It was a warm, sunny afternoon in early October when Shannon and I rode our bikes through Lake View Cemetery. Large, and never crowded, with smooth blacktopped, winding roads, and rolling hills, it is one of my favorite places to ride my bike in town. Tall mature trees offer cool shade in summer, and the crunch of fallen leaves in autumn. Little whirlwinds of them rustled as we sped past the final resting places of our town’s former inhabitants; I love the sound of rustling leaves in autumn. I love cemeteries, and ours was especially beautiful on this gorgeous autumn afternoon.
It’s been said I spend an inordinate amount of time in cemeteries.
From small, local graveyards, to well-known historical final resting places, I’ve visited cemeteries wherever I’ve lived and traveled. I’ve seen the ancient and mysterious burial grounds of Stonehenge, and the hauntingly beautiful Pére Lachaise Cemetery in Paris that has an interment list that reads like a who’s who of the once famous/now dead: Balzac, Oscar Wilde, Chopin, Edith Piaf, Gertrude Stein, Sarah Bernhardt, Isadora Duncan, Pissarro, Marcel Marceau, and Jim Morrison are all buried there.
The symmetry in the rows of simple white headstones in Arlington National Cemetery is somberly moving, and the “Cities of the Dead” in New Orleans with their above ground crypts and voodoo queen legends are among the creepiest. The most populated may be The Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague with tombstones so close together they’re nearly back-to-back, and interred bodies twelve layers deep. Twelve thousand headstones are visible, but it’s estimated closer to 100,000 people are buried there. The nearby Holocaust Victims Memorial in Pinkas Synagogue is a stark reminder of man’s atrocities; with nearly 80,000 names of Bohemian and Moravian Jews, it is thought to be the world’s largest epitaph.
Some epitaphs become famous for the cleverness or humor in them. Ben Franklin wrote his own epitaph when he was a young man.
The Body of
Like the Cover of an old Book,
Its Contents torn out,
And stript of its Lettering and Gilding,
Lies here, Food for Worms.
But the Work shall not be wholly lost:
For it will, as he believ'd, appear once more,
In a new & more perfect Edition,
Corrected and Amended
By the Author.
The epitaph, though, does not appear on his grave in Philadelphia’s Christ Church Burial Grounds. Only the names of he and his wife with the date 1790 are written on the marble slab adorned with pennies. It’s Franklin who is credited with the adage, “A penny saved is a penny earned”, and visitors to his gravesite (which is coincidently across from the U.S. Mint) toss pennies on the slab for good luck.
I’ve been fascinated with cemeteries since I was a kid, visiting my cousin’s house out in the country. She and I would ride our bikes down the dirt and gravel road to the cemetery; the cemetery had paved roads which were much better for riding bikes than dirt ones. Spending an inordinate amount of time in a cemetery when you're a kid means adventure. We knew where all the cool graves were (the ones with the locket-type thingies on them that opened up to reveal the deceased’s photo), the slightly creepy graves (where the ground was mushy), and the better-not-even-go-near-it graves (the haunted ones, of course – haunted only because of the stories told to us by the older kids, or those we concocted ourselves).
Some headstones can’t help but make you wonder about the life of the person buried there.
But once the final curtain was drawn…
Their lives forever remain cloaked in mystery, leaving it only to our imagination.
Why, for example, is the Good Reverend Snyder’s grave marked with a plain rock? Does this pauper’s type headstone symbolize a life lived without worldly possessions in anticipation of receiving greater gifts in the afterlife?
The designs of tombstones are not purely decoration, but most have symbolic meaning, some of which has been nearly forgotten over time.
Time and weather wore away nearly everything but the oak leaf on this simple, yet still beautiful headstone. On tombstones, oak trees, leaves, and acorns represent strength, honor, stability, and long life.
Oak leaves are present too, at the base of this towering monument. The woman holding an anchor is often a symbol of hope, or someone lost at sea; in this case, perhaps the unpredictable waters of Lake Michigan claimed another victim.
The fern growing at the base of this tombstone symbolizes humility and sincerity. Headstones in the shape of tree trunks typically mark the graves of Woodmen of the World members; the stones were a benefit of membership that was discontinued due to costs in the late 1920s.
When exploring the gravesites, I stick to the cemetery’s older sections. It’s not necessarily that the tombstones there are more interesting than more recent ones, but to me it seems somewhat disrespectful to imagine the lives and deaths of people who are still close in the hearts of family and friends.
A few weeks after our bike ride, I returned to the cemetery on a gray, rainy day, this time alone and on foot. Gloomy, cold, and with Halloween just around the corner, the unsettling atmosphere seemed appropriate.
This the season to wonder what lurks behind those monuments on the hill....
What family secrets were taken to the grave, and are best left buried forever under rock and earth?
In all the time I’ve been alone in the cemetery, I’ve only been truly scared just once…
I love cross-country skiing in the cemetery as much as I love bike riding there. It was sunny when I left the house on my skis just after a storm that dumped two feet of snow finally let up. At the cemetery, the deep snow made it impossible to actually see the roads; I only knew I was on them was because I wasn't running into headstones. Without warning another system blew in over the lake, changing the blue sky to dark gray in an instant. The snow came down hard and fast. In nearly white-out conditions, I couldn't see three feet in front of me, much less where I thought the road should be. Evidently, I misjudged and ended up skiing among the graves.
It was slow moving; more like plodding than skiing, and I was growing tired. Stopping to get my bearings, I chose to the nearest place to rest – which was on William "Buddy" Q. Hill’s grave. I apologized to Buddy as I sat on his headstone. Quite suddenly, I found myself lying on the ground in what seemed to me to be a rather odd position. I hadn’t fallen backwards off the headstone as one might expect; I wasn’t laying face down in the snow in front of it either. I was flat on my back, directly on top of the grave with my head resting against Buddy’s headstone.
I gave a little laugh – that nervous kind of laughter that happens almost involuntarily when you don’t quite understand what happened.
You know how sometimes you can freak yourself out with just your imagination?
I laid there half buried in the snow, and staring up at a completely white sky with big, wet flakes quickly covering my face. It was kind of calming for a moment, but in an instant burst of irrational fear, I imagined an arm on either side of me reaching up, and pulling me under. No one would know what happened; all my tracks would soon be erased by snow. I would have simply disappeared without a trace. I rolled off the grave, and made a beeline for the cemetery's exit, not caring if I was on the road or not.
I’ve passed by Buddy’s grave every so often since then. (It sits fairly close to the road; only a few more feet and I would have been there!) For the same reasons I prefer the older graves, I haven’t wondered too much about Buddy, except to note he was born less than 10 years ahead of me, and that he died very young, at age 18. Instead of imagining what his life was like or why he died so young, every time I pass by I nod, or say “hi, Buddy.” It seems the respectful thing to do.
Despite stories of ghostly apparitions and haunted graveyards, I recently read that cemeteries are not a typical place for restless spirits to roam. Grisly murders, untimely deaths, and unfinished business - a spirit will haunt the places where these events took place. Cemeteries are just final resting places for the body, not the spirit. Ghosts inhabit a cemetery only when their graves have been disturbed in some way – by things such as improper burials, grave robbers, or natural disasters. Or perhaps someone sitting on a headstone in need of a gentle little push to be reminded to respect the dead.
Or maybe I just slipped.
Happy Halloween, Everyone.