Cemetery marriage? Some love the idea

May 30, 2009 

US NEWS CEMETERYWEDDING MW

Operations Director Kelly Coleman-Kohorn shows the chapel at Wisconsin Memorial Park in Brookfield, Wisconsin, where several weddings have been held. (William J. Lizdas/Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel/MCT)

WILLIAM J. LIZDAS — MCT

BROOKFIELD, Wis. -- At the top of the staircase, Sheryl Jesswein glanced in a large mirror to make sure her wedding dress and veil were in place.

Before descending the steps to the chapel, she had one last thing to do.

She placed her hand on a mausoleum niche, touching the name of her late father.

"It was like he was giving me away," Jesswein said.

Cemetery weddings are rare, eyebrow-raising affairs, evoking goth images of black bridal dresses and gloomy grave-site gatherings.

But Sheryl and Kurt Jesswein, who got married in 1990, are among a small number of couples who have held very traditional weddings in past decades at Wisconsin Memorial Park.

A cemetery employee recently married there, and in 2007, a bride tied the knot near her buried grandmother. She wore her grandmother's wedding dress.

Now cemetery officials want to rent their five chapels and reception hall with kitchen for not only wedding ceremonies but also wedding receptions, baptisms, bar mitzvahs, private parties, business events and training seminars.

They also want to be able to serve alcohol at the reception hall upon request.

The rentals mirror a growing national trend of funeral homes and cemeteries converting spaces into multipurpose community facilities, industry officials say.

"It's something that more and more funeral homes are looking at, whether they're remodeling existing facilities or building new additions," said Jessica Koth, spokeswoman for the National Funeral Directors Association, also in Brookfield.

"Funerals are becoming much more a celebration of life than a dark event, so why not have your wedding at a funeral home?" said Denise Westerfield, spokeswoman for Stewart Enterprises Inc., which operates Wisconsin Memorial Park and about 360 funeral homes and cemeteries across the nation.

Rentals produce new revenue that can offset money lost as families are turning to cheaper, greener funerals, caskets and cremations, Koth said. It also helps draw people into cemeteries in a more relaxed environment, which might spur them to make plans for their own or others' final resting places.

"Death is such a taboo subject in our society," said Jeff Musgrove, co-owner of West Lawn Memorial Funeral Home in Eugene, Ore.

"This is a nondramatic way to get people into a funeral home and say, 'Wow, this is actually a nice place.' "

But weddings? Count Musgrove among the skeptics. "We haven't had any weddings in our chapels," he said. "I think it's still unusual."

The Lippert-Olson Funeral Home in Sheboygan also hasn't held weddings. But it has hosted events from a local sailing club's board meetings to charity dinners, holiday parties and even a murder-mystery dinner.

Weddings and other events have been held at other Stewart Enterprises properties, Westerfield said.

Metrocrest Funeral Home in Carrollton, Texas, donated the use of its facility for a 35-year high school class reunion, she said. The alumni played up the spooky setting, raffling off an urn using toe tags as raffle tickets. Their party favors were casket-shaped whistles. The invitation read, "We are dying to see you." Nearly 200 people attended, including 71 actual alumni, who invited curious friends.

"I personally would not have allowed that," said Kelly Coleman-Kohorn, director of operations at Wisconsin Memorial Park.

"Would I endorse, say, a Halloween party with costumes? Probably not," she said. "You want to be very tasteful (and) very, very sensitive."

Wisconsin Memorial Park held more than 20 weddings before 1979, according to cemetery files. Since then, there have been maybe eight to 10, "possibly more," said Coleman-Kohorn, who was hired about five years ago.

She said she understood why the idea of exchanging until-death-do-us-part vows among the dead might make some people shudder. "Once they come out there, I think that creepiness feeling will no longer be with them."

The Chapel of the Chimes, where the Jessweins got married, resembles a church, with vaulted ceilings, wooden beams, stained-glass windows, a stepped altar with lectern, long wooden pews and wall artwork of the Last Supper.

Around the chapel corner, down the halls and on the floors above and below the chapel are wall-encased caskets and urns. In the basement is a crematory.

The three-story, roughly 125,000-square-foot building is part mausoleum, part museum, filled with pricey collections of art, antiques and donated items, from a World War II Purple Heart to Hummel figurines and antique record players.

Jesswein said she picked the site because she wanted her father to be close in spirit.

The idea "kind of creeped out" her fiancé, she said.

The two later split up and called off the wedding they had planned two years in advance. But Jesswein didn't cancel the chapel booking.

She then dated Kurt, who learned about the reserved date after asking her to marry him. He thought the setting was "perfectly normal and pretty neat," she said, because like Sheryl, he has a long list of close family who are or will be buried there.

Jesswein said, "Other than being in a funeral site, our wedding was just like any other wedding." She wore an ivory gown. Her bridesmaids wore emerald-green, ballerina- length dresses. There were two little ring-bearers and a flower girl. A Lutheran minister led the ceremony. An organist played the classic wedding march.

They videotaped the ceremony and took pictures in and outside the mausoleum. The video captured audio of revving Harley-Davidsons as bikers left a funeral held the same day for a man killed in a motorcycle crash.

The Jessweins held their wedding reception at an area banquet hall, with music by a German band wearing lederhosen.

A few years later, the couple, who now live in Texas, purchased their own cremation niches in the Brookfield mausoleum.

"We're going to be married and buried there," Jesswein said.

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