Chestnut Hill Cemetery
Also known as Chestnut Hill Baptist Church Cemetery, Rhode Island Historical Cemetery #22
467 Ten Rod Road (Route 102)
Exeter, Rhode Island 02822 Opened: 1838 Size: 10 acres Number of interments: approximately 1000
Rather than Bram Stoker’s Dracula, rising from his grave to roam the night, New England vampires could prey upon the living while confined inside their coffins. There are almost 20 documented instances of vampires being exhumed in New England, beginning even before to the American Revolution.
One of the last recorded vampire tales in New England took place in the 1880s. George and Mary Brown farmed outside the town of Exeter, Rhode Island.Mary Brown was struck by an illness, probably tuberculosis, that drained her vitality.She withered and died in 1883.
The following year, Mary’s eldest daughter, Mary Olive, died at the age of 20.
Several years passed before George and Mary’s son Edwin began to fade.The local physician suggested that Edwin and his wife move to Colorado Springs to recover.
The cold, dry air did seem to help Edwin, but while he was recuperating, his sister Mercy began to fail.Edwin rushed home to say goodbye to her. She died in January 1892 at the age of 19.
Since winter had frozen the ground solid, Mercy’s body was placed in the receiving crypt at Chestnut Hill Cemetery. Receiving crypts were common, back before cemeteries developed heating blankets that could thaw the winter ground.Old cemeteries often still have these crypts, although nowadays the sheds are used to store mowers and other equipment.
Back in the 1890s, Edwin’s health deteriorated.George Brown’s neighbors decided Edwin was suffering from Vampire’s Grasp. The only way to save him would be to “perform the folk ritual.”
On March 17, 1892, the doctor and George Brown’s neighbors dug up the graves of Mary and Mary Olive. George stayed home. Both women’s corpses were badly decomposed, as one would expect after almost a decade in the ground.
Then the receiving crypt was opened.Mercy’s coffin was still inside it. When the mob opened her coffin, Mercy had turned sideways inside it. Rather than considering if she had been buried alive — or merely jostled as she was carried to the crypt — onlookers took that as assurance she was the vampire.
Other than her strange position, Mercy’s body looked as expected. But when the doctor removed her heart and liver, they leaked blood.
The neighbors placed the organs on a rock in the cemetery and set them afire. The ashes were collected up and mixed with liquor to be fed to Edwin.Unfortunately, the remedy didn’t save him.He died six weeks later, in May.
When Bram Stoker died in 1897, newspaper clippings about Mercy’s exhumation were found in his possession. H. P. Lovecraft, who lived in nearby Providence, mentioned Mercy in his story, “The Shunned House.”
Whether she roamed from her tomb or not beforehand, Mercy now turns up as a ghost in this “nondescript little cemetery.” Apparently, blue lights hover close to her grave.
Mercy’s gravestone is anchored to the ground to prevent it from being stolen. There is reported to be a guest book in a tupperware box for you to sign. Remember that this cemetery is still in use, so if you visit, behave yourself.
Photos of Mount Union Cemetery by Frank E. Bittinger
by Frank E. Bittinger
On our way home from spending a long weekend at Virginia Beach, my best friend Michele brought up the idea to stop at the cemetery to visit her mother and father’s grave. Many members of her family were buried in Slanesville, West Virginia. I’d never been there before. Michelle wanted to show me the really old, original cemetery back in the woods. Unfortunately, we didn’t make it before the sun started to go down.
Mount Union Christian Church was the standard simple white-sided building, its belfry a cupola housing a single bell. The church was surrounded by the final resting places of its parishioners.
After Michele showed me her parents’ grave, we walked around a bit. Since it had been Fourth of July only a couple weeks before, there were little flags on the graves of those who had served in the military. We stopped to read the inscriptions on their stones. It was twilight, so we could still see well enough. Stars blinked into existence as the sky dimmed.
Other stones attracted our attention as well. Many people had lived long lives, others were cut down in their prime, but the saddest ones were the graves of the children. One pair of tiny tombstones in particular captured my eye. Sharing the same surname, no first names revealed: I figured they had to be siblings. The boy had been born in 1950 and died in 1956. Little sister didn’t live to see her fourth birthday—born in 1956, she followed her big brother to the grave in 1960. With only the years of birth and death listed, I wondered if big brother had gotten to meet his little sister, or if he passed beyond the veil before her birth. I’d like to think they met in the afterlife.
I couldn’t imagine the parents’ grief: losing not one but two of their children so young. Of course, I’ll never know if these were the only children the couple had, but either way it had to be devastating to lose two children so close together.
My skin erupted in goosebumps. The chill I felt didn’t come from the cool breeze. It came from the soft whisper: “What about me?” Very faint. Almost an afterthought hanging in the evening air.
It came again, slightly louder, and I was sure I’d heard it. Looking around, I made certain it was still just Michele and me there in the flesh.
Apparently, someone felt left out.
Michele knows there are occasions when I can see or hear something others cannot, so I felt comfortable telling her about hearing the man’s whisper. She looked around and asked if I could see him. I could only hear a faint voice.
The voice could have easily belonged to any of the cemetery’s residents. Even though it wasn’t a huge cemetery, there were quite a number of graves. It could also have been a spirit attached to the land or one passing through.
As we walked around looking at the graves, I heard it several more times. Plaintive not pleading, if that makes sense; I felt like he was in mourning because he felt forgotten, lonely.
A light breeze stirred the grass and leaves.
“What about me?”
Michele said maybe he didn’t have any family or maybe no one had ever come to visit him. She asked if I thought I could figure out who he was, which grave was his. I’d never tried to do anything like that before, but I was willing to try.
Wandering through the cemetery in the twilight was an experience. I’d traipsed through a cemetery in the rain on a Saturday afternoon, during a photo shoot to promote my novels, but this was different. Not eerie or creepy. More like somber, sad because here was this man asking not to be forgotten.
“What about me?”
I can’t really explain how I felt, but I was led to this man’s grave. I don’t want to say it felt like I was playing a game of “Hot or Cold,” but that is essentially what it was. The feeling of being right intensified when I was getting closer to him and diminished if I took a wrong turn or walked too far away.
We found him in the most unlikely place. A pine tree stood in the cemetery, one with low-hanging limbs. I just felt the need to look around the tree. I used my foot to scrape brown needles and leaves around. Lo and behold, there sure as hell was a flat gravestone under there. Not just any grave—and I don’t mean that in a derogatory way—but the grave of a military man. Using my lighter to see by, I knelt down and wiped until his name was revealed.
I knew I’d found the final resting place of the man who’d been whispering to me. Here was the only military grave in the cemetery that didn’t have a little American flag on it.
What I found unusual was this man had a footstone for his military service but no headstone at the top of his grave. I wondered if that had been an oversight. Maybe he shared a headstone with someone else and I just couldn’t see it. But it was very strange for his footstone to be at the base of this pine tree, under the branches and pine needles. Perhaps the tree just grew there over time, its limbs overshadowing this flat, rectangular footstone set in the ground, shielding it from easy view.
If Michele hadn’t believed me before, she sure did now. She got it as soon as she read the inscription on the stone.
“I think he thinks he’s forgotten because no one gave him a flag,” she said. “And look how his marker looks like it’s sunk into the ground.” It was true: the gentleman’s footstone was a little below the surface. Grass grew up and over the sides. “So easy to get covered over,” Michele said as she leaned over to take a closer look.
“I think so. Either the flag or because he doesn’t have a headstone.” I hoped he knew we were talking about him. I said, “You are not forgotten, so don’t think you are. Thank you for your service.”
I felt like he heard me and knew Michele and I appreciated him.
Never having been to this churchyard before, it would take a lot of coincidences for me to stumble upon a grave hidden beneath the limbs of a pine tree and for that grave to be that of a military man. I believe in coincidences, but this didn’t have anything to do with coincidence. I truly feel this lonely spirit — feeling forgotten, especially after the Fourth of July — led me to his final resting place.
I walked away feeling like I’d done something really good for him. I hoped he wouldn’t feel lonely or forgotten any longer.
Two years later, I asked Michele if she would be willing to take me back to the cemetery. She said yes, she wanted to place some fall decorations on her mother and father’s grave. So we drove down on a nice sunny Sunday. I wanted to visit the grave of the soldier who had whispered to me. Someone had trimmed the lower limbs on the pine tree; I was pleased to see they no longer draped down over and obscured the footstone of the soldier. Once again, I knelt down and wiped away pine needles. “I told you, you’re not forgotten.”
I hope to be able to visit him again, hopefully before another two years have passed. Michele said we should make the commitment to drive the hour-plus at least twice a year together.
Over the centuries, Frank Bittinger has experienced many existences. In this incarnation, Mr. Bittinger is a vegan who lives and writes in Western Maryland, sharing his home with a menagerie of rescued animals, several alternate personalities, and the occasional ghost. One of his favorite pastimes is taking walks in old cemeteries in the evening.
Frank’s books include the Scarabae Saga (Into the Mirror Black, Angels of the Seventh Dawn, Angels of the Mourning Light, and Shadows Amongst the Moonlight), As Dark As I: Evangelium Scarabae Volume I (coming in Spring 2016), and These Ghosts of Mine (a nonfiction collection coming in 2016). He’s also written What’s It All About? Alfy!, a poetry collection to benefit the rescued animals of Jollity Farm in Cornwall, UK.
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.
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.
I 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.”
She 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.
The 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.
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.
I’ve been using this month’s Cemetery of the Week columns to explore the writers who have inspired me. I thought it might be helpful if I gathered all the horror writers on Cemetery Travel together.
The master’s headstone
Ray Bradbury, Westwood Village Memorial Park, Los Angeles, California Seeing Stars says, “If you had to choose only one Hollywood cemetery to visit, Westwood Village Memorial Park would be your best bet.” In addition to all the movie stars, Westwood has its share of writers. Author of In Cold Blood Truman Capote’s ashes are in a niche facing the cemetery entrance. The ashes of Robert Bloch, author of Psycho, are in the Room of Prayer columbarium beyond Marilyn Monroe. Billy Wilder, screenwriter of Sunset Boulevard, has a headstone that reads, “I’m a writer, but then nobody’s perfect.” Near him lies Ray Bradbury, whose headstone remembers him as the author of Fahrenheit 451.
Charles Dickens, Westminster Abbey, London, England
Westminster Abbey has served as the site of every British coronation since 1066. The tradition predates the modern Gothic building, begun by Henry III in 1245. The abbey is stuffed nearly to bursting with mortuary sculpture, which it is –unfortunately – forbidden to photograph. The abbey’s website says, “Taken as a whole, the tombs and memorials comprise the most significant single collection of monumental sculpture anywhere in the United Kingdom.” Charles Dickens — author of the most-filmed ghost story in the English language — was interred here against his will, rather than being allowed to be buried alongside his family in Highgate Cemetery.
Family grave in Zoshigaya
Lafcadio Hearn, Zoshigaya Reien, Tokyo, Japan
In the last half of the 19th century, Harper’s Magazine sent Lafacadio Hearn to Japan. Although he soon parted ways with his editors, he loved the country and wrote book after book describing it to Western readers for the first time. While his tales drift in and out of fashion in the West, he is still revered in Japan. His most famous work is Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things, a collection of Japanese ghost tales comparable to the work of the Brothers Grimm. Those stories inspired Akira Kurosawa’s 1964 movie of the same name, which won a Special Jury Prize at Cannes and received an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film. Hearn is buried under his Japanese name, Koizumi Yakumo.
Washington Irving’s grave in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery
Washington Irving, Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Tarrytown, New York
Walking up the hill from the parking lot between the Old Dutch Church and the Pocantico River, you’ll find the author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Just shy of the crest of the hill, Washington Irving rests inside a simple iron gate emblazoned with his family name. A plain marble tablet, streaked green with lichen, marks his grave. According to a bronze plaque placed in 1972 by remaining members of the Irving family, the “graveplot” is now a national historic landmark.
Franz Kafka, the New Jewish Cemetery, Prague, the Czech Republic
The most famous of the New Jewish Cemetery’s denizens is easy to find, thanks to good signage. Franz Kafka’s monument is a top-heavy six-sided obelisk made of pink-and-gray granite. He died in 1924 of tuberculosis, in agony from his hemorrhaging lungs. All of his novels remained incomplete and unpublished at the time of his death, so only a few friends mourned him. The Cadogan City Guide to Prague forewarned us that Kafka shared his grave with his mother and hated father. In fact, he predeceased them both. He’s commemorated as Dr. Franz Kafka, in deference to his law degree. An inscription on a marble plaque at the base of the monument remembered his three sisters, who vanished into the Nazi death camps.
The graves at Jack London State Historic Park
Jack London, Jack London State Historic Park, Glen Ellen, California
Jack London was among the most widely read authors of his time. His short story “To Build a Fire” has scarred schoolchildren for almost a century. Four days after his death on November 22, 1916, Charmian London placed her husband’s ashes on a small rise behind the ruin of the house they had been building together. The grave was marked only with a large lava rock from the Wolf House ruin. The boulder is strangely shaped: a weird, worn, organic form for a rock. Moss covers it like velvet, softening its broken edges.
H. P. Lovecraft’s tombstone
H. P. Lovecraft, Swan Point Cemetery, Providence, Rhode Island Swan Point’s most famous permanent resident is Howard Pillips Lovecraft. A n obelisk that says Phillips marks the plot belonging to Lovecraft’s grandparents. The back of it holds Lovecraft’s parents’ name and dates. At the bottom, he is remembered as Howard P. Lovecraft, “Their Son.” A smaller stone purchased by Dirk W. Mosig — at that time, the leading authority on Lovecraft — was unveiled during a small ceremony in 1977. The low granite marker spells out Howard Phillips Lovecraft, August 20, 1890 – March 15, 1938, with added the epitaph, “I am Providence.” Those words came from a letter Lovecraft wrote to his Aunt Lillian, eventually published in 2000 in Lord of a Visible World: An Autobiography in Letters, edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz.
Poe’s monument, as photographed by R. Samuel Klatchko
Edgar Allan Poe, Westminster Hall Burying Ground, Baltimore, Maryland
Westminster Hall’s best-loved resident lies just inside the gates. A large monument marks the grave of Edgar Allan Poe, his wife Virginia, and her mother Maria Clemm. Poe was originally buried in 1849 the plot of his grandfather David Poe, elsewhere in the churchyard. His unkempt grave went unmarked for decades, despite several attempts to provide a suitable monument. Eventually, he was moved to this more prominent plot when his mother-in-law died in November 1875 . It took 10 years before his wife was exhumed from her grave in New York and reburied in Baltimore beside him. The Annual Halloween Tour of Westminster Hall & Burying Grounds is scheduled for Thursday, October 31, 2013, at 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Vintage postcard of Stevenson’s grave
Robert Louis Stevenson, Vailima, Upolu, Samoa
In December 1894, when Stevenson died of apoplexy (a brain hemorrhage or stroke). He was 44. Local Samoans built him a hardwood coffin and stood guard over his body through the night. The following day, they cut a road through the jungle to the grave, which they called the “Road of Loving Hearts.” Working in relays, they carried the coffin to the grave. Stevenson was buried just below the 1560-foot summit of Mount Vaea in a tomb overlooking his family estate, Vailima, and the ocean.
Bram Stoker’s urn at Golder’s Green Columbarium. Photo by Carole Tyrrell.
Bram Stoker, Golders Green Crematorium, London, England
One of the oldest crematories in England and the oldest in London, Golders Green may also be the best-known crematorium in the world. Over the years, many famous people have chosen to be cremated there. Some remain there in urns in the columbarium or beneath rosebushes in the garden. The redbrick crematorium was built in an Italianate style with a large tower that hides its chimney. It was built in stages as money became available. The current crematorium was completed in 1939. Its three columbaria contain the ashes of thousands of Londoners. London’s Cemeteries says Golders Green is “the place to go for after-life star-spotting.” My hero Bram Stoker is in one of the columbaria, which can be visited with a guide.
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