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The hottest new concert venue could be your local cemetery

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Cemeteries across the United States are reimagining what happens inside their gates. They're holding concerts and other social events. But as Alison Cuddy reports from Chicago, not everyone is up for new experiences on hallowed ground.

ALISON CUDDY, BYLINE: It's a dark and somewhat stormy Saturday evening on Chicago's North Side. A steady stream of music fans makes their way into Bohemian National Cemetery, some sporting bright umbrellas or raincoats over their dark jeans and leather jackets. A crowd starts to cluster around the stage, which is set up beside a long and low-slung modernist mausoleum. They're here to see Kim Gordon, queen of noise rock, iconic former leader of Sonic Youth, currently touring behind her second solo album, The Collective.

CLARICE ARTHER: Everyone we know is talking about it, yeah (laughter).

CUDDY: This is the first time Clarice Arther and Cleo Meyer have been to Bohemian National to hear music. Meyer is enjoying the moody atmosphere.

CLEO MEYER: It feels very perfect. The wind, the rain, and I'm sure it'll be very pretty once the music starts.

CUDDY: There are food trucks in tents selling merchant drinks, children wrapped in glow sticks run around the field while their parents sip on a cocktail or glass of natural wine. It looks like any other outdoor music festival, except for the silent stone crypts nestled among the trees and a towering crematorium chimney in the distance. For Sean Desantis and his friend, Sharada Chidambaram, that setting is the draw.

SEAN DESANTIS: I like being in a cemetery every chance I get (laughter).

SHARADA CHIDAMBARAM: I try to come to all these shows, actually, just because it's an awesome place to come see music. And I'm, like, a little gothy (ph). I'm a little punk. You know, who doesn't love being in a cemetery at night when you're not allowed?

(APPLAUSE)

CUDDY: As night settles in, Kim Gordon and her band take the stage. The crowd erupts. Curator Brent Heyl has been bringing musicians like Kim Gordon to Bohemian National Cemetery for more than 10 years as part of a series called Beyond the Gate. He says it takes a particular level of artist to command the cemetery as stage.

BRENT HEYL: It really is a unique tone for a concert. And there's artists out there where it makes absolute sense to appreciate their music within that setting and really reflect on - perhaps it's corny, but just to reflect on life in general. It's a very deep experience.

CUDDY: But as some cemeteries are opening up to new experiences, not everyone is up for all of it.

MICHAEL WEIDMAN: I'm wincing.

CUDDY: Michael Weidman is director of family services at Rosehill Cemetery, one of Chicago's oldest and largest non-sectarian cemeteries, Rosehill does welcome some music. Inside an intimate chapel with a richly detailed interior, the PandaCat Players, a local chamber music ensemble, perform. Weidman has been hosting concerts here since 2017, mostly classical folk and jazz. He doesn't do outdoor events or rock music.

WEIDMAN: Whatever I do, I like to comfort the living and not wake the dead.

CUDDY: Concerts in a final resting place might seem a bit odd. At the same time, in years past, cemeteries were a popular space for social gatherings. People came to visit their loved ones and brought along a picnic. Now cemeteries are again livening up, thanks to concerts and other special events. Elizabeth Raleigh, the general manager of Bohemian National Cemetery, says they also help support day-to-day realities.

ELIZABETH RALEIGH: It's exposure, and we make a few bucks. We have so many things that need to be done in the cemetery that we can use every dime we can get, to tell you the truth.

CUDDY: And Bohemian, like Rosehill, will keep having concerts, as it continues to both tend to the dead and stay relevant to the changing world around it.

For NPR News, I'm Alison Cuddy in Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Alison Cuddy
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