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Down by the Riverside brings live music to a place for the dead

When Riverside Cemetery was established in 1887, it was meant to be more than just a place for the dead.

Rural garden cemeteries, as they are called, were created on the outskirts of towns to be public parks for the living, as well as the final resting place for the dead.

The Historic Riverside Cemetery Conservancy brought this idea back to life last weekend with the first annual Down by the Riverside, a music festival among the monuments of the historic cemetery.

Eight stages throughout the cemetery hosted musical acts from Macon and Middle Georgia such as Scott Little and Rowdy Hood, Garland and Jane Hurt, Dalmatian, Death Goat, Dirt Road Kings, Dean Brown Project, Louise Warren and Southern Gentlemen Dixieland Band.

Most of the acts played acoustic sets, and watching them play on the cemetery's grounds was beautiful, even fitting. It felt natural that bands should play music next to where Maconites of years gone by lay at rest.

Perhaps its a tendency toward "southern gothic" on my part, and my bias that Riverside and Rose Hill Cemeteries are the most beautiful spots in Macon, but I did not feel the festival was in any way disrespectful toward those buried on the grounds.

As for the festival feeling like a natural fit for Riverside, Deonna Belcher, events and outreach associate for the Riverside Cemetery Conservancy, said that, in the past, people would always go to the cemetery for picnics and music. For example, there used to be a bandstand in Rose Hill Cemetery, the public cemetery next to Riverside, which is a private cemetery.

"We wanted to offer an entertainment event where people could learn about a rural garden cemetery and see our grounds," said Belcher, adding that Riverside is still an active cemetery.

Down by the Riverside was modeled after a similar event at Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta called Tunes among the Tombs.

From 4-6 p.m., people could walk among the monuments, listening to the bands. At 6 p.m., the headliners began playing at the main stage just inside the entrance to the cemetery.

Lining the entrance, vendors sold food, crafts and merchandise.

Suzanne Doonan, director of the cemetery conservancy, said a few people were concerned that Down by the Riverside wasn't an appropriate event for a cemetery, but she said the conservancy made every effort to keep the festival respectful.

Doonan said the main stage and vendors were kept outside the main grounds to maintain respect for the people buried there.

The conservancy, whose mission is to preserve and share the beauty of the cemetery, also gave out information about cemetery etiquette.

Walking among the tombs and listening to the music, I never once thought the atmosphere was disrespectful.

The music was not too loud. As I walked between stages, music from the last stage completely faded before I got to the next stage. That, I think, was the main reason the festival seemed appropriate and respectful.

Aside from the atmosphere, which was perfect, the bands were great, too.

Many of the artists played bluegrass music, which was fitting for a southern cemetery.

The best song I heard was "Autumn Leaves," played by self-proclaimed hobbyist musicians Garland and Jane Hurt.

The Hurts both played acoustic guitar, and Jane Hurt sang the song about lost love in a low, full-bodied voice. As I sat next to a grave, I realized it was the perfect song to listen to in a cemetery.

The next song they played was a waltz, and Garland Hurt traded his guitar for a mandolin. The song, called "Far Away," was written by a man who was playing at a contra dance and noticed a beautiful woman dancing across the room.

It was about longing, another appropriate theme for a cemetery.

Doonan and Belcher both said the event seemed successful, and I, for one, thoroughly enjoyed it and hope Down by the Riverside becomes a regular event in Macon.

If you missed the festival, there are other opportunities to learn about the history of Macon's cemeteries.

The next event the Riverside Cemetery Conservancy will host is its seventh annual Spirits in October. It's a guided tour where actors portray notable people buried in the cemetery.

Spirits in October will run Oct. 16-19 and 23-26. For more information, visit


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