I live steps from a graveyard — the 240-acre, Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain, Mass. I walk my dog there several times a day, even at night. The only time I’ve been frightened there after dark is when I heard a coffin lid slowly opening. But it was only the limb of an old maple tree bending in the wind. It still creaks and squeaks, and still startles me.
Don’t say I’m brave strolling through a graveyard after the sun goes down. I’m a big scaredy-cat for the most part. I woke up Sunday night in a panic after hearing heavy, deep breaths next to my bed. I was certain the “walkers” had found me, until I realized it was my steam radiator coming on.
One reason I’m not afraid to venture into this cemetery at any hour is I know it so well. Its 100,000 residents include writers Eugene O’Neill, Anne Sexton and e.e. cummings. I wrote my master’s thesis about the community of abolitionists who are at rest there, including William Lloyd Garrison. Full of artists, feminists, spiritualists, and freethinkers, it was the cool place to be buried in the 19th century.
Also, I don’t believe in ghosts.
No one is allowed in the cemetery after dark, But Keith, the night watchman, gives me a pass. When he sees me with my dog, he stops his car, gets out, opens his trunk, and feeds her doggie treats. Keith used to have a white lab named Charley, who patrolled with him. Charley died five years ago, and Keith has never replaced him. He still talks about him.
Although I’ve known Keith for 17 years, I don’t know his last name. I only know he’s ex-military, unmarried, and hates big government.
One night a few years ago I asked him if he believed in ghosts.
“I didn’t used to,” he replied.
“Used to?” Keith’s not the type to pull your leg. I insisted he continue.
“You know the Greek section at the far end of the cemetery?” he asked me. I knew it from my longer walks on Saturday afternoons. The tombstones there have multi-syllabled names, like Angelopolous and Karahalios. A spiked, iron fence separates that section from a wooded bird sanctuary.
“About 10 years ago I was working a daytime, Sunday shift,” he said. “As I was driving through the Greek section, I saw an old lady who was dressed in black. She was standing behind a tombstone — leaning atop it, actually. Something seemed off about her. Charley started barking at her, which was weird. He never barked at anyone. He wouldn’t shut-up. So I stopped the car. But when I got out, she wasn’t there.
“I couldn’t figure out where she had gone. She couldn’t have climbed over the fence. I searched all over the place for her. I even looked for footsteps, but there were none. I tried to get Charley out of the car to help me find her, but he wouldn’t budge. He just stayed in the backseat.”
“You really think she was a ghost?” I asked Keith. “There’s more,” he replied.
“Later that afternoon I was doing my rounds when I a guy in a passing car flagged me down. He was with another young man. They told me they were trying to find their grandmother’s grave. They looked Mediterranean, so I said to them, ‘I might know where it is.’ Follow me.’
“I took them to where I saw the old lady in black. As it turned out, their grandmother’s name was on the tombstone. They couldn’t believe it. They wanted to know how I knew where she was. So I told them what I saw earlier. They said that it all made sense. Their grandmother had told them that she wanted them to visit her grave on the first anniversary of her death, which was today. She said she’d make her presence known.
“I guess she was waiting for them, and they were late,” Keith said to me.
Keith may think he saw a ghost. But I’m not convinced. I figure there must be a rational explanation. Perhaps he had seen a shadow on the tombstone. Charley could have been barking at a squirrel.
I’ve haven’t let his conversion from non-believer to believer keep me out of the cemetery at night. It’s especially beautiful when the moon is full, and after a snowfall.
I just stay clear of the Greek section.