Two Columbia dads show Halloween spirit with homemade cemetery

Saturday, October 29, 2011 | 7:19 p.m. CDT; updated 3:58 a.m. CST, Monday, November 14, 2011
Dennis Hill, left, and Ron Graves discuss the setup of the Halloween decorations on Saturday in their front yards on Bent Oak Drive. Graves dreamed up creating a Halloween display, and for the past five years he and Hill have decorated their adjacent yards together.

COLUMBIA — Halloween starts in April for Dennis Hill and Ron Graves.

As others look forward to summer and the end of the school year, Hill, 42, and Graves 46, start making plans for their yearly Halloween display and begin to build additions to their elaborate designs.

For the past five years, the Oak Ridge subdivision next-door neighbors have turned their front yards into a haunted cemetery, complete with a tall fence and mausoleum.

They call it Hill Grave Cemetery, after their surnames.

The Hill Grave Cemetery has become a must-see for neighborhood families during the Halloween season. Last year, Hill estimates more than 200 children came out to their display on Halloween.

A few years ago, Hill said, one neighbor came over to the cemetery 45 minutes into Halloween and handed over their bowl of candy. 

“They said they were going to a movie instead,” he said. “Kids were skipping his house to come to ours.”

The cemetery takes up the neighbors' entire front yards. It spans from the front porches to the sidewalks and from one side of Hill's yard to the other side of Graves' yard, a 40-feet-by-120-feet area.

Details have been added over time, and all the decorations are handmade except for the tombstones in the front yard. 

“We’re going to make those next year,” Graves said. “The whole cemetery is going to expand even more."

It is hard to imagine what else could be added to the scene. The 4-foot-high fence surrounding the property is made from wood and PVC pipe. The points on the fence are small skulls that were originally attached to a length of plastic barbed wire. Hill and Graves didn’t throw out the wire: it’s now wrapped around the fence posts. 

“We try not to have any scraps laying around,” Graves said.

Two tall gates sit at the foot of both driveways, the doors open so Hill and Graves can still get cars in and out of their garages.

The mausoleum is the centerpiece to the cemetery. Inside, a fabric ghost glows from a black light and bobs up and down. A skeleton dressed in red hovers over the small building, looking down upon the cemetery with a devilish grin. 

On Halloween night, six fog machines will flood the neighborhood with rolling clouds.  

The fathers also dress up as characters in Hill Grave Cemetery. Hill is an undertaker who guards the cemetery, while Graves is what he would call a “demented monk.” Graves said he'll wear his usual red contacts — if they haven't dried out from last year.

The display takes about six to eight hours to set up, and costs more money than Hill or Graves want to admit.

“We’ve probably spent close to $400 this year,” Graves said. “A majority of it goes towards fog juice."

Neighbors look forward to Hill and Graves putting the scene up every year. 

“I was unloading some of the stuff last week, and someone drove by in their car and rolled down their window,” Graves said. “They said, ‘We’re so glad you’re putting that up again.’ I said, ‘Well come on and help!’”

There are children who come back to get pictures at Hill Grave Cemetery every year, Hill said. 

“You can watch kids get closer, and they start to get excited,” he said. “Kids will skip houses just to get here faster."

When Halloween is over, Hill and Graves will spend about four hours taking the cemetery apart, and the pieces will be put in storage units until next year.

“You get a bit sick of it by the end,” Graves said. “Things come apart a lot quicker."

Next year’s display will be even grander than this year, Graves and Hill said.

“We’re taking November off, planning and purchasing supplies in December, and then we’ll start building in January,” Hill said.

Graves wants to build homemade animatronics and use air pressure for the new display. 

They hope that their children will eventually begin to help with the display. Hill has a 13-year-old daughter, Julia, and a 10-year-old son, Bryce. Graves has two sons, Matthew, 12, and Will, 5.

“We want to continue this for a long time,” Graves said. “As long as we can."

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