Cemeteries can seize the imagination and are often flecked with symbolism, sadness, and haunting beauty. They can be ideal for a filming but securing the permission necessary to shoot in one can be trickier than most sites since, by their very nature, cemeteries are special places, sensitive and more challenging than typical film locations.
Know Where To Dig
First, scout as many locations as possible and have a few places in mind when looking for a cemetery to film in. Depending on the municipality and the state, the permits centered around your ideal cemetery location may vary. So, for this reason, it is always wise to have more than one cemetery in mind that will meet the requirements for your film shoot.
Know who you're dealing with. Once you have found the cemetery you would most like to use for filming, contact the property owners and start getting your permits in order. In many instances it will not be enough to simply get the permission of the municipality and the owners of the cemetery. If it is in an urban location, for instance, you will need to poll the area and talk to the residents. People are very protective of cemeteries and for good reason. If your film crew has not made an attempt to notify and discuss the filming in such a sensitive area, they can expect opposition from those nearby or from family members of the deceased who are buried there.
Explain your intent as far as the film work is concerned. Be upfront with the city and the people who run and maintain the cemetery grounds. If you are filming a funeral sequence, for instance, it is much more likely they will be co-operative than if you are intending to film an exploitative fright flick. To some extent you will have to explain the nature of the filming and the intentions behind it.
Do all that you can to respect the location. If you want permission to film in an actual cemetery you must follow the guidelines of the cemetery. Follow them on the day of the film shoot, any prep days leading up to the shoot and the wrap days following the shoot. Failure to do this has ruined many wonderful locations and ruined the good name of many production companies. Consider that you and your crew are representing the entire film industry when you use so special a location as a cemetery and don't lose sight of that. Make sure to gain the trust of the liaison running the cemetery and make sure the entire crew will be respectful. A good way to ensure this is to distribute memos to all the crew, the department heads, a special memo attached to the call sheet, production assistants on site to enforce the guidelines and a crew meeting at crew call all will prove to the location that the crew will take the utmost care during the intensive film schedule. By clearly discussing the above measures before hand with the cemetery, the city and the other parties that may be involved, you are clearly stating your seriousness and your professionalism which will all work to your favor.
Accommodate and empower the location and it will be a cinch for you to get filming permission. Once you have assured all the owners and patrons of the cemetery that you will maintain and care for the location prior to, during and immediately following the filming it will be hard for anyone to deny you filming. Filming is a good way for the cemetery to get extra funds to upkeep their grounds and spotlight the beauty of their plot.
Be Prepared to Give Up The Ghost
Give up if the situation asks you to. Some cemeteries do not allow filming, period. It is all well and good to make queries and offer payment, but some burial grounds are considered sacred and some places just won't allow any filming. You will only give yourself and the film business in general a bad reputation if you keep harassing those at a location that has turned you down.
Check the film commission in your area if you are at a real impasse. One of the great boons of a film commission, and all major cities have one, is that they keep a record of various film locations. If you can't find a cemetery open to filming, the commission can let you know where films have shot before and what cemeteries are used to filming or have been host to film crews in the past.
Be open to other alternatives. If the movie you are working on is in questionable taste or filled with frightening or gore-heavy scenes, it might be a challenge to find a cemetery that is willing to go for that. For this reason, a picturesque park or an open field with some creative and moody set dressing can make a great cemetery.
Be willing to make sacrifices if you really want a cemetery location but the stipulations are heavy. It is possible that you will find the perfect spot to film but the tombstones are historic or the nearby plots are fragile. If you express to the owners of the cemetery that you are will to shoot with a reduced crew or a bare bones splinter unit, this may be all it takes to secure filming. Be creative, and willing to trouble shoot. Most logistic problems can be easily solved this way.
Be willing to work around the schedule of the cemetery. There is a good chance that if you are willing to film when the visiting hours of the cemetery are over or do night shooting, it may work much easier for the location. Let them know you are willing to go to lengths such as this and your permission to film there will be assured.
Always have more than one location in mind. By having a few cemetery sites to choose from you stand a better chance of netting the best possible location and also having back ups if the shooting schedule changes or if a sensitive cemetery locations gets too challenging to manage.
Be willing to alter your shot list while filming in the cemetery. If you are making a horror film, for instance, you may want to consider filming the coverage of any violent scenes at a different location where these shots can be matched. Or you may want to tone down your coverage and do inserts for the scenes later on so that no one feels their cemetery was misused or misrepresented.
Based in Vancouver, Shane Scott-Travis has been a freelance writer and illustrator since 2008. His articles have appeared in "Exclaim Magazine," "The Kite," "Nexus" and "Discorder Magazine," and he has also written for film and television. Scott-Travis is a graduate of the applied communication program at Camosun College in Victoria, British Columbia, as well as the Vancouver Film School.