Friendly Hauntings… In my last post I talked about searching for the resting place of Enid Blyton’s ashes. This isn’t a strange thing for me to do. Confession: like a surprising number of people, I love cemeteries.
I find something immensely soothing in slowly wandering through old graveyards, reading the headstones. I discovered this love when I was about twelve, and my mother took me and my younger siblings to St. Andrews on the Red, a Gothic Revival Anglican church built between 1845-1849. It stands beside the winding road that runs along Red River just outside of Lockport, about fifteen miles north of Winnipeg. My mother had heard the church was haunted, and wanted to see if she could feel any vibrations or see any auras. Perhaps not the most conventional outing for a mother and her children, but my mother was not conventional. It was a steamy summer day, mid-week, when the church was empty. She had my younger brothers and sister wait outside, perhaps worried about the state of the old steps to reach the open wooden belfry of the tower, or perhaps concerned that their noisy presence might discourage a visitation. But she took me with her; it was not an option. As I silently climbed up that dim, cobwebby stairway behind her, I was trembling with dread, awaiting the poke of a bony finger or a cold breath in my ear, petrified at the thought of coming upon a ghostly presence – or perhaps, more aptly, it coming upon us. Reaching the belfry, we stood, waiting. I looked out at the curve of the quietly-flowing Red River and the silent cemetery below and the prairie fields around us. Finally, my mother expressed disappointment at nothing happening. I agreed with her, a lie, because I didn’t want her to think me weak. An outing with her – even a ghost-hunt – was a rare and special occasion for me.
Back outside, I was calmed by walking through the solemn dignity of that old cemetery, where some of Manitoba’s first Red River settlers were buried. Reading what was still visible on the crumbling headstones, I discovered so many babies dead at a few weeks or months, so many children my age or younger dead of influenza, dead of smallpox, dead by drowning or by fire. On the drive home I imagined what it would have been like to live on the Manitoba prairies a century earlier. I suddenly understood that graveyards can tell us how people died, but also, in some ways, how they lived.
Since that long-ago experience, I have made the opportunity to visit a number of historic cemeteries: Pere Lachaise in Paris, the Jewish Cemetery in Prague, La Recoleta in Buenos Aires, Okunoin on Mount Koya, and the St. Louis in New Orleans, to name but a few. Every inscription and statue and tribute is, in some way, a source of inspiration for my imaginings of past lives. And it happened again a few days ago, although this visit was unplanned, and the cemetery unknown to me.
Quickly walking up bustling City Road in London, I almost walked right past Bunhill Fields. It’s a glorious little garden cemetery of tilting, moss-covered stones, surrounded by the first daffodils (daffodils in February! thinking of my snow-blanketed Canadian home, I was thrilled). Bunhill Fields, originally known as Bone Hill, was first recorded as a burial ground during the Great Plague of 1665. But what I found most interesting was that it was unconsecrated ground, and as such, was the final resting place for Nonconformists, banned from churchyards because they refused to use the Church of England prayer book. And so everyone buried in Bunhill Fields is, in effect, a rebel of his or her time, like John Bunyan who wrote Pilgrim’s Progress, Daniel Defoe of Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders fame, and the poet and visionary William Blake. They were buried, respectively, in 1688, 1731, and 1827.
I stood in the sunshine, sharing, for that unexpected moment, the calm oasis among the remains of courageous dissenters, savouring the unexpected glory of the daffodils, and reliving a few of my own friendly hauntings.