Officially, I do not believe in ghosts. Unofficially, I eat that stuff up. If someone has a ghost story to tell, I want to hear about it. Tapes of ghostly words? I’ll listen! (heart pounding, head under covers). Pictures? Yes, please. It is perhaps true that I have seen every episode of Paranormal State. There’s a nostalgia to my fascination with ghosts, I’m sure of it. As children, we were likely to believe whatever magical thing was sold to us. Santa Claus. The Easter Bunny. When I was five and the neighbor dad informed me that the moon was made of cheese, it seemed totally legit. Ghosts were a more thrilling and edgier version of a magical existence. We believed because we wanted to believe. It’s hard to let that go. It’s hard to be a grown up and see the world with so much less magic in it, even the spooky variety.
There was even a time in my childhood when I believed I was haunted. Looking back, every bit of “evidence” could be easily explained by the creaks of old houses and pipes as well as human interference. But it was a lot more fun to consider myself the subject of a bonafide haunting.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have a ghost or a haunting or any real brush up with Poltergeist (my favorite movie in childhood, naturally), but I did have a cemetery.
Probably a lot of young people wouldn’t feel too keen on the idea of having a cemetery for one’s backyard, but it was all I knew. When I looked out my bedroom windows I saw rows and rows of graves and many of them were familiar. I knew the names, I had stories to go with them. Here were whole families buried decades—almost centuries—before I came along, little graves marked just “Baby” or “Mother.” They must have died from consumption or Scarlet Fever like Beth in Little Women. Here was an obviously wealthy family who had long ago been captains of industry in our small city, perhaps managing some now defunct business involving railroads or lumber. Here was soldier who had died in the World War I and brought back home to grieving parents who were one day buried beside him.
Some of the markers featured small sculptures like crosses or angels. Some had more elaborate etchings and epitaphs: angels, poems, tender words of remembrance. Some sites were lovingly tended to with fresh flowers and left behind trinkets. Others had barely visible wording on stones worn down by years of exposure. Down the road, there lived a couple of headstones with pictures of boys—young men—with seventies hairstyles and matching facial hair. Brothers buried side by side. One of the gravestones had a photo of a car alongside the photo of the boy. It must have been beloved, that car. It must have been important to the boy whose body lie there. Who were these young men? What happened to them? The dates on their graves told me they didn’t die at the same time, but not far apart either. It must have broken their parent’s hearts.
My own grandparents—both deceased just months before I was born—were buried just up the small hill. I could practically see their headstones form our kitchen window. Sometimes I stopped by to say “hello”.
There was one grave I insisted I had a strange connection to. For whatever reason (probably a wild imagination), I felt this grave called to me. The name on the headstone said Eleanor Long. I cannot remember when Eleanor Long died, but I remember it being many years before I came along (my cemetery had graves that felt ancient. Ruined headstones with barely legible wording). I decided that this Eleanor Long was like a guardian angel to me, watching over me, helping me. With what, I don’t know. I do remember invoking her name when trying to score a basket in a game of Around the World with my friend. Ridiculous, but I was twelve.
When my neighborhood friends and I wanted to go to the playground, we walked through the cemetery. I walked my dog in the cemetery. I played in the cemetery (even, sometimes, on the graves). It was like a giant hilly park that happened to be dotted with headstones. Headstones meant for dead bodies, of course. So, yes, my backyard was littered with the dead. And, honestly, it was great. Well, as long as I didn’t think too much about the dead bodies. Despite embracing my cemetery, I wasn’t fully aware of its implications, of its relationship to death and by extension, the afterlife, should there be one. If there were ghosts lurking there, I didn’t actually want to know about it. Which was funny, given my love for ghosts and ghost stories.
The cemetery was a park. Ghosts were an idea. Death was something else.
Most childhoods are absent of thoughts of death. That is to say, at six-years-old or ten-years-old, our own mortality wasn’t often on our minds. Life felt limitless, endless, full of possibilities and amazing futures. Being a grown-up felt so far away. There wasn’t much room for consideration of our immortality, of our definite, non-negotiable someday demise. We would end. Before that, we would likely get old. This seemed practically impossible.
There were funerals, of course. And days before when the earth was dug and a tarp lay over the hole. I never liked those. That hole felt too grim, too much a reminder of what the cemetery actually was. Someone had died and some body was going to go down in that hole. Not my cemetery. Not my backyard.
Now, I am older. I am of the age where I realize that I have become my parents. My daughter sees me as I saw them. I have never been so aware of aging and what that means. Of course, I think often of my childhood. So often I dream about my cemetery. Actually, I dream about my neighborhood and its streets and houses, but the cemetery is included because it was part of my neighborhood. When we played flashlight tag on summer nights our hiding spaces were often a stone’s throw from someone’s final resting place. Our elementary school bus stop faced the cemetery, in fact I walked through it to get there.
I think of it in parts. The part with the steep hills, the part by the woods, the part by the park, the part with the really big gravestones, the part with the mausoleum and the umbrella tree.
The mausoleum looms large and dark in my childhood memories, a foreboding entity. If there was anything I feared—anything that brought any sense of darkness and fear, any reminder of death, it was this place. Perhaps because it was a building with dead people in the actual walls. Probably because it looked like some place that would be haunted. Certainly, it wasn’t built in the prairie style of Frank Lloyd Wright.
The Mausoleum had a basement. We couldn’t actually get to it, but my neighborhood buddies and I would pick through the partially broken window trying to see what might lurk there. We were certain terrible things happened in that basement. We dared each other to break it all the way open and go in. No one ever did this, but it was thrilling to consider it. This idea of encountering a monster in the basement played into the idea of the impossible. There was a certain safety in being afraid of monsters because deep down we knew they didn’t exist. Certainly, it was safer than the reality of death. The non-sexy, dreary, cold, and lonely idea of our end. Of our body being lifeless and someday being just bones beneath the earth, a picture of a car on a gravestone all that is left to tell the story of what we once were, what mattered to us, how we lived.
It’s clear now, all these years later, that I was not going to embrace what the cemetery meant, even if, deep down, I couldn’t help but know.
My parents still live in the town I grew up in. They no longer live in the house by the cemetery. It was a big, old house with a lot to tend to and smartly, they moved to a condo. So, when I visit them I don’t see the cemetery or take walks there. But I think about it. I dream about it and despite my connection to it I know this for sure: when I die I don’t want to be buried there. I don’t want to be buried anywhere. I can think of nothing more lonely.
Alison Coffey lives in Iowa City, IA and works as a mental health counselor. She lives with a husband, daughter, dog, and lizard. She really misses her cat (RIP Percy). She loves coffee and tea in equal measure, is a little too obsessed with Arcade Fire, and enjoys reading YA and dark mysteries. You can find her on Twitter @acoffey or Instagram @teacasey.