In Cemeteries Across the Country, Reenactors Are Resurrecting the Dead
Gravesite readings and performances keep the stories of the dearly departed alive for a new generation
Every October, the spirits rise at the historic 18th-century St. Landry Catholic Church cemetery in Opelousas, Louisiana. Maybe it’s the ghost of the state’s eighth governor, Jacques Dupré, who died in Opelousas in 1846. Or sometimes successful 19th-century creole businesswoman Rachel Gradnigo emerges to share her life story, wearing white lace gloves and holding a delicate fan.
Over 1,500 miles away in Connecticut, the Wethersfield Ancient Burying Ground is filled with spine-chilling tales of witches, mysterious deaths and historic funeral rites. When the time comes for those spirits to be resurrected each fall, the living travel from far and wide to take in the spectacle. The tour starts in the historic Isaac Stevens House, where a costumed narrator talks about the family who lived there in the early 1800s, including “little Henry,” who died in the home. From there, a guide leads spectators out to the burying ground for more macabre stories from the past, and the tour finishes at the 1714 Buttolph-Williams House, where another actor shares stories about the Wethersfield witch trials, which preceded the Salem witch trials by 30 years.
“Tickets always sell out like hotcakes,” says Joshua Torrance, executive director of Wethersfield’s Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum, the site of three historic, preserved 18th-century homes that has been putting on their “Witches and Tombstones” tour for over a decade.
Gravesite reenactments happen all year long across the country, from California to Maine, but October, leading up to Halloween, is when historic cemeteries truly come alive.
St. Landry in Opelousas is one of the many cemeteries that visitors flock to each October.
“It’s beautiful,” says longtime resident and reenactor Etha Simien Amling of the yearly cemetery tours, some of which take place by lantern light at night. Amling should know. She’s been donning a pair of white lace gloves to portray spirits like Rachel Gradnigo for seven years running. Like many gravesite reenactors across the United States, Amling is a self-described history buff. She loves delving into lesser-known stories of people in her community, and resurrecting their lives and accomplishments for new generations.
“It’s a big commitment,” Amling says of the research and preparation that go into her reenactments. Amling will study historical documents about people like Gradnigo, and she’ll practice her lines to get into character before a tour. She might not be attempting to make each stitch historically accurate, but she does want her spirit to look and sound as authentic as possible. That’s part of the fun.
Yvonne Normand, who coordinates the St. Landry tours, says that “some spirits make their own period costumes, and that’s their thing.” If those spirits show up looking inaccurate, though, Normand says they send them home to tweak their costume before opening weekend. Local history teachers serve as Normand’s “checks and balances,” assuring her that the stories, and the spirits, are true to the lives they lived, and the time periods they represent. Each year four to eight actors portray different people buried in the cemetery; they try to change their subjects from year to year, depending on that year’s theme. Normand says that up to 250 attendees show up for the tour each year, “depending on the weather.”
Historical reenactments are, of course, nothing new. Ancient Romans reenacted massive sea battles in the Colosseum. Before the Civil War, reenactors put on “sham battles” that mimicked Revolutionary War skirmishes like the Siege of Yorktown. Colonial Williamsburg opened in Virginia in the 1930s, ushering in a trend of “living history” museums around the country, where history is recreated to give modern viewers an immersive sense of the past. Modern war reenactments gained popularity during the Civil War centennial in the 1960s and the Revolutionary War bicentennial in the 1970s. Yearly Renaissance fairs, with their giant turkey legs and jousting, aim to take spectators back to 16th-century England. Some modern reenactments, like artist Dread Scott’s 2019 restaging of the 1811 German Coast Uprising slave rebellion outside of New Orleans, become a visceral reminder of moments in history that aren’t always taught in mainstream history books.
Cemetery reenactments are another form of keeping the past from fading away by continuing to tell the stories of the dearly (or infamously) departed. The words “beloved wife and mother” hardly tell the full story of a life, and most of us pass by graveyards never knowing the stories of the people laid to rest there. It’s people like Amling, and places like St Landry’s and the Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum, that help keep those stories buried beneath tombstones and inside mausoleums from disappearing.
If you’ve seen any type of historical reenactment, you probably know they can range from fascinating and enlightening to flat out awkward. The good ones give us a unique window into the past, while the bad ones have us fact checking on our phones even as we watch.
“What you want to do is good history,” says Ken Turino, manager of community partnerships and resource development at Historic New England, the oldest and largest regional preservation organization in the U.S. “You can make these fun and entertaining and scary, but it has to be factual to bring local stories to life.”
Turino has helped plan several cemetery tours in New England. He has also been a spectator at cemetery reenactments all over the country, from witchy tours in New England to LGBTQ+ tours to cemetery tours featuring famous writers. Some have left him unimpressed, while others have moved him to tears. He’s not a fan of the more “salacious” tours that emphasize blood and gore over great (and historically accurate) storytelling. Turino thinks the best tours have a theme, like immigrants in America or the architecture of tombstones, while linking the stories of the past to the present moment.
“These aren't things you throw together,” Turino says of the preparation it takes to produce a tour. “If done right, it can be really good. It can be quite moving.”
For many reenactors, triggering those emotions in the audience is part of the appeal. Michael Maler, Historic New England’s regional site manager, participated in the “All Souls Walk” at Hope Cemetery in Kennebunk, Maine, hosted by the Brick Store Museum, a collection of 19th century historic buildings, for several years. He says he’s seen everything from applause to tears to “occasional gasps of astonishment” from audiences. Maler approaches the role as a professional actor might, learning as much about the person as possible, wearing authentic dress, memorizing his lines, and truly bringing that person to life. To him, simply reading from a script “falls flat.” Now in its 18th year, the "All Souls Walk" is a 75-minute guided tour from the museum through the cemetery, where actors like Maler portray historical figures buried on the grounds. It happens once each October, and the reenactors deliver heavily researched monologues for the viewers.
One standout role Maler played was a sea captain he researched who died in New Orleans during a cholera epidemic. Because of the risk of infection, his body wasn’t allowed to be transported back to Maine, so his friends had him secretly smuggled back home in a barrel of booze, so he could be buried in Kennebunk. The key with that reenactment, Maler says, was balancing the absurdity and humor of the tale with reverence. They were in a cemetery, after all.
Doing these reenactments showed Maler “how important it is to bring to life the long-silenced voices of those who came before us,” he says. “These were real people with jobs, families and lives who endured great joy, pain, success and misfortune. I think they can offer a lot of lessons that we can still learn from today.”
As in any subculture of passionate hobbyists, there are debates among reenactors about what can be constituted as “authentic.” Within the community, there are also terms to designate what type of reenactor someone is perceived to be. A “farb” is someone who isn’t concerned with 100 percent historical accuracy. They might portray a 19th-century sea captain while wearing neon Crocs, or play a Victorian businesswoman who says things like, “Gracious, I felt such FOMO!” The origins of the term are often disputed, but some believe it comes from the phrase “far be it from the truth” while others think it stems from “far be it from authentic.” Regardless, everyone seems to agree that it refers to someone who creates an inauthentic portrayal. At the other end of the spectrum are “stitch counters”—reenactors who take the hobby so seriously they make sure every stitch in their clothing, every thread, is 100 percent accurate to the time period.
Jenny Thompson, author of War Games: Inside the World of Twentieth-Century War Reenactors and director of education at the Evanston History Center in Illinois, spent years immersing herself in the world of historical reenactments. She says that once she started researching the history and culture of reenactors, she found it so fascinating that she “just couldn’t stop.” Thompson took up the “hobby” of participating in historic war reenactments to get a better understanding of the culture. She didn’t participate in cemetery events, but she gained intimate knowledge of what it’s like to take on the role of another person, someone long gone, whose inner life you’re trying to convey to a modern viewer.
“There is a lot of debate about what you’re supposed to be doing and how you’re supposed to be doing it,” says Thompson of the culture.
She says there’s a “holy grail” moment for serious reenactors when the performance becomes something more than just pretend.
She experienced that moment only a few times when she was immersed in “the hobby.” Once when she was participating in a war reenactment in the woods she experienced a moment that felt so real, it was almost transcendent. “You have this moment where someone is reenacting and you’re watching it occur, and you feel part of something that you’re all creating,” she says. "It becomes very real and intense. It's hard to explain."
Moments like that were enough to keep her hooked.
For members of the Texas Jewish Historical Society (TJHS), visiting Jewish gravesites and telling the stories of the people buried there has become a way for them to engage the community and share parts of history they might not know about their own cities or towns. They haven’t held any reenactments since the pandemic, but in years past they would seek out Jewish cemeteries in every town they visited, whether it was Houston or smaller towns like Calvert, which has a population of about 1,328 people. The TJHS events are sporadic, and they range from one single reenactor to three or four, depending on how much they can learn about the people buried in each cemetery. The member will narrate the person’s life story as if they are that person, speaking from a script that was either researched and written by the reader, or by a member of the group.
Vickie Vogel, a past president of TJHS who organizes the cemetery events, says that being perfectly authentic to the time period isn’t her group’s main concern. “We’re volunteers working with what we have,” she says. Vogel did once splurge on a fiery red wig to portray a woman named Rusty at a cemetery in Brownsville, Texas. After the reenactment, a woman walked up to Vogel and told her she actually knew Rusty.
“I said, ‘Oh boy, did I mess it up,’” Vogel says. “But she said I looked and sounded just like her.”
So maybe you don’t have to be a “stitch counter” to do a person’s memory justice. Maybe the right red wig and good intentions are all it takes.
Jan Hart, who has also participated in the TJHS reenactments along with her husband, Chuck, says she’s tried to wear skirts from a certain era, or cameos, or a scarf that fits the time. The Harts, like Vogel, love doing the cemetery readings because it helps people in the town discover things about their community they might otherwise never know. In a small town like Calvert, Texas, discovering that there was once a sizeable Jewish population surprised Vogel, the Harts and current residents.
“You learn so much more than just looking at a tombstone,” Hart says.
That knowledge can impact the reenactors in profound ways as well.
Yvonne Normand says that organizing and watching the St. Landry tours each year has given her a deep love of Opelousas, and of the historic cemetery.
“It has created a passion for where I live,” Normand says. “I even had my burial plot changed to this cemetery.”