Emerian Rich is a kindred soul, albeit with a much better fashion sense than mine. I met her through a a Facebook group dedicated to women who write horror. She invited me to contribute to The Horror Addicts’ Guide to Life, then invited me to join her — the first time I attended BayCon — in a group reading from that book. It was amazing to meet her in person. She is a bundle of energy. Since then, we’ve gone to conventions together, we’ve done readings together, we’ve poked around graveyards together… and I’ll have several cemetery pieces in her upcoming book The Horror Addicts’ Guide to Life 2.
Emerian wrote a really lovely piece for Death’s Garden Revisited called “How the Forgotten Angels Saved My Life,” which is about how she pulled herself out of a depression by caring for the neglected graves of long-dead children.
Emerian Rich is the author of the vampire book series Night’s Knights. She’s been published in a handful of anthologies by publishers such as Dragon Moon Press, Hidden Thoughts Press, and White Wolf Press. She is the podcast horror hostess for the internationally acclaimed HorrorAddicts.net show.
What’s your favorite thing to do in a cemetery?
Soak in the ambiance and write. I also like to do etchings of the gravestones, if they have an interesting carving on them.
Tell me about your favorite cemetery.
I think it’s St. Stephen’s, the one I wrote about. It’s small and forgotten, but that is part of what makes it unique to me. I also love the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland, where the ashes are kept in books, but I don’t get there as often.
Is there a cemetery or gravesite you’ve always wanted to visit?
I really want to go to New Orleans and visit Metairie Cemetery and the graves there, especially now that Anne Rice is buried there. I never got to see her in life. I’d like to pay my respects at her grave.
If you could have a say in it, what would your epitaph be?
She tried her best.
Do you have a favorite song about cemeteries or graveyards?
“Don’t Go” by Matthew Sweet – Although it’s more about losing someone than the cemetery, but the line “I can’t watch them put you in the ground” is heart-wrenching.
I had a lot of fun putting together a playlist of cemetery songs recommended by the Death’s Garden Revisited contributors. You can listen to it here.
It’s spring break of my senior year of high school and, for the second time, I am at the end of my pilgrimage. Mom let me drive down here after I swore I’d get back in time for Easter Mass and not try to skip out by complaining I was tired. I’m staying at Sarah’s — she’s a friend who moved to Irvine when we were 12 — and she drove me here today. She remembered how to get here from a year and a half ago.
Ocean View. The first time Jessica told me that Michelle was at Ocean View, I thought it sounded like a suburban apartment complex. I asked her to repeat herself. Stupid name for a cemetery, but here we are on prime oceanfront real estate, looking down at the hazy blue Pacific. We the living, of course. The ones whose families paid so much money to put them to rest here can’t see a fucking thing any more.
From up here, I can see a few skateboarders, pinwheels someone stuck into the ground, and some people who look like they’re having a picnic. The land is unbelievably smooth: thick, plush, well-tended grass. I’m almost surprised that I don’t see golfers. This place is big. Really big. The first time we came here, Sarah and I got lost, despite the map we picked up at the office. We parked the car in the right area, on Hillcrest Lane, but I couldn’t find Michelle. I thought she was in the wall — coffin high-rise, space-saver — and I just about got frantic looking for her. When I found her grave, I dropped to the ground and started sobbing. I was so relieved.
“Loving daughter,” that’s all it says on the bronze plate in the ground, other than her name and the dates; I guess it’s too expensive to get a good quote. I had Sarah get out of the car and take pictures of me looking at the grave. I took a couple of the bronze plate. When I got back home, the others all wanted copies, because no one else could afford to get down here and see her for themselves. Relics: we were all pretty morbid back then. We kept any tangible objects connected to her that her mom didn’t demand we return, even the little plastic dinosaurs she used to collect. I got the comedy/tragedy hologram pendant she always used to wear. I’m wearing it today. It’s become my trademark. I hold on to it like a talisman during tests, because Michelle was brilliant.
Michelle killed herself when I was fourteen and a half. She was eighteen. It was a failed cry for help. The afternoon before her high school graduation, her mom found her dead on her bedroom floor. This was two hours after they’d had a fight which ended with Michelle screaming, “I wish I was dead!” Her mom just walked out of the house.
Asphyxiation: Michelle wrapped a pair of pantyhose twice around her neck, twice around each wrist, knelt on the floor, and pulled down until she passed out. There weren’t any knots in the nylons. She just held the ends in her hands. She wasn’t stupid: she knew that when she blacked out, her grip would relax. Some time during the struggle to choke herself into unconsciousness, she must have shoved her fists under her ankles. When she passed out, she fell backward. The nylons stayed taut.
The Adams Memorial, by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Photo by Loren Rhoads.
I met Michelle through Jessica, a friend in “The Scene,” during one of our weekly trips to go dancing downtown. We were all “Gothics” or “death rockers” with black hair, black clothes, black attitudes, and white skin (by natural or artificial means — I had to use a little white clown makeup as a base). Our theme was “Every Day is Halloween.” Michelle wasn’t really part of The Scene, but she and Jessica had just started renting a place downtown, so we all went over there whenever we could. Everyone else would drop acid or snort crank, but Michelle and I would get drunk and sit in the corner, talking and rolling our eyes ironically at the others. She understood me. She even listened to me complain about my nonexistent love life. I never knew her stories until Jessica let me read Michelle’s diaries on the way to the funeral.
The funeral was packed. I don’t know what got into Michelle’s mom, but she wouldn’t let Jessica play the tape she’d made for the service. Michelle’s mom only brought one song — “Michelle” by the Beatles — which she had played over and over again. Fourteen times before the eulogy: I counted each time it started again. One of the girls with me had been frying the night before and she was freaking out so bad from that damned song that the others had to take her to the bathroom, where she threw up until she calmed down a little. But we couldn’t get them to stop playing it. I think it was a vindictive thing on her mom’s part. That song used to be a favorite. Three years later, I still can’t stay in a room where it’s played. I never realized how often they play it in department stores and dentist offices.
I held Michelle’s boyfriend Mark while we walked up to the open coffin. I had to force him to look at her, because he was trying to convince himself that she was alive, lying there. One look and you knew she wasn’t. Whoever did her makeup obviously didn’t know her. They had glued her eyelids and mouth shut. I could actually see the glue shining under her eyelashes. Her face looked collapsed, like a frog’s.
What followed for me was predictable enough, I guess: the guilt of surviving, an almost accidental alcohol and downer overdose on the four-month anniversary of her death, months of counseling. First my parents took me to a hospital psychiatrist. At our only meeting, he sang all of “Rocky Raccoon” to me — more than three minutes — just so he could point out the significance of the line “I’ll be better just as soon as I am able.”
The original Angel of Grief, English Cemetery, Florence. Photo by Loren Rhoads.
The counselor I stuck with, Michele (an ugly coincidence that almost kept me out of her office), helped me deal with the guilt. She laughed at my jokes like I was a real person, not a patient. Michele was also the first one to agree with me when I started saying that I wanted to see Michelle’s grave. I think she was kind of concerned, though. She told me about the Cult of Saints, some early Christian tradition of going on pilgrimages to visit the graves of saints and martyrs. The pilgrims thought that they could be healed by kissing the bones of the dead. Michele didn’t want me to expect too much, I guess, but it didn’t sound any different than my mom keeping holy water in the fridge for us to drink when we got sick.
I don’t know when, but at some point, love-of-life started to outweigh fear-of-death as my reason for staying alive.
I come to Michelle at Ocean View to thank her, to let her know that I never forget her. This time, I don’t need to go over the old stuff. I just tell her about stuff she missed, like the new Love and Rockets album. I tell her about Adam, too, and my now-existent love life. I don’t talk loud. I just kneel beside her and kind of mutter, just loud enough to get the vibrations into the air. If the dead can hear, that should be enough.
There’s a hole at the top of the bronze marker. I guess that’s how people get their flowers to stand up if they don’t bring a vase. Flowers. I never brought flowers, never thought about it. Anyway, the hole at Michelle’s place is empty. I reminds me of a periscope. I frighten myself by wondering how far I’d have to dig my hand into the hole before I’d touch the top of her casket. Finally, I look down the hole and see that it’s a metal cylinder with a base, so I relax. I don’t even have to think about testing it for depth.
By now I’m leaning on my arms in the grass beside Michelle. I notice that there are a hell of a lot of ants running on her marker. Then I see something that will make me sick for a long time: a thick green worm hauling itself straight up out of the grass. It stands up at the base of the marker and waves a little, getting taller and taller until it gets top-heavy and curls like a fishhook. I know she’s down there, where it came from, and I think of what worms do… I want to make sure they burn me, don’t dare put me down there like her. I can’t touch the worm or knock it away. I just jump up to go. Sarah’s still waiting in the car.
This essay originally appeared in the original volume of Death’s Garden: Relationships with Cemeteries.
Tanya Monier is a teacher, a storyteller, a blogger (the-happy-badger.blogspot.com) a crafter, a mother, a wife…not necessarily in that order. All her tattoos are on the inside.
About the Death’s Garden project:
I am getting ready to finish the Death’s Garden project. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, please get in touch SOON. 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.
May Woolsey’s gravestone, Old City Cemetery, Sacramento, California
by M. Parfitt
“You have the same hair as May Woolsey.” That comment from the volunteer coordinator at the Discovery Museum was my introduction to the twelve‑year‑old girl who would virtually take over my life during the Fall of 1996.
I was an occasional volunteer for the museum. When I originally volunteered, I offered myself as an artist. Occasionally they gave me interesting sign-making projects, and once they let me set up a small display, but to my disappointment, they just loved my speed and accuracy at the cash register. They stuck me in the gift shop for hours and hours and hours.
Many times, I’d walked past May’s hundred‑year‑old trunk full of Victorian goodies. May herself never reached across the decades and spoke to me until that day, when I peered closely into the jumbled collection of relics and saw her thick, two‑foot‑long auburn braid. It was, indeed, just like mine.
The story of May’s life and death is mundane — an ordinary childhood cut short byencephalitis, a common 19th‑century disease. She was born in 1866 to Luther and Mary Woolsey of Sacramento, California, attended Primary School No. 3, belonged to the First Congregational Church, and died suddenly on September 21, 1879. Her brief existence would’ve faded from memory as her family grew old and died off, were it not for an act of her distraught parents: they packed all of May’s personal belongings into a trunk and, in keeping with the melodramatic customs of the time, sealed the trunk into a secret compartment below the stairway of the Woolsey home.
Toys, dolls, clothing, shoes. Schoolbooks, calling cards, newspaper clippings, party invitations. A sepia‑toned studio portrait of May herself, her long wavy hair gracefully arranged over her shoulder. All these ephemeral remains, the tangible evidence of an obscure, brief life, remained carefully hidden away until 1979, when the new owner of the Victorian house in the Alkali Flat neighborhood fortuitously happened upon the hatch cut into the second-floor landing.
I wasn’t living in Sacramento in 1979, so I missed the media attention May achieved that spring. Her time capsule, discovered exactly one hundred years after it had been so carefully concealed, was studied by local historians and put on display in the museum. May Woolsey had earned her fifteen minutes of fame.
“Where are You Going and What Will You Do When You Get There?” collage by M. Parfitt
Fast forward to 1996: My tenuous connection to May, via our matching hairstyles, was about to intensify. I was soon to become May Woolsey.
The volunteer coordinator brought it up casually. “The Old City Cemetery is planning a Halloween Moonlight Tour as a fundraiser,” he explained. “They need volunteers to portray interesting people who are buried in the cemetery. You know, with that hair, you could be May Woolsey.”
I cut him short with a reminder that it had been a long, long time since I’d been a twelve‑year‑old.
“It’ll be dark, you’ll be in a costume, and the audience will be pretty far away. C’mon, you like cemeteries. It’ll be fun.”
I couldn’t come up with an argument. The thought of hanging out in a cemetery at night — and not getting kicked out — was intriguing. He had me by my two‑foot‑long braid.
My transformation into May Woolsey required research. I stared at her belongings through the glass display case, taking in the details of her fancy Victorian gloves, beaded purse, and satin slippers. I imagined what it was like for her to play with the archaic games and toys found in the trunk, their rules and instructions guided by the straitlaced etiquette of her day. She had quaint things like small patchwork quilt fragments, dolls, bits of knitting, and some very serious-looking little textbooks.
My portrayal would involve reading excerpts from May Woolsey’s diary — and May, it seemed, was obsessed with fashion. Her diary entries described a “lovely fan,” pink silk “stockens,” and a new party dress of black silk trimmed with velvet. She also listed the colors and styles of the dresses worn by her friends. She was a hip twelve‑year‑old, by 1879 standards.
May’s tale featured a postscript straight from a Victorian ghost story. Mrs. Woolsey, disconsolate in her loss, had hired a spiritualist to communicate with May from beyond the grave. And sure enough, tucked in the trunk among May’s possessions was a letter seemingly written by the late, lamented daughter: “Dear Mama, I am so happy as I did write to you and say I was happy. Now, Mama dear, do not weep for me….”
The letter offered hope of a reunion and, no doubt, gave Mrs. Woolsey a bit of solace. However, the lower edge of the letter had been torn off before it was placed in the trunk. The last words, and the signature, were missing. This enigma lay at the heart of May Woolsey’s story: Had she communicated from beyond the grave?
My job was to look and sound like May Woolsey: stand at her grave, read her words, recite that mysterious unsigned letter. I thought back to my own pre‑teen years: my passion for the New York Yankees, my appetite for Mad magazine, those knockdown-dragout battles with my brothers. I had nothing in common with this 19th‑century girl. How could I possibly pull this off?
I also had absolutely no acting experience. Four other volunteers, portraying Mr. and Mrs. Woolsey and two incidental characters, would round out the plot of our little drama, but May was the central character. The idea of speaking in front of a crowd didn’t scare me. In fact, I relished the idea of a captive audience. I wanted to be seen and heard — but being seen and heard as this Victorian maiden that didn’t thrill me. Although I didn’t know it at the time, May had her own plans. She, too, wanted to be seen and heard.
The final rehearsal went off without a hitch. The logistics of setting up a theatrical lighting system in a cemetery proved to be a nightmare, but we had an experienced technical staff and, after some fine‑tuning, it did work. Plenty of sound checks assured us that the wireless mikes were functional. We would give our performance for an early audience, relax for an hour, then do it again for a late audience.
The sun went down. The first audience filed in.
From our hiding places behind nearby headstones, we watched the other actors play out their scenarios of sad and mysterious deaths. There might’ve been forty or more volunteers for the Moonlight Tour. Our story was fourth on the route through the cemetery, so we had plenty of time to get ready. It should’ve gone off without a hitch, but May Woolsey had other plans.
The audience approached our site and settled into place on the benches and bleachers set up for the occasion. The lights went up and we started our performance. Suddenly, all the lights went off — all, that is, except the one that was aimed directly at little May Woolsey, the star of the show. The support staff scrambled to illuminate my cohorts with flashlights, but our seven‑minute skit was performed almost entirely in shadow.
The audience didn’t seem to mind. We bowed to their polite applause, stood at our positions until they trudged off to the next grave, then shook off our panic with a bout of frantic equipment checks. The next performance would be perfect.
A strange wave of mischievous energy washed over me. I felt like giggling, like dancing. My high‑collared lace blouse, recently picked up at a thrift store for 99 cents, suddenly looked pretty and feminine. (I forgot I was wearing an old sweatshirt underneath it for warmth.) My stockinged legs were warm. My tall lace‑up boots were sturdy. My petticoats and layered skirts rustled and spun around me. I wore a slip, a two-layer crinoline, and a calf-length skirt with three flounces. Not historically accurate, but it was the best I could do with very little money. In the dark, it looked fine. It gave the effect of Victorian opulence, and that was all that mattered.
The big satin bow in my flowing auburn curls fluttered in the wind. I wanted — needed — to be free and silly and ridiculous.
I ran to the chainlink fence that separated the cemetery from Riverside Boulevard. Finding a spot illuminated by the full moon and a conveniently placed streetlight, I jumped out of the shadows, into view of the passing cars. Horns honked, fingers pointed — the sight of a Victorian girl dancing in a cemetery on Halloween night nearly caused a five‑car pileup. A pirouette and a curtsy, and back I went into the shadows. I ran gleefully back to my grave. I mean, May’s grave.
The late audience arrived on schedule and we took our places in the dark. The lights went up. No problem. The first actor started speaking. Without warning, his microphone died. He was forced to shout his lines. The next actor took his cue and, within seconds, his microphone crackled and fell silent. On it went, each actor hollering lines meant to be spoken softly and reverently. My cue approached. I spoke. My mike worked. May’s mike worked.
The evening belonged to May Woolsey. Her lights, her microphone. No one could overshadow her this night. Afterward, the actor who played Mrs. Woolsey swore the spirit of May had been angry about the scene enacted on her gravesite. However, I knew better. I was May Woolsey for a few minutes. I knew she simply wanted to show off and dance and be a kid again, after all those silent years.
May didn’t mind the scene. She just wanted to steal it.
This piece originally appeared in Morbid Curiosity #2. Check out M. Parfitt’s other essay about the Old City Cemetery here.
M. Parfitt is an artist, writer, collector of exquisitely awful junk, keeper of hair, saver of broken toys, and hoarder of yellowed newspaper clippings. You may find her wandering down a deserted alley, traipsing through an old cemetery or peering into an abandoned warehouse. Her mixed-media work incorporates fabric, paper, blood, hair, lint, nails, dog fur and other unexpected materials.
Cemetery Travel interviewed M. Parfitt about guiding tours here.
About the Death’s Garden project:
For the next couple months, 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.
I’ll be the first one to admit that in my twenties, I was lost. I had just graduated from college. During the first recession in my adult life, I lost all three design jobs I held. With little experience, I was at the bottom of the totem pole and the first to go. Heavily in debt with school loans, I had to take whatever job I could get, which landed me in a depressing job at an answering service. The company was located in a small house with shoddy equipment. The employees were constantly sick. I found no joy in answering 300-plus phone calls a day. The other employees were just as miserable. It was like we’d drawn the short straws and ended up in call center purgatory. The worst part was that we felt like we had no way out.
I plummeted into a dark depression. It felt hopeless and dangerous and all too real. To make myself happier, I decided to take joy in beautiful things. I turned to architecture, statuary, and cemeteries, which held a special interest because not only were they beautiful, but they had a sort of quiet melancholy that matched my soul.
On one of my treks, I found St. Stephen’s Cemetery. It’s a tiny cemetery in Concord, California, where the graves have fallen into disrepair. In the early Nineties, it was basically a hangout for kids to drink in and homeless to sleep in. It became my getaway every time I felt sad.I discovered a whole section with stillborn or baby graves. This section was especially rough: the headstones vandalized, the little metal markers broken off and scattered. I wondered why the families didn’t visit, but the dates on the graves were from the 40s and 50s, so I assumed the parents were long gone.
I realized I found this part of the cemetery for a reason. I was looking for purpose and I found one. Me and a couple friends packed up a broom, some garbage bags, a few dozen roses, and cleaned up the baby graves. We disposed of all the beer bottles and trash left there by insensitive partiers. We placed the disassembled metal markers where we thought they went and made sure all of the broken tombstones were placed near the graves they belonged to.
As time wore on, some of my friends stopped coming with me because they were a little spooked out. I didn’t understand why people didn’t care about these poor babies. I began affectionately calling them Forgotten Angels.
As the months went by, I would visit the Forgotten Angels weekly. Slowly, through mourning these lost souls and knowing that they were now in a better place, I began to come out of my depression. Still, I felt an obligation to these dead babies. Friends would say, “Oh yeah, that sucks,” but they didn’t really understand. How could they? These little bodies buried under the dry, fruitless dirt had helped me conquer a depression so deep, it was something only I could fathom.
Although I did (and still do) enjoy visiting cemeteries, this one in particular eventually became a burden to me. It reminded me of a time when I was depressed, when I clung to my visits like a security blanket. Those of you who’ve been in a deep depression know there’s a time when you’ve finally crawled out and need to do away with things that remind you of what a deep, dark pit you were in. I felt selfish and guilty for wanting to stop visiting, but I also knew my mental health wouldn’t improve if I kept fixating on something that reminded me of being depressed.
So, on a cold winter afternoon, I decided to say my farewell to the babies. I brought fresh pastel pink and orange roses. I cannot tell you the guilt I felt in leaving the babies there. After I left, who would take care of them? Who would even care that they were once alive? I sat for a while, talking to the babies and letting them know that, while I still cared about them, I couldn’t come anymore, for my own sake.
A giant tree stood above the graves. As I sat there, the wind picked up, as it always did in that part of the cemetery. I wrapped my arms around myself, thinking I should’ve brought a warmer coat. I cried. I don’t think it was really because I was leaving the babies. After all, they were dead and gone and there was nothing really I could do for them. I think I was crying because that portion of my life was coming to an end. The babies had helped me get through it and I had no idea how I could repay them. I had really needed to step outside myself and take care of someone else. They provided me a way to solve that need.
I wiped my tears and prepared to leave.
When I got to the gate, I looked back over at the baby graves, shaded by that large tree. I heard a rustling to my left. I saw what looked like an angel, all in white. She was hovering above a large tombstone. At first I thought she was just a statue, like you usually see in cemeteries, but then parts of her white veil blew back and I noticed she was see-through. In sign language, she motioned, “Thank you.”
The wind picked up and the leaves rustled, drawing my attention back to the Forgotten Angels. When I looked back at the girl, she was gone, but I felt a great sense of release. Gone was the guilt of leaving the babies. The message seemed to be that I’d served my purpose—or perhaps they’d served theirs—and it was okay to leave them be.
I don’t know if what I saw was an angel, or a ghost, or just a figment of my overactive imagination, but I can tell you that after I left the cemetery that day, I felt I had done a good thing. In all confidence I knew I could take care of myself without guilt.
Although some people think cemeteries are depressing, they can bring you peace — whether you go to just look at the beautiful statuary or if you find a personal message specifically for you. Don’t be scared to explore and allow yourself the ability to heal (like I did) through honoring the dead.
Emerian Rich is the author of the vampire book series Night’s Knights. Her novel Artistic License is the tale of a woman who inherits a house where anything she paints on the walls comes alive. Emerian has been published in a handful of anthologies by Dragon Moon Press, Hidden Thoughts Press, Hazardous Press, and White Wolf Press. She is a podcast horror hostess for HorrorAddicts.net, an internationally acclaimed podcast. To find out more, go to emzbox.com or follow her on Twitter or Facebook.
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.
Turner monument at Glenwood Cemetery, Flint, Michigan. All cemetery photos taken by Loren Rhoads.
by Benjamin Scuglia
Do you remember when you realized you were growing up? I do. I was about twelve years old. My brothers and our friends were playing a game called ghost-in-the-graveyard.
Ghost-in-the-graveyard is pretty much hide-and-seek, with a macabre twist. The game works best if you play in a real honest-to-God graveyard, but any place with lots of spooky areas to hide will do. You need at least four people, one of whom is chosen as the “ghost.” The ghost runs off to find a good, shadowy place to hide while the rest of the group loudly counts to fifty. You have to count loudly, because the ghost has to know when everyone else is ready to come looking.
Everyone sets off as a group to search for the ghost, who — at the scariest possible moment — leaps from his hiding place. He scares the living hell out of everyone, then grabs the nearest quivering soul, who in turn becomes a ghost. Because large groups of frightened children tend to scatter like crows, grabbing someone is pathetically easy. Once everyone calms down and regroups, it’s back to the beginning while the ghost and his new sycophant head off into the shadows, ostensibly planning a more elaborate scheme to capture other souls.
Eventually, under the best of circumstances, you have fifteen or so “ghosts” chasing someone’s sobbingly terrified little brother or sister around a graveyard at night. We’d always plan ahead of time to leave my own little brother for last. It was years before he caught on.
Our games grew increasingly elaborate. If we found a ghost before he found us, he was “rescued” and became “human” again. We invented all sorts of ways to ward off the ghosts: secret words and spells that, once invoked, sent the ghost back into hiding. Aside from the occasional hitch, as when a ghost would “accidentally” capture his girlfriend first off and disappear for hours, it all worked amazingly well.
Friends of our family lived next door to an enormous graveyard. Every time we visited, my brothers and I waited until dusk, grabbed as many people as possible, and started up a game of ghost-in-the-graveyard. The night I had my moment of realization was a quintessential autumn weekend. Night, crisp and breezy, descended early. The game began in earnest. I had been feeling particularly nimble that night and eventually found myself the sole “human” of the group. Everyone else had long ago been caught and become ghostly. Even my little brother.
So there I was, silently creeping among the graves in the purplish twilight, on the lookout, when I heard a twig snap. I froze, then ducked into the shadows. Presently, a boy I did not recognize appeared from behind the nearest gravestone and stepped quietly over to me. “Follow me,” he whispered. “They’re back here.”
I assumed he meant my brothers and the other spirits. He crept away and I followed. His appearance was not unusual. Neighborhood kids often joined mid-game. I figured he’d just managed to avoid getting caught. For the next half-hour, we did not speak as we slipped from shadow to shadow. He led, I followed, and we managed to avoid all of the ghosts.
Eventually, I heard my mother calling. The moon had risen and all of the best shadows were shrinking rapidly. My older brother called olly-olly-in-come-free. I jumped to my feet, heady with victory. It was the first time I’d ever managed to avoid being caught.
The boy pulled on my arm. “Get down!” he whispered furiously. “The game’s not over.”
I crouched beside him, confused. I watched as he got down on his hands and knees and crawled away. “Where are you going?” I asked aloud.
He twisted his face toward me, eyes wide. I remember how his face seemed to glimmer in the twilight. “Quiet!” he hissed. “Follow me! Quickly!” He stood and began to run. I half-ran after him for several feet. By now, the others were calling for me by name. He stopped, turned around, and gestured impatiently for me to follow.
I took one or two steps forward, then I heard someone, maybe my mother, calling for me nearby. I glanced away from the boy and yelled, “Over here!”
I recall seeing, in my peripheral vision, the boy as he ducked away. When I turned my attention back and ran to where he’d been standing, he had vanished. I called for him quietly, but there was no answer. He was gone.
Later, I asked if the others had seen him. No one had. I described him to our friends who lived in the neighborhood. No one recalled his name. As we were about to leave that night, I ran to where I thought I’d been hiding when he first appeared. There were a series of gravestones in that row, all with a name like Michaelson or Mitchelson. One of the headstones read “Beloved Son.” Although I cannot recall the exact dates of the boy’s birth and death — early 20th century — I could see that he had been around ten years old when he died. The boy I had seen had been no more than my age.
I didn’t discuss with anyone the possibility that I might have seen — actually talked with — a real ghost. What really struck me were the words “Beloved Son” on the gravestone. A boy my own age had died. I’d thought dying happened only to old people. How had he died? Had it been an accident? Had he been sick? More importantly, I wanted to know why he’d died at all. What was the point of being born, if you weren’t going to be able to live your life? I wanted to know why God would go to all the trouble of putting someone here in the first place, if they were going to die so early.
I walked back to the car and became aware of the immensity of things. This awareness began as a slight perception, somewhere in the back of my mind. I turned my attention to the graveyard, to the grave markers all around me. A shiver slipped up my back as I truly processed the fact that all of these people had died. This was only one graveyard on the entire planet — and not all the people buried here were old! “What if this happened to me?” I thought. The realization that I could die was terrible and I tried to push it from my mind. I picked up my pace and soon began running. It was no use. I had finally realized that I was a part of something larger than myself.
Now, I won’t say that I began to live every moment with a sense of appreciation and gratitude for the fact that I was alive and healthy. As I make the transition to adulthood, however, that perception of the immensity of life grows. I observe with wistful nostalgia the self-centered aura surrounding very young children. I’m only in my twenties, but sometimes I can’t imagine ever having been that young or innocent. It is with a sort of bemused horror that, as I began to perceive years ago on that autumn night in the graveyard, I’d always known I would grow up. I just didn’t know when.
This essay appeared in the original edition of Death’s Garden: Relationships with Cemeteries, published in 1996 by Automatism Press.
Benjamin Scuglia is an author and playwright, producer and stage manager, actor, aphorist and traveler of moderate renown. He is a member of Theatre West, the oldest continually operating membership company in Los Angeles. Recently, his play “Last of His Kind” was a winner of the 2015 Lesbian & Gay Play Reading Festival sponsored by the City of West Hollywood. His play “Gay for Pay” was a Top 30 Finalist for the 2015 Samuel French Off-Off-Broadway Short Play Festival in New York. Benjamin’s most recent book is Filthy Remarks (2013), a collection of quotes about sex and relationships. He is very happy to be able to participate in the 20th anniversary celebration of Death’s Garden. Twitter: @500Turtles.
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 or did anything else unusual in one. The submissions guidelines are here.
Click here to sign up for my monthly mailing list, which will keep you up to date on my speaking schedule and upcoming projects. As a thank you, you'll receive "4Elements," a short ebook that showcases one of my favorite cemetery essays, a travel essay, and two short stories, spanning from urban fantasy to science fiction.