University City

Cemetery to host live Nativity program

It's not uncommon for churches to host live Nativity scenes, complete with actors and live animals, during the Christmas season.

But one such event in the University City area this month offers an unexpected setting: a cemetery.

"We thought it would bring people into our place who may not normally come," said John Gouch Jr., general manager of Gethsemane Cemetery and Memorial Gardens.

Gouch's father, dentist John Gouch, bought the cemetery six years ago from Northside Baptist Church, which was selling the land to raise money to renovate its parking lot. Gouch Jr. was finishing a master's degree at UNC Chapel Hill when his dad asked him to join the business venture.

"He said, 'Come on back to town and we'll figure this thing out together,' " Gouch Jr. said.

Gouch Jr. was raised in the University City area and graduated from Northside Christian Academy. His master's degree would have qualified him to teach at a dental school. But he says now he can't imagine not running the cemetery.

The Gouch family even found a personal connection in the cemetery records. Gouch Jr.'s great-grandmother, Martha Marion, was the first person buried there.

"It's been a great fit," Gouch Jr. said. "You're working with families in a tough time, but at the same time it's a chance to minister to them. I definitely don't see myself doing anything else at this point.

"It's been a blessing that fell in our laps."

The Gouch family wants Gethsemane, which the church opened in 1975, to be a more visible part of the community. They've added Gracie, an Australian shepherd, to the cemetery grounds to keep away the hundreds of Canadian geese that used to frequent the property. Now, families can come to the lake to picnic or hang out, which Gouch Jr. said can be therapeutic.

"Our goal was to use what we have here as a way to serve the community and treat it almost like a park," he said.

Two years ago, Gouch introduced the live Nativity - something his family always enjoyed - so the community would have one close to home to attend. The biblical manger scene is staged in the gardens' gazebo, near the entrance, and volunteers wear costumes and play the roles.

A local company supplies live animals, including a camel, sheep, cow and goats. Other animals are available for children to pet, Gouch said.

Organizers also will set up tents with fire pits for roasting marshmallows, hot chocolate, popcorn and other snacks. There will be carriage rides and a reading of the Nativity story.

The first live Nativity event drew more than 400 people over two nights, and Gouch hopes it will become a tradition in the community.

"It's a way to spread the Christmas spirit," he said.