. A visitor might see one of the cemetery’s foxes or a family of baby skunks.
On Oct. 13 and 14, Bellefontaine Cemetery hosts its sixth annual Beer Barons trolley tour. The cemetery is the final resting place for the Lemp, Anheuser and Busch families. This year’s focus is on the Griesedieck family. Tickets are $40 and $65.
On Oct. 6, the Mourning Society of St. Louis offers a free walking tour that explores funeral and burial practices in history with a special focus this year on the cholera epidemic of 1866, which claimed the lives of more than 3,200 St. Louisans. There will be a re-enactment of a funeral service for five members of the Lindell family, who died in the epidemic.
The cemetery’s growing army of volunteers specializes in tours that focus on Civil War history, architecture, flora and fauna. In 2014, the cemetery drew about 2,000 visitors on its tours. This year, it’s set to top 7,000.
“There are no two of these walking tours that are the same,” Fuller says. “We have 87,000 potential stories we can weave. It’s not so much who we can talk about as much as who we are walking by and can talk about.”
When Year-round; check cemetery calendar • Where 4947 West Florissant Avenue • How much Most tours are free, but reservations are required; donations accepted • More info 314-381-0750; bellefontainecemetery.org
An Evening in the Cemetery at Faust Park
Faust Park is home to Thornhill, which was the home of Missouri’s second governor, Frederick Bates. Bates died in 1825 and is buried there with his wife, Nancy, and other family members. Docents will be at Thornhill to explain mourning practices and superstitions from Bates’ time.
When 6:30-9 p.m. Oct. 19-20 • Where 15185 Olive Boulevard, Chesterfield • How much $5, free for children under 4 • More info 314-615-8332, 314-615-4386; stlouisco.com/parksandrecreation
Deja vu Spirit Reunion in Ste. Genevieve, Mo.
Memorial Cemetery in Ste. Genevieve, Mo., opened in the late 1700s and includes graves of the area’s earliest French pioneers, more than 50 American Indians and a mass grave for victims of a steamboat explosion. The annual, family-friendly living history program allows visitors to tour the cemetery via lantern light and meet with interpreters.
When 5:30-8 p.m. Oct. 27 • Where Fifth and Merchant streets, Ste. Genevieve, Mo. • How much To be announced • More info visitstegen.com