Today’s Halloween countdown blog is about cemeteries—yes cemeteries.
I once had a friend of mine give me a ‘WTF?’ look when I said as children we played in a cemetery next to one of my aunts’ house. I found that reaction interesting because I’ve never been scared of these homes of the dead. As a matter fact where I grew up, a tiny town of four hundred, there seemed to be a cemetery on every corner, some lost on the old back roads, and to be honest there were more dead people than living ones in my town.
On those winding back roads, meandering through open fields and quiet woods, exploration was something we did on the long lazy days of summer until another school year started. We were all raised to respect the dead and would have never dreamed of vandalizing graves. For us it was a way of remembering the past and exploring our roots. Generations of our families were laid to rest in these peaceful places and each graveyard and tombstone had its own story to tell if we were just willing to listen.
Cemeteries have existed as long as humans have and I’ve always seen them as doorways to the last great unknown—death. For me, stepping through that gate feels as if you’ve stepped into another world. There is a peace there, in their rows of stone, that I find nowhere else in my life and if I close my eyes, just stand still, I can almost hear the soft whispers of those who came before me. As a child I would spend hours exploring each stone, some worn smooth with time, and others mounded with fresh dirt and scattered with flowers that spoke of how even death did not erase memories.
In my childhood home, there is one cemetery where most of my mother’s family lies buried. It dates back to the late 19th century and it holds memories that still linger for me. A perfect square of land, lone tree standing at the far back, and surrounded with a high wire fence it lies between wide-open fields filled with cattle and tall swaying grasses. It was here that I first learned of grief. Each year on Memorial Day, my parents would load us in the car along with wreaths of silk flowers and drive down the long ribbon of black asphalt, passing only the occasional pick-up truck to the gate of the cemetery.
The official name of this particular cemetery was McMahon, but the locals called it Scott after a family who’d suffered great losses during the early 1900’s when influenza ran rampant through the countryside and medicine was decades from being able to save people from such things as pneumonia or pre-mature birth. Life could be difficult in the foothills of the Ozarks, farms and lumber the two major industries at the time, and sometimes hundreds of miles between towns.
As you walk through that gate on the left side of the main dirt path that bisects the cemetery is a row of fist sized stones, each one etched with a single weathered ‘S’. I recall asking my mother about these small inconspicuous stones when I was either six or seven. She smiled sadly, looked down at me, and said that this was why we called the cemetery Scott for each small stone was where a baby was laid to rest. The Scotts lost so many children in the early 1900’s that proper gravestones were impossible to supply yet they respected their lost children by this simple act. I recall asking my mom if we could give the babies flowers too because they seemed lonely. Minutes later, I was laying a single dandelion, plucked from the roadside, next to each stone.
It was here in this same place that I first saw my mother shed tears as she stood at her mother and father’s graves softly singing beneath her breath or perhaps she was talking. I asked her once why she cried each time we came here since Grandma and Grandpa had been dead forever. She got this far away look in her eyes and said to me, “Time may pass, but you never forget about those you love.” I never truly understood what she met until years later when my father passed. Even now, whenever I get a chance, I go to visit my father where his body lies at rest across the path from my Grandmother and next to her two first two sons who died as children, nearly a century ago. Unfortunately, my mother does not rest next to him, but that is a tale for another day.
Fear of the unknown is innate to humanity and what but death is more unknown. The people of my town knew that life was short they also knew that to respect the dead is to respect your roots. So there was no fear applied to these peaceful and quite places where the bodies of generations past lay embraced by the earth. As I said earlier, each grave has a story to tell, a lesson sometimes to learn.
The people of the Ozarks though are a superstitious lot and it was when people dared to disrespect these places or those around us that fear of the dead became real. There were tales of murderers, adulterers, and conniving children who escaped human justice. The dead did not rest easy in their earthen beds then, especially if these foul people dared walk past the graveyard where their victims rested. Many a fall night, as we burned leaves, sitting around the small bonfires roasting marshmallows in dark, we were told stories of what these people’s disrespect and evil wrought. We were told that to be a good person was to have no fear of the dead, but if we dared disrespect or wrong a fellow human that even death could not stop our victims from finding their revenge.
One particular tale I heard was of a farmer who my mother knew as a child. This man was not a particularly nice man and he possessed a love of both liquor and women although he was married. He apparently began having an affair with another woman when his wife didn’t give in to his every whim, and the entire town knew he was seeing the woman in question. Not surprisingly, the wife, who was a healthy woman, suddenly fell ill and died mysteriously and she was laid to rest in McMahon Cemetery.
The folks in town gossiped as small town folks have a tendency to do and it was the consensus of the town that the farmer had murdered his wife so that he could wed his much younger mistress. They also noticed that the farmer seemed to begin drinking heavier shortly after his marriage to his mistress.
Late one Saturday, after a night of rowdy drinking at one of the local taverns the farmer headed home and his pick-up broke down about three miles from his house. It just so happened that the farmer had to pass McMahon Cemetery, which sat on a dirt road at the time, on his way home.
Drunken to the point of stupidity he headed up the road on foot and as he passed the cemetery, the moon bright overhead, he began to get nervous. As he reached the point of the cemetery where his deceased wife was buried, or so he explained in hysterics later, he felt a cold hand grasp the collar of his coat and pull him backward. With a scream, he squirmed from his coat, and huffed up the road to the nearest house, where he beat on the door until the man of the house answered to find him shivering on the porch. He swore that his dead wife had tried to grab him and pull him into her grave with him. Of course, his neighbor, exhausted from a hard day of labor, and half-asleep just put the wild tale up to nothing more than one too many swigs of corn whiskey. Getting dressed, he drove the farmer to his house, and told him to sleep it off and he’d drive him down to get his truck in the morning after church.
The next morning, encouraged by sleep and copious amounts of black coffee, the farmer and his neighbor went down to get his pick-up. To the surprise of both, not only was his pick-up in perfect working order, but the coat he claimed he’d lost near the cemetery was folded neatly on the seat. Shortly after, the farmer dropped dead of a heart attack in his barn while loading hay in the loft. So it was that the story made the rounds and the town nodded their heads in understanding. They had no doubt that the murdered wife had reached out from the beyond and drew her husband to her side. After all, he was laid to rest next to her in McMahon where a good husband should be.
Now whether you believe the dead are just that or if they can reach out from their graves that tale has to make you stop and think. Imagine setting in the chilly darkness, the crackling flames of the bonfire leaping into the night sky, and hearing that tale of how the dead can sometimes come back for vengeance if you’re not a good person. Yeah, I guess cemeteries can be creepy after all.
Six more days until Halloween…sweet dreams…