Death’s Garden: The Allure of the Abandoned Cemetery


All photos of Mount Moriah Cemetery by Ed Snyder.

by Ed Snyder

Last weekend [editor’s note: actually August 28, 2010], my friend Frank and I explored Mount Moriah Cemetery (established 1855) in Southeast Philadelphia. Although I’d been there innumerable times, it’s been years since I’d explored the central monument area, which is way overgrown with trees, cascading picker vines, and poison ivy. Essentially, it’s a forest, only with tombstones in it!

Frank had heard stories about the cemetery being wild and untamed. He asked me if he should bring a weapon. A weapon? Well, maybe boots and long pants (even in this heat), because of the deer ticks. Truth be told, Mt. Moriah is in a rundown section of town (where all the best cemeteries usually are), and I agreed that we should at least bring baseball bats. However, he was referring to the “family of wild pit bulls” he heard lived in the cemetery! I had my doubts.

EPSON DSC picture

The gatehouse at Mount Moriah Cemetery

I figured if there was a family of pit bulls, they’d be living in some shelter, e.g. the crumbling brownstone gatehouse. So we decided that should be our first stop! Upon arriving, we explored but found only sordid bedding littered with condom wrappers and piles of tombstones. Tombstones? Some from the late 1800s, some from 2006. Why? In looking at Mount Moriah’s website [which was taken down in 2012], it appeared that stones got moved, then disappeared. A genealogist’s nightmare. They also said if you’re planning to visit the cemetery, “It may be worth a trip, but be prepared for confusion, frustration, and disappointment.” Hm. Now that’s enticing.

Snyder_MonitorWe actually found some interesting things in the open and trimmed newer section of the cemetery (on Kingsessing Avenue), like this marble monument to the Monitor, the Civil War submarine that engaged the Merrimac in the famous battle of the ironclads. Quite a find, certainly not disappointing! We also peeked into the chained-up mausoleum nearby and were surprised to see a shattered marble crypt door, which allowed a rare voyeuristic view of the century-old wooden casket inside.

Snyder_Compass                Snyder_Grafitti
We decided to drive as far as we could into the main section of the cemetery, where the tops of very elaborate, expensive, and graffitied monuments peek out of the brush. Some of the original weed-covered roads are still used by people to deliver old sofas and tires to their final resting place, so they are somewhat drivable (a jeep would be your vehicle of choice here). The monument you see in the photo at left is in the center of the forest, and commemorates an 1862 Masonic “Grand Tyler.” Its column must be 40 feet high and 6 feet thick at the base, topped with the largest marble compass I’ve ever seen. After hacking our way to the base of it, Frank astutely pointed out that I was standing knee-deep in poison ivy! We made our way out of the thicket and back to the car.

Driving through this jungle, straddling washed-out craters in the road, and avoiding being whipped in the face by tree branches was like being on one of those Disney rides or Universal Studios—you half-expect a velociraptor to poke its head out of the thicket. Which is about when we saw the pit bulls!

Snyder_KeystoneTwo large brown puppies went scampering off down a path near the Keystone monument above. We stopped earlier to photograph it, but hadn’t noticed the dogs. Of course, we were looking up at the time. Gee, let’s get out now and see how protective the mother is! No, really, at that point, I wished the convertible top of my car went up a bit faster. We decided to bravely drive away.

At one point on a side road — a path, really — we dead-ended at a pile of lumber and other rubbish. (Here’s my car at that point.) As I backed the car out for about ten minutes to get to a different side road so we could turn around without getting lost, it became apparent to me that Saabs are just not good off-road vehicles. Well, the cemetery’s website did say to be prepared for confusion and frustration….

With a sigh of relief, we found our way out of the woods into a clearing, and then back to familiar territory: the pile of unused concrete crypts near the gatehouse. We were certainly not disappointed that the mama pit bull decided to keep a low profile that day.

Is Mount Moriah a sad commentary on our city or a wondrous attraction for the urban explorer of abandoned places? I can’t be judgmental as to the former and am sorry that the cemetery has been allowed to devolve to this sad state. However, it allows one to contemplate the detritus of human endeavor. We erect monuments to the deceased (ourselves) for a purpose, but attempts to preserve memories can be undermined. Vandals, time, and weather erode efforts at immortality. The corruption of the cemetery seems to affirm, rather than deny, the decay down below. Seeing it in this condition, you feel you are witnessing the final disappearance of the spirits of the interred.

I wrote the above account in 2010, never guessing that years later I would find myself on the Board of Directors of a Friends group making every attempt to save this massive historic cemetery. How it got to the condition I described in 2010 seems to have been a result of gross mismanagement and negligence—perhaps 100 years of this. When Harry Houdini visited the grave of his idol Robert Heller here in 1910, he was dismayed at the condition of the cemetery. But it doesn’t have to be that way. If people join together for a common goal, miracles sometimes happen. Respect for the dead is a powerful thing.

I published a few posts like the one above on my Cemetery Traveler blog between 2010 and 2012 and got quite a few people riled up. Local residents, descendants of those interred, the City of Philadelphia, and numerous other concerned citizens nationwide were appalled and irate.

The situation at the cemetery got to the point where the City of Philadelphia felt obligated to step in and haul away the abandoned cars, round up the feral dogs, and barricade the entrances. A grassroots Friends group formed: The Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc. (FOMMCI). After a few run-ins with them, they became convinced, as did I, that I wanted to help save the cemetery. At approximately 300 acres and over 80,000 graves, Mount Moriah is possibly the largest cemetery in Pennsylvania. It likely was the largest abandoned cemetery  in the U.S. in 2010.

It is no longer abandoned. The FOMMCI has worked tirelessly since 2012, engaging thousands of volunteers to clean up and take back from nature this overgrown green space in urban Philadelphia. If not for the efforts of so many concerned with showing respect for our dead, Mount Moriah would have been left to die on the vine — or by the vine, more literally.

Such a dramatic display of volunteerism is hardly revolutionary (although Betsy Ross is in fact buried here); however, the sustained effort certainly is. The recently formed Mount Moriah Cemetery Preservation Corporation was legally given control of the property in 2014.

Snyder_Friends shirtIn the words of Mount Moriah resident John Whitehead’s (1948-2004) 1979 hit song, there “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now.” I continue to photograph and document Mount Moriah’s restoration progress on my Cemetery Traveler blog. For more information and a detailed history of the cemetery, please visit the FOMMCI website and Facebook group.


The first part of the this essay was published as “Pit Bulls, Deer Ticks, and Poison Ivy – The Allure of the Abandoned Cemetery”on Ed’s Cemetery Traveler blog. I invited him to update it, since I’m excited by all the work he’s inspired at Mount Moriah Cemetery.


Snyder portrait squareEd Snyder’s photography and writing converge to help society come to terms with death and dying. These creative processes help him deal with the world, with personal issues, and even to judge himself. (In retrospect, psychiatry would’ve been cheaper.) Spending time in cemeteries has helped him to prepare himself for the loss of loved ones. Seeing others find meaning in his work is an unexpected gift. Ed says, “What strikes me about the cemeteries of the Victorian era is the tremendous emphasis on art in people’s remembrance of the dead. It is almost as if their respect was more profound.”

Please check out Ed’s books Stone Angels and Digital Photography for the Impatient and his lovely photography. You can follow his cemetery explorations at the Cemetery Traveler on blogspot.


About the Death’s Garden project:

For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation — or if you got married in one. The submissions guidelines are here.

Posted in Cemetery essay, Death's Garden Revisited, Good cemetery news | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Death’s Garden: Rozz Forever

Rozz's niche at Hollywood Forever as photographed by Mason Jones.

Rozz’s niche at Hollywood Forever as photographed by Mason Jones.

by Lilah Wild

It began when I decided: fuck it, I’m going somewhere special for my 30th birthday.

Café La Bohème was a fine-dining establishment that had gotten a rep around the Los Angeles travel boards as “the goth restaurant.” I’d been curious about it for a while and, really, what better time to go? Since I live in San Francisco, it mandated a road trip southward, so we’d just have to spend the weekend. Hello, Route 5!

“We’re going to L.A.” I announced to my other half and began planning an itinerary: Forest Lawn, Trashy Lingerie, Venice Beach, Canter’s, Melrose of course. We hit the club listings and saw that Frankenstein would be playing with The Deep Eynde and The Coffin Draggers on Saturday night. Perfect! I sketched out a tentative schedule, but other than a nice dinner, didn’t have anything planned for Sunday, my birthday. I figured it would resolve itself along the way.

Our internet hotel deal landed us in a Beverly Hills three-star a few streets away from Rodeo Drive, which was a most amusing place to emerge covered in torn fishnet, heading to some bar in the middle of nowhere for a night of good deathrock. Truly, it seemed to me, there were few better ways to spend the last night of my 20s than watching a bunch of cranky old punks in ghoulface. Why be afraid of aging when there’s a whole beautiful scene that gleefully paints itself up like living corpses? You can’t get any older than dead.

Eros and Psyche in Hollywood Forever, photo by Loren Rhoads

Eros and Psyche in Hollywood Forever. Photo by Loren Rhoads.

After a couple of drinks and watching The Deep Eynde transcend the ’70s-era wood-paneled stage ambiance, we noticed a vendor table and went to investigate. Pins! Little death pins! And lots of them. While I picked out a handful for my jacket, the guy behind the table taunted me: “Why don’t you have any pins on your jacket! He’s got pins on his jacket!” That made me smile, because I put them all over my other half’s lapels earlier over lunch at Duke’s.

After our purchase, the vendor handed us each a free pin. He refused to sell those particular ones during April: an image of Rozz Williams. We looked at each other: yeah, that’s right, this is around when it happened. Everything fell into place: we’d spend my birthday paying a visit to Rozz.

Hollywood Forever by Loren Rhoads.

Hollywood Forever by Loren Rhoads.

Hollywood Forever sits on Santa Monica Boulevard, amidst the bustle of discount clothing stores, burrito joints, impatient traffic. Daily life whirls on all around it, but when you pass through the gates, it provides an impressive pocket of peace and quiet. We pulled in and made the assumption that Rozz was in the cemetery and — judging from the size of the place — we would need a map to find him. So off to the gift shop it was. The souvenir map was scattered with stars for all the celebrities buried within. It turned out that Rozz was in the columbarium. I’d been told that the one in S.F. was an intriguing place to visit, but I still hadn’t made it yet, so this was my first time to see how cremated remains were laid to rest.

The first room in the building was a chapel, with a box of tissues considerately placed at the end of each pew. Behind this we entered the columbarium proper. The place was like nothing I’d ever seen before — it had the gilded elegance of a department store, the hush and order of a library, with a large fountain splashing away in the center, and golden afternoon light spilling down from overhead. The walls and pillars were inlaid with hundreds of little windows. Wondrous. We circled the perimeter of the room, gazing into the boxes. The first floor had a more somber tone, with what looked like books inscribed with the names of the deceased. Things got more interesting on the second floor, where we’d been directed to find Rozz.

Many of the cases were still empty — Hollywood Forever’s website touts the columbarium as a unique yet cost-effective place of remembrance, but it looks like it’s still in the midst of catching on. That made the few occupied boxes stand out and catch our attention, with their urns and photos and mementos nestled in soft beds of velvet and satin. The first case I saw contained a photograph of a glamorous blonde, caught in a sunlit smile. A small poster of a pulp flick she’d starred in stood alongside a Seraphim Classics angel figurine, her business card, and headshots of all the various looks she could pull off. It looked like she’d quite enjoyed playing the vamp. A necklace curled in a corner. Taped to the glass was a card left by a visitor. Going from the indie film credit and her obvious love for dress-up, I couldn’t help but smile back at this complete stranger: this was someone after my own heart.

Douglas Fairbanks' monument, Hollywood Forever. Photo by Loren Rhoads.

Douglas Fairbanks’ monument, Hollywood Forever. Photo by Loren Rhoads.

A few cases down, an officer’s cap was surrounded by press clippings and photographs of a gorgeous Asian pinup girl and her military paramour clinking champagne glasses, somewhere in the middle of the past century. Across the room, a man sporting a DA ’do was captured in the midst of a fierce dance step before a band, eyes closed and every nerve alive. His ashes were kept in a box covered with vibrant tattoo art.

Every so often, we’d run across a cherub statue perched atop a luxurious drape of fabric, with a discreet advertisement for the columbarium’s memorial options.

I walked around the room, enamored by each tiny stage: so much like my altar at home, with all the treasures I’ve accumulated over time, each representing a different facet of my spirit. These little shrines seemed so warm and intimate, infused with such a flavor of personality, compared to the cold stone slabs outside, marked with only names and years or maybe some lovely but generic statuary, not much else beyond a lump of marble to tell you about the person resting there.

We found Rozz in a pillar next to the staircase. His ashes were in a ceramic urn, flanked by a dead rose and a handwritten note. There were faint lipstick traces on the glass where someone had kissed him goodbye, along with fingerprints tracing out the Christian Death symbol, a X transposed over a cross. In reading the note, I cursed not having a pen. There were a couple of lines I wanted to remember, which I paraphrase here:

I erect a burning temple in my heart, to house such treasures as these
A thousand starlit memories to comfort me in my hours of need…

Outside the case, there was a sconce to the right, inside which curled a zine bearing Galaxxy Chamber’s contact info. I badly wanted to pull it down and read it, but decorum prevented me. On the floor lay a small stack of flyers for some band’s Rozz Williams tribute night, along with their CD and two dozen roses. Initially, I was put off that someone was using a grave as a place to promote their night — some people never quit — but later thought about how I wouldn’t mind my resting place being used as a crossroads of sorts, a place for the living to connect with each other. Still involved in the community after my death: I wouldn’t mind that at all.

Hollywood Forever photo by Loren Rhoads

Jayne Mansfield’s cenotaph in Hollywood Forever. Photo by Loren Rhoads.

We spent a lot more time at Hollywood Forever than anticipated. We walked out of the columbarium and lingered over the rest of the grounds, exploring with our map. Brushed dirt from Jayne Mansfield’s elegant cenotaph. Frowned on the impersonal, filing-cabinet layout of the mausoleum in the back. Grinned at Mel Blanc’s “That’s all, folks!” written across his tombstone.

We mused on the things we’d put in our own display cases. A few weeks before, an online quiz made the rounds among my LiveJournal friends and was one of the rare few I’d participated in. Unlike the kazillion “What kind of meatloaf are you?” personality tests, this one asked you to name 12 things you’d put in a box to tell someone about yourself. I’d included a bottle of theatrical blood, a silver pentacle, a Skinny Puppy cassette, a sprig of white sage, a pair of kitty ears. It seemed an eerie foreshadowing of today’s visit, since all those windows asked me this same question on a much more permanent level: what would I leave behind to tell the world what my life was about? What will define me when I’m gone? Walking past the graves back to the car, I thought about how the first three decades of my life were over and how much more I want to do. That how I decided to spend the time ahead of me was what would ultimately end up behind that glass. Forever.

Choose it carefully, kid.

Dinner that night at La Bohème was absolutely sublime.


This essay originally appeared in Morbid Curiosity #9. Reprinted here with Lilah’s kind permission.


Lilah photoLilah Wild’s dark fiction is an ongoing search for hidden cauldrons within the modern landscape, exploring the contemporary fantastic and horrific. She is a graduate of Clarion West and a member of NYC-based writing group Altered Fluid. Her work has appeared in Pseudopod, Spinetinglers, Not One of Us, Dark Tales from Elder Regions: New York, Niteblade, and other venues of quality scrawl. When she’s not elucidating on Old Hollywood screen goddesses or the blood and fire quotient of metal videos that purport to be evil, Lilah can be found dabbling in tribal fusion bellydancing, hiking the deco puzzlebox of Manhattan, or running away to the beach. She lives in Queens amid a clamor of doom metal noodling and four cats.



About the Death’s Garden project:

For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation. The submissions guidelines are here.

Posted in Cemetery essay, Death's Garden Revisited | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

Death’s Garden: A Message In the Grass

All photos by Patricia Merewether.

All photos by Patricia Merewether.

by Patricia Merewether

I practically ran the six blocks from my elementary school to our street. I was ten years old. Two events made it nearly impossible for me to focus on the chalkboard or Sister Grace Esther’s lessons that day. The first was that my grandmother waited for me; she’d taken a Greyhound bus from Pittsburgh all the way to our house in Detroit to spend the week with us. But the best thing was that Mom was bringing my new brother home from the hospital. I’d always wanted a brother or sister, like other kids, and now he was coming home!

I turned the corner to see Grandma, her white curls, blue housedress, and sturdy black grandma Shoes, pacing at the end of the driveway. That seemed odd, but I was so excited to see her that I ran even faster, calling “Grandma!” I ran to her so fast that I nearly knocked her over with my hug. But as I grinned up at her, her face looked strange. Her gray eyes didn’t crinkle in smile lines like they usually did and her chin was shaking. She looked so sad.

She said, “Patty, your brother died.”


“Your Mom and Dad had to take him back to the hospital and there was something wrong with his heart. I’m so sorry.”

That’s where the memory always fades to black. I don’t remember a thing until we drove through the cemetery. I remember the little fancy houses that I later learned were mausoleums. I wondered if the man in the news, whose name sounded the same, lived in them. Then the car drove to the very back of the cemetery, where the chain-link fence was, just like ours at home. We got out of the car and walked toward a little crooked pine tree. It was about the same size as me. I wondered how such a crooked little tree could be so green and healthy looking.

At the base of the tree lay the flat, cold-looking stone with Matthew Richard Bamford and dates carved into it. The thought of my baby brother in a box under the ground proved too much for me and I ran back to the car. I met deep, painful sorrow, a feeling that rivals the cancer and other surgeries I’d have over my lifetime.

I grew up and married. My parents moved to another state. Many years later, my dad drove back to Michigan to visit. He and I went to the cemetery. I was amazed that the little crooked tree had grown taller, as had I, so the effect threw me back to that first visit.

When we looked for the stone, it was gone. How could that be? Who would take a plain, flat, simple marker from an infant’s grave?

Dad’s knees were bad. He just stared at the spot, tears rolling down his weathered cheeks. I knelt, placed my hand where it had been, and felt something hard beneath the grass.

“Dad! It’s here. The grass has just grown over it. Give me your pocketknife!”

MATTHEWSTREEI carefully cut all the way around the edges, then lifted the small green carpet of turf away and laid it aside. We stared down at the carved letters. I poured my bottle of water over it and wiped it clean with my tissues. It looked as new and fresh as that first day!

When it was time to go, I lifted the rectangle of grass to carry it to the trash. My dad said, “Patty, look!”

He pointed to the bottom of the mass of roots. The soil and water had pulled them into the carvings. There, in what looked like cursive because of the way the roots connected the letters, was a perfect copy, in reverse, of my brother’s name formed by nature and time. I felt a little chill and a presence. I looked around as if expecting to see the little boy that never was.


patwhitehatPatricia Merewether is an artist and writer.  Her articles and short stories have appeared in magazines such as Country Folk Art, Greenprints and Western Lifestyles.  Her paintings are available on her facebook page Patsarts and on  She lives in rural Michigan with her husband, two rescue pups, and about a dozen stray cats that she feeds twice a day.


About the Death’s Garden project:

For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation. The submissions guidelines are here.

Posted in Cemetery essay, Death's Garden Revisited | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Death’s Garden: The Sacred Heart

Photos of Sacred Heart Cemetery by Robert Holt.

Photos of Sacred Heart Cemetery by Robert Holt.

by Robert Holt

Born with great gusto and dying in the early hours, the life of a party ends when the host announces she is going to bed but that everyone is welcome to stay. Nobody ever stays, except the closest friends, and usually they have the party taken out of them and are only staying to help clean up. This was the case of the party in 1999, the year of the Y2K scare, the year I turned twenty-one.

The party was a close friend’s. It wasn’t my birthday party, although it was held just two days after my birthday. Most of the people there I did not know or knew only as passing faces from earlier parties.

When the host drifted toward her bed, I was left with only one other straggler: our host’s childhood friend who had rekindled the friendship recently. I knew Jessica as the long-legged brunette that regularly did yoga. The numerous stories I had heard about her had conglomerated into a mishmash of our host’s other friends, all of whose names also began with J. What I did know about her was that she was beautiful and way out of my dating league.

I walked from the living room to the kitchen, carrying the remainder of beer bottles and dumped them into the trash can. Jessica was there hand-washing a serving tray. “I guess we should go,” she said. I wondered if she was waiting for me to leave out of a lack of trust for me.

“Yeah.” I pulled out my keys. “I guess I’ll see you later.”

“It seems a waste to end the night so early.”

I looked at the clock. It was nearly one in the morning. “Want to try and make last call somewhere?”

She shook her head. “We would never make it. Besides, we have beer here.”

“Do you want to stay here for another beer?”

“Not really. I’m just not ready to end the night.”

I thought for a moment. “Do you want to grab a few beers and take a walk?”

She smiled and her face shone with an amber glow. “Where to?”

I shrugged my shoulders. “I thought just a walk. Or maybe down to the cemetery to tell ghost stories.”

“Sure,” she said to my surprise. “That sounds like fun.”

Several beers were opened. We set off on a mile walk to the Sacred Heart Cemetery, nestled back in the woods off the Meramec River just south of Saint Louis. We got less than a quarter-mile from the house before an officer pulled up beside us and asked us to pour out our beers. We did and continued our journey under the bright summer sky.

The sidewalk ended and we walked side by side in the narrow street, talking about college and work and dreams. She knew my birthday had just happened and insisted on walking on the outside. “The eldest always walks on the outside,” she said. “You have more life ahead of you. This way a car would hit me and not you.” She was ten months older.

IMG_8651I laughed and put my hands on her hips and moved her to the inside. The moment my hands touched her, I felt a shocking thrill pulse through my body. I was thankful for the darkness so she couldn’t see me blushing.

As we reached the heavy raw-iron gate with Sacred Heart spelled out over it, I turned to her. I felt my pulse quickening in my neck. “Do you still want to do this?” I half-hoped she would chicken out so that I could comfort her fears and not go through the open gate.

“I’m game.” She grabbed my hand, sending another wave of excitement through me. “But only if you promise to stay with me.” With that said, she led the way into the cemetery. As we stepped into the soft grass, a cold breeze blew in from the river. I stepped ahead of her and took the lead. In the center of the cemetery was a bench and a monument. I pulled her gently to the bench. We sat down and continued our conversation from the road. The temperature continued to drop. A low, snaking fog rose up from the grass, sending clouds puffing up with each movement of our feet. After we sat for a few minutes, talking in hushed shaking voices, a cricket chirped near us.

“What was that?” She squirmed closer to me.

“It was just a cricket.” I put my hand on her knee. “Just a cricket.”

IMG_1903She shifted her weight and I brought my hand back nervously. A tree frog chirped. She jerked and shuddered.

“Just a frog,” I told her quickly.

“Are you sure?”

I laughed. “Yes, I’m sure.”

After another few minutes, a screech owl joined the conversation with its piercing cry.

Jessica jumped to her feet. “What the hell was that? What the hell!?”

I grabbed her hand. “It was an owl.”


“An owl, it was a screech owl, and it is really close, but it won’t hurt us. If you want to leave, though, we can.”

Jessica sat back down. “No, not until you’re ready.” She flinched as the tree frog chirped. Her whole body tensed. I slid my arm around her. She jumped at the touch and laughed and fell into my chest for a second. “Aren’t you scared?”

I smiled at her. “I told you, I want to be a horror writer. I like being scared. So, yeah, I’m scared out of my mind right now, and I’ve never been happier.”

She looked at me. In the cold summer night’s light, I thought for a second that she might let me kiss her. This beautiful woman might actually let me kiss her.

IMG_8654The moment was shattered as quickly as it came by the angry barks of dogs. “Now it’s time to go,” I said. We ran toward the gate, laughing with fear.

Our walk back was spent laughing at our foolishness and playfully fighting over who had to walk on the inside. As we got back to our cars, I got a pen and wrote her my phone number. “I had fun,” I said, “I would like to hang out again sometime.”

She smiled and said a noncommittal “Sure,” and I left.

I slept until noon the next day. She called a half-hour later.

We were married in 2003 and our daughter was born in 2009, our sacred heart.


DSC00247Robert Holt is an author who ranges from splatterpunk horror to children’s literature. He currently has two books available on Amazon: Death’s Disciples and The Vegetarian Werewolf and Other Stories.

Follow him on Twitter @HoltHorror or on Facebook at


About the Death’s Garden project:

For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation. The submissions guidelines are here.

Posted in Cemetery essay, Death's Garden Revisited | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Death’s Garden: Toasting a Ghost in Northern Ireland

James Read's grave in Ireland. Photo by Anne Born.

James Read’s grave in Ireland. Photo by Anne Born.

by Anne Born

Have you ever gone on a quest? Have you looked for your own Holy Grail? Sometimes it’s tracking down the third book in a series or another copy of a book you loaned out but never got back. Maybe it’s a search for the perfect Piña Colada or Sangria. My quest began when I started looking for my great-great-grandfather, James Read. He died in 1871. I began a quest to find his grave.

I found the family name in a 19th-century city directory online, the rough equivalent of an old phone book. What came next was an avalanche of data on this man and his career as a newspaperman, postmaster, merchant, and printer in the town of Larne. His wife became postmistress after he died.

So I got on a plane for Ireland, made an appointment to meet with the town librarian, and pre-ordered up archival paper copies of his newspaper. I took a bus to the Larne library, where his newspapers were waiting for me. This library had a complete set of his paper, either on paper or on film. I was ecstatic, but my quest was only beginning.

I sat down to browse through the papers. Read had featured poetry and excerpts from novels alongside news about the world, about travel, and about the fairy folk who were wreaking havoc on local horse barns and the neighbors’ crops. All the while, a man sat across from me, reading old papers from Ballymena. I smiled at him when I sat down, but we hadn’t said anything.

The librarian came over to check on me and said, “You know, you might want to speak with the local historian while you are here. That’s him right there.”

I extended my hand and said, “Is it really you? I’ve read your book. I’m from New York and I am the great-great-granddaughter of your postmaster.”

James Read's newspaper. Photo by Anne Born.

James Read’s newspaper. Photo by Anne Born.

He stopped what he was doing and took my hand. “James Read’s family? Let me take you outside and show you your great-great-grandfather’s post office.”

With that, we took off. We walked down the hill into town and he showed me the older buildings, saying, “That’s a building your family would have known,” or “That’s a building that was here when he was.” He brought me into the current newspaper office and introduced me as if I were a celebrity, saying, “This is his great-great-granddaughter. She’s a writer. You might want to do a story on her visiting us.”

We went back up to the library and I asked him the most important question: where would I find James Read’s grave?

“Well,” he said, “there are two cemeteries here. He’s going to be in one or the other; you will just have to look.”

I thanked him and he left to run some errands. I stopped into the local bookstore to buy copies of his other books and then I took off in search of James Read’s grave.

I tried the closer of the two cemeteries first, the one in front of the church by the river. It was well-kept. People had collected all the fallen headstones and set them up, one next to the other, to form a kind of spirit fence around the yard. It made reading them very easy, but they were dislocated from their graves. I worried that even if I found his name, I would never know which was his grave.

After about 45 minutes, I had scanned most of the headstones. I felt deep down that I was just in the wrong place, like I was being pulled away, so I took some last photographs and walked up the hill to the edge of town where the second cemetery sat alongside the highway. It was significantly larger than the first. I was convinced I would never find him, even if this was where he was buried. But this was a quest after all and a quest is rarely easy.

I stepped through the gate and surveyed McGarel Cemetery. It was really large. I found out later it was divided into two sections, the Catholics in one and the Protestants in the other. My quest looked hopeless. Suddenly I remembered something my mother used to tell me: When it looks hopeless, try prayer. I was in a cemetery, after all, and saying a prayer in a cemetery wasn’t all that extreme an activity. I prayed to his patron saint, Saint James, just to let me find my James so I could pay my respects. I was connecting with my family and it was important to me.

I was running out of daylight, but I felt sure I was in the right place. I decided to take the point of view of the game piece on a Ouija Board and let the spirits or souls in the cemetery pull or push me until I found what I had come looking for.

Up one row of headstones along the left side of the grounds and then, back down the other, reading stone after stone, I kept being pulled to the central path. I was all alone with just the sound of some cars behind me on their way into town. Then I closed my eyes, imagined finding the grave, and started to walk up to the right, near the opposite edge of the grounds and along the fence.

And there he was. I stood in front of a tall, vine-encrusted stone monument that proclaimed the death of the town postmaster. It was surrounded by a low rail fence and littered with a sad half-dozen beer cans from the previous night’s haunted revelry. I swept the cans away and climbed over the fence to touch the stone and to read the inscription.

The inscription told me James was born in Ballymena. James’ son Robert is buried there too. I felt terrible I didn’t think to bring flowers, but I can’t say that I ever seriously believed I could find him. Yet there he was. There we were. I think we had really just found each other.

I celebrated that evening with a lovely chilled champagne back at my hotel. I was staying at a certifiably haunted castle just a bit further up the road in Ballygally and I thought it would be the perfect thing: to toast the ghost of my ancestor. I toasted St. James too, of course, for leading me to him.


401113_352887774743767_1246657870_nAnne Born: Pilgrim, writer, photographer, mom. Look for her books A Marshmallow on the Bus: A Collection of Stories Written on the MTA (June 2014) and Prayer Beads on the Train: Another Collection of Stories Written on the MTA (March 2015) at the NY Transit Museum Store, Word Up Community Bookstore, CreateSpace, Q.E.D. Astoria, and Amazon.

Check out her new radio show on Our Salon Radio: Born in the Bronx.

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About the Death’s Garden project:

For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation. The submissions guidelines are here.

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