There is something innately haunting and eerily beautiful about cemeteries. The mysterious, stoic monuments dot and tower above the quiet, green grounds as far as the eye can see. By day cemeteries are peaceful, relaxing, parklike until twilight moves in and nightfall meticulously folds over the landscape. The ambience transforms to unveil looming gravestones, twisted tree branches and lurking shadows, whether real or imagined. The past lives of souls mingle in such a place so it is fitting that many people are drawn to cemeteries where so many fascinating stories lie left untold. Many of us who love cemeteries wander about and strain to read the often worn, ivy and moss covered chiseled markers. Far away ethereal voices seem to linger, hanging on the wind to gently remind us of the steady passing of time. Like pieces of a puzzle, we can trace back tombstones and use the stories we unearth to fill in missing or unknown parts of history.
Tombstones themselves are artwork from days gone by and were carefully created and designed to mark the places of the departed. Even in present day, old world craftsmanship is reflected in marble, bronze, granite and sandstone being among many of the materials used for markers. The earliest grave markers are believed to date back to 3000 B.C. in the Roman and Celtic cultures. Slate was the first widely used material for headstones around the mid 1600’s to about 1900. The most obvious reason that headstones and sometimes literally piles of stones were used was due to the belief that this formed a spiritual barrier, preventing the deceased individual from rising after death and wandering again among the living. There were all kinds of theories about the placements and orientation of the deceased along with preferences about what times of day were most appropriate for preparing a freshly dug grave. There are many religious notions, superstitions and lore about cemetery rituals—simply fascinating!
In newly built churchyards, it was believed that the first individual who was buried there was to guard the graveyard from the Devil for all eternity—a somewhat ghastly burden. In order that an unfortunate human soul would be spared this unpleasant task, folklore has it that the gruesome custom of burying a live dog in the North corner of the graveyard came about. The dog’s spirit, known as the churchyard grim, would protect the souls in the graveyard. The grim appears as a spectral black dog who was said to toll the church bell at midnight which served as an omen predicting a new death. As in many tales of folklore, dark and stormy weather is a time the grim would be particularly active though the ghostly dog would wander through the churchyard day and night. It was said that priests performing funerals would catch a fleeting glimpse of the grim looking out from the church tower and depending on the grim’s demeanour a priest could surmise whether the deceased individual’s soul would ascend to Heaven or would be banished to Hell. While seen as an entity to be feared, the mostly nocturnal ghost dog dutifully protected graveyards from vandals, grave robbers and witches for all of eternity.
Today cemeteries still bring about a dark allure. Many have tales of hauntings, ethereal residents, strange lights or ominous shadows. This is not unusual seeing as burial locations are shared places of intense emotional energies where many spiritual beliefs, religious denominations and individuals of various societal backgrounds converge in death—the one thing we will all eventually have in common. Graveyards and cemeteries are a great escape from the daily hectic paces and you don’t need to exit your earthly life to be a patron. And while large picturesque cemeteries often attract their share of visitors, don’t overlook the smaller tucked away graveyards that are off the beaten path. Sometimes a bit overgrown, humble and unnoticed, these places can reveal information on the earliest pioneers of a town or city. Inquire at your local museum, Chamber or historical society for information regarding older, smaller graveyards which are very often untouched gems that uncover some great historical facts. When visiting cemeteries always do so respectfully and with great care. Better yet, as part of your contemplative solitude, volunteer for a cemetery clean up to help beautify and preserve an important part of your local history for generations to come.
Burial locations gather up strong energies and emotions over centuries and offer up their gifts of information and mysterious serenity. They are sacred, neutral spaces that can be very attractive to ghostly energies and at the same time hold great historical value not to be overlooked by those who enjoy a good graveyard. Whether it’s simply to visit a loved one, to take some scenic photographs or to take a reflective walk, a cemetery can be a great place to meander. Surrounded by a melancholy-tinged eerie beauty you can find some stillness, perhaps a ghostly sighting or some good old-fashioned history. For those of us who enjoy the paranormal, brave a nocturnal visit to a nearby graveyard, a timeless oasis and the one place there’s always lots of room for souls to converge, dead and living.