J was the one to spot “my” grave during our stroll through Newton Cemetery this afternoon. As much as I enjoy exploring cemeteries, today was the first time I’ve ever encountered a tombstone with my name on it. As far as I know, I don’t have any relatives living (or once living) in Newton, Massachusetts, so I’ll assume “DiSabato” is more common a name than I knew. Still, it’s a bit creepy to turn around and see a carved-in-stone reminder of your own mortality. There eventually go I, and you, and all of us.

War memorial

I don’t normally find cemeteries to be creepy places…and yet, I occasionally see memorials that stop me cold, offering as they do a tangible reminder of the mortality we all share. Tombstones marking the graves of children always give me pause, and today, J and I saw several graves that were adorned with Valentine’s Day hearts and flowers, a sign that the Dearly Departed really are dear. After seeing the usual His and Hers grave markers with the name of a still-living widow or widower next to the birth and death dates of a deceased spouse, J talked of visiting his grandfather’s grave with his grandmother, her name chiseled alongside her husband’s. I suppose there’s a certain amount of comfort in knowing where and with whom your ultimate resting place will be,visits to your own (eventual) grave being one way of getting to know your (eventual) neighborhood.

Both J and I grew quiet when we approached a field of war dead, that portion of any cemetery always seeming too large. But the memorial that stunned us both into silence was this one, the death date (September 11, 2001) explaining why this particular loss happened far too prematurely:

Rest in peace

After we got home, J went online find the face and story behind the stone. Some souls continue to be mourned even by those of us who never knew them in the flesh.

Holey tombstone

What is it exactly that makes some places more haunted than others? All cemeteries are drenched with memories of days (and lives) gone by…so why do hunters of the paranormal flock to some cemeteries more than others? Gilson Road Cemetery in Nashua, NH is presumably haunted, crepuscular photos revealing blurrily glowing anomalies floating above its graves and against its stone walls. Believers insist that you can feel a watery chill as you walk toward Gilson Road Cemetery’s rear wall, but today in the midday heat I felt nothing but the sun on my shoulders. Yes, it is indeed strange to see an old headstone with a mysterious hole through its center, but does that prove this place is haunted by anything more supernatural than the usual nocturnal pranksters and vandals?

Abel Blood, pointing up

Pine Hill Cemetery in nearby Hollis, NH is likewise rumored to be haunted. Legends have it that the upward-pointing finger on Abel Blood’s grave points downward at night, and stories tell of a family murdered near the site who return to the environs to float and shimmer above their graves. All sites have their metaphoric ghosts, the memories that glimmer into consciousness when we let our guard down: here’s where I met my first love, or here’s where I lost my last. It’s human nature, presumably, to return to significant sites to recollect, reminisce, and try to understand: is it any surprise that we imagine the dead to share similar tendencies? Those who die with unfinished business, lore suggests, will return to tie up those loose ends: the ghost of Elizabeth Ford, for instance, is said to haunt the Country Tavern Restaurant in Nashua, NH, where she looks for the body of her murdered child. If you’d lost your child–indeed, if you’d lost your own life, too–to a jealous husband, wouldn’t you return to the scene of the crime again and again searching for some sense of closure? Reaching the end of our days, don’t we all take unfinished business with us? Is any death well-appointed, or aren’t they all untimely and premature?

Lined up

I love old cemeteries whether they be officially haunted or not. Primitive peoples saw the entire world as being peopled with spirits both benevolent and malign, and they might have been onto something. Although I’m Officially Undeclared when it comes to believing in paranormal phenomenon, it seems the known world is unpredictable and shocking enough: in a world where we can’t predict the weather much less map the warm and cold fronts of the human heart, how can we presume to understand the ways of spirit? There are more things in heaven and earth, Shakespeare suggested, than are dreamt of in our philosophy. Just because we can’t explain something doesn’t stop it from being and behaving so.

Toppled tombstone

More than anything, what fascinates me about haunted cemeteries is the morbid hope that underlies believers’ insistence that something either visible or palpable remains long after the body has presumably passed. Impermanence surrounds us, Buddhists would insist…and yet even Buddhists retain vestigial Hindu notions of metempsychosis. If the Self does not exist, what is it that passes on to be reincarnated or to haunt earthly sites? Is there an echo or shadow–some shimmering, shady blur–that remains after we’ve spent out the breadth and length of our days: is there something that cannot and will not be killed? A belief in ghosts suggests that memory is stronger than time: things may pass, but their memory and spirit remain the same. Isn’t that a hope worth returning to again and again?