c 2021 by Jan MacKell Collins
Yeah I know Halloween is a long way off, but this writing has nothing to do with that sacred holiday. Rather, I’ve just recently been tracking down cemeteries in my area, and it turns out that there are lots of them. Some are still used, some are abandoned, and some have no trace left to show that they were there to begin with. For me, however, a graveyard is a sign that someone lived nearby, be it a ranch or homestead or an actual town. And often, just reading the name, date and inscription on a tombstone can tell you a lot about the occupant and how they lived.
When you are an historian, the people you fall in love with in your line of work are, unfortunately, dead. They cannot rise from the grave and tell you about their past. There is no pointing the way to where they were born or where they lived. Unless they left written record, there is no way of knowing their favorite color, or what they liked to eat, or how they felt about themselves and their lives. Thus their end is often my beginning as I look for the graves of my subjects to glean information and research for the story of their lives. Doing so brings closure for me, since a grave is literally the last place a person is seen. I find it ironic that the beginning for me starts with the end of another.
Having spent years studying old mortuary records and exploring graveyards, the frontier approach to death fascinates me. It is surprising, for instance, how many people died without socks—a standard item appearing on most mortuary forms. Death came so often in those days that caskets were given elaborate and comforting names—the “Fairy Couch” comes to mind, usually sold to widowers or the mothers of young girls. And, long after the burial, families once made day excursions to picnic at the graves of their loved ones on a regular basis.
Like those families of yesteryear, I like cemeteries. They are quiet, and peaceful. Their graves are, or were, lovingly tended by their families. When I see a flower vase on its side, or a flag that has come out of its holder, or leaves and mud covering a flat gravestone, I can’t help but tidy it up a bit. I have been known to talk to the occupants, sympathizing with their plight at the end. Sometimes I read their name out loud, because it has probably been a long time since someone did that. I like to think I am making sure they will never be forgotten.
Cemeteries also provide the proper thrills if one’s in the mood for a jolt. My mom and I once visited a wonderful graveyard in Colorado on an appropriately overcast day. I noticed that a vault door was slightly ajar, and as I moved away I swore I saw the door move. We were leaving anyway, but my heart missed a beat when the car inexplicably wouldn’t start. “Oh God, Mom!” I whimpered, grabbing her arm. She had a good laugh as she tried again and the car fired right up. Another time I accompanied the melodrama actors in Cripple Creek, Colorado on their annual “final show” jaunt to the local graveyard (sadly, they don’t do this anymore). It was late and very dark; I thought I was very clever for sneaking ahead and laying on a grave, waiting to pop up and scare someone. It was quite comfortable there, until I became aware that the voices around me had grown faint. Sitting up, I discovered everyone had headed out of the entrance far away from me. As much as I scrambled to get out of there, I never did catch up with them and felt like I was being watched as I walked very quickly towards the gate.
There are those who think cemeteries are creepy, and as someone who has heard voices and the cry of a baby while alone in one, I can certainly understand. But hearing voices, and the sounds of the living in places where nobody is alive, is normal in my line of work even if it does occasionally give me chills. These aren’t ghosts, to me anyway. It’s more like they are people lost in some sort of ethereal time warp, walking and talking as if they were still on this earth. And all of them have a story to tell. I don’t get vandals and other creepy people who think it’s ok to tip over tombstones and spray paint memorials. One day (unless you’re into cremation, which I am not), each of us will end up in a graveyard—the last sure sign we were ever on this earth to begin with. Be respectful.
That brings me to one of my favorite stories, and a good one to end with. Several years ago in California, I read of a woman who kept dreaming about a particular house. The dream was quite vivid, always ending with a strange man in a butler outfit looking horrified when he opened the front door. This went on for years, until one day the woman was forced by construction work to detour through an unfamiliar, fancy neighborhood. There, she saw the house from her dreams. Of course the woman stopped, went to the door, and rang the bell. Sure enough a butler answered. He gazed at her in horror, just like he did in the dream. Quickly she explained why she was there, ending with the question of whether the house was haunted. “Yes it is,” the butler stammered, “and YOU are the ghost.”