An evening at the cemetery: Music of the Night

What better way to welcome in the fall than to spend an evening at a cemetery. For the last ten years, the Crown Hill Heritage Foundation has hosted an evening organ concert in the Gothic Chapel, followed by a nighttime guided tour through the cemetery.

The Gothic Chapel stands in the National Cemetery portion of Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis. The National Cemetery developed out of the need for proper burial and grave maintenance for the Civil War dead. In 1866, the remains of the war dead buried in Green Lawn Cemetery were reinterred at the National Cemetery.

In 1875 the Gothic Chapel was built for just under $40,000. Two small wings on either side of the chapel, which remained cool and had a natural ventilation system, could house up to 96 bodies. Why so many? People were not always buried right away, but kept in teh Gothic Chapel until the burial site could be prepared or funds were available for burial. James Whitcomb Riley was stored here until his spot on the Crown could be finished (from July 1916 to October 1917).

Approximately ten years ago (2006), the chapel was renovated and a vestibule and organ added. Whereas original construction cost under $40,000, the renovations cost $2.5 million. The small organ overpowers the space. The chapel is almost entirely made of Indiana limestone with a vaulted ceiling, but alas, no gargoyles grace the building.

The Gothic Chapel hosts meetings, dinner parties, weddings, and funerals, but it isn’t open to the public like the grounds of the cemetery are. The annual Halloween concert was a great opportunity to see the inside of the building.

The surroundings were tight, maybe 75 people seated in the chapel and another 25 people in the vestibule. (TV monitors were mounted in the vestibule for people to see all the action in the main chapel.) The performers for the “Music of the Night” program consisted of Charles Manning (Phantom Organist), Leah Crane (Phantom Singer), and Eric J. Wickens (Phantom Singer). The program consisted of a dozen or more Halloween songs from all different genres.

I wasn’t expecting how whimsical the program was and how much the performers, especially the organist, were hams. The organist came out in costume as the Phantom of the Opera. The singers changed costumes based on the song being sung and their role. Songs ranged from Bach’s The Phantom Toccata, to the theme song to the movie Ghostbusters, to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera Suite.

The audience was asked to participate in some songs, shouting out “Ghostbusters!” in response to the question “Who you gonna call?” or chiming in with “the monster mash” in the pop song The Monster Mash.

Eric came out with props and a lab coat to sing about Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, and Leah emerged dressed as Madame Cruella DeVille with a stuffed Dalmatian in tow for a song from the 101 Dalmatians. (I had that album as a kid so I got a kick out of that!)

Other songs were whimsical, like The Phantom’s Black Cats, which was a dueling ballad between two cats, or Poisoning Pigeons in the Park, which had Leah and Eric singing about killing pigeons (and the occasional squirrel) with cyanide-laced peanuts during a Sunday stroll in the park.

My favorite moment was during The Monster Mash when at a transition from one verse to the next, one of those rare moments of complete silence ensued…and an overzealous audience member could be heard belting out “the monster mash” at an incorrect time…which cracked up the audience and complete threw Eric off his game. It took Charles on the organ playing an entire verse to get Eric back to starting the next verse.

After the concert ended, hot cider and donuts were served in one of the wings (you know, where up to 96 bodies could be stored). And then into the night we went on a tour of the grounds led by Tom Davis (the same tour guide I had for another tour of the cemetery) under a full moon.

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