A Walk Through the Cemetery At Night

The Ghost of Forest Hills Cemetery

I didn’t used to believe in spirits. . .Now I’m not so sure


I live steps from the 240-acre, Forest Hills Cemetery in JP. I walk my dogs 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. The tree 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. Every time I hear my steam radiator hissing at night I’m certain the zombies from “The Walking Dead” have found me.

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 the night watchman, who I’ve known for the last 18 years, 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. He used to have a white lab named Charley, who patrolled with him. Charley died five years ago.

One night a few years ago I asked him if he believed in ghosts.

“I didn’t used to,” he replied.

“Used to?” He’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 my guard friend. “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,” my friend said to me.

He 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.