by Joanne M. Austin
Many abandoned bits of civilization are found in the woods in the part of New Jersey where I live: towns that simply disappeared off the map, for one reason or another. Their remnants include foundations of buildings, mine shafts, and cemeteries. The closest I’ve ever come to a haunting was in one of these forgotten cemeteries.
Cherry Ridge Cemetery is located somewhere off the New York–Tennessee gas pipeline that runs through the area. It served families living in the area, until they were bought out by the state so that a reservoir could be built to supply the city of Newark with clean drinking water. According to local lore, the cemetery is haunted. You can hear strange noises, moaning, and even music and laughter there.
One day I was hiking along the gas pipeline with friends. The pipeline is buried, so there’s a large clearing along it that makes for a wide trail that’s unobstructed, except for the occasional bog or boulder. We had come to a spot high up on a hill, where we could look ahead at the other hills along the pipeline—a vista that brought to mind a roller coaster. We stopped for a little while to rest.
As a hiker who subscribes to the “take only pictures, leave only footprints” philosophy, I don’t normally pick wildflowers on a trail. Today was different. These pretty little purple flowers grew just off the pipeline. Something made me pick a few. I thought I could either put them in water or press them in a book when I got home—again, not things I normally do. My friends kidded me about my breach of hiking protocol.
We decided to head back the way we had come. We had planned to visit Cherry Ridge Cemetery, which we knew was somewhere off the pipeline, on our way back. We weren’t sure exactly where.
When I came to a certain spot along the pipeline, I had a hunch that the cemetery lay off to our right. Even though nothing indicated the cemetery was nearby—no trail, no markings—I slipped into the forest. The rest of the group followed. We scuttled around for a short time in the dry leaves and undergrowth. Then I saw the graves, most of them sunken, with headstones broken or long gone.
I was drawn to the cemetery’s back corner. There I found the gravestone of Katie Rome, one of the youngest marked occupants of the cemetery, who died in 1880 when she was only three. Buried next to her was her mother Lucretia, who died only a few years after Katie.
As I stood there, I suddenly knew why I had picked the flowers. I crouched and put most of the flowers on Katie’s grave, then left the rest with her mom.
Michelle, one of the friends I was hiking with, said, “Oh, that’s so sweet of you!”
Maybe so, but I can’t help wondering how much of my kindly gesture was really under my control that day. Perhaps I had some help from a small, long-deceased child, who in life had a penchant for pretty little purple flowers.
Joanne M. Austin is senior editor at Weird NJ magazine, where she has compiled anthologies of ghost stories and sometimes writes on a wide range of topics including automata, dangerous amusement parks, and scary roads. She lives a semi-bucolic and rather un-edgy life in northwestern New Jersey. You can see more of her work at joannemaustin.com.
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.