Multi-Year “City of the Dead” Debate Concludes, Event Date Set

Andrew Trzaska | September 11, 2012

Should the City of Muskegon authorize groups to hold parties in public cemeteries?
Should the City authorize groups to hold historical tours in public cemeteries?
Should the City allow events in public cemeteries at all
How does a City deal with conflicting values in respect to death and dying?

A multi-year debate full of such nuances regarding the Harbor Unitarian Universalist Congregation’s Halloween-themed activities in a cemetery owned by the City of Muskegon came to a less than unanimous conclusion at Tuesday’s city commission meeting.

In 2010 and 2011, Harbor Unitarian, led by Rev. Bill Freeman last year, held what the group described as historical tours in the Evergreen Cemetery, at Irwin and Wood Avenues.  People in both period and non-period costuming led the tours, complete with Halloween-style makeup.

The tours were authorized by the city with event permits filled out properly and ahead of deadlines.  The tours were promoted as a “play” by local media, with directors holding auditions for roles in the production.

After last year’s tours, public awareness of the events grew, with a vocal portion expressing their distaste for the events in person and in the media.  Among them, Nancy Medema brought her concerns to the city commission last November, charging that what was supposed to be small, educational tours grew in size and turned into a full-on Halloween party among the graves.  She stated that she had family interred in the mausoleum and it was disrespectful to their bodies and memories as well as those of other people.

Medema also mounted several charges in a letter sent to the city in August, including that Freeman is not a legitimate pastor and Harbor Unitarian is not a legitimate church.  She also charged that former mayor Steve Warmington and city manager Bryon Mazade avoid her calls on the matter in 2011, instead recommending she seek mediation on the issue. Medema sought a legal resolution on the issue after last year’s event.

[View Medema’s letter and documents relating to the legal agreement in the 9-11-2012 City of Muskegon Agenda Packet]

The legal resolution between Harbor Unitarian and Medema includes the following terms. Medema’s lawyer asked the city to enforce these terms as part of approving the event at Tuesday’s meeting:

  • An event is still planned in the cemetery for Friday, October 26 from 5 to 8 p.m. A rehearsal period the day before from 5-8 p.m.
  • Church members will “refrain from wearing any costumes other than those which have historical relevance.”
  • The church “will not use the interior of the mausoleum as part of the ‘tour’”.
  • The church will also “be conservative in its advertisement of the event so it is clearly promoted as a historical tour and not a Halloween party.” Music played during the tour will be “appropriate to a historical tour and not a Halloween party.”

The city commission’s final vote was not unanimous, with Commissioners Willie German and Byron Turnquist voting against the approval.

A public comment asked if the commissioners were speaking their own feelings and not those of the people they represented. Medema’s charges of religious legitimacy and this public comment generated comments from the commission:

“I may have been one of those people speaking of my own feelings… but I am offended.” said Spataro, expressing his objection to Medema’s letter.  Spataro stated that in other cultures spending time in cemeteries is a sign of respect. He then noted that the cemetery does not carry a religious denomination, and questioned the wisdom of giving deference to one culture’s values over another’s in public spaces.

“I still have a feeling a cemetery is a place of rest and quiet,” said commissioner Byron Turnquist, citing the close proximity to Halloween, time of day and costuming telltale signs that the event was not intended to respect the dead.   “I still find it offensive.”

With the motion passed, the event is scheduled for October.

Andrew Trzaska

103.7 “The Beat” – local government beat reporter and political analyst