Essayist Shares Spooky Tales for Halloween

October 31, 2006 at 3:35 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight on this Halloween, guest essayist Julia Keller of the Chicago Tribune takes a not-so-scary walk through a cemetery.

JULIA KELLER, NewsHour Essayist: When I was a child growing up in West Virginia, my friends and I spent a great deal of time playing in the cemetery. We’d run along the winding blacktop path or weave our way amid the oblivious old trees.

Sometimes we would stop and, in hushed solemn voices, we would read the names on the tombstones, names that, because they come in capital letters, seem to plead with the living to be spoken aloud on this Earth just one more time.

Few adults, however, hang out in cemeteries. Oh, we stop by when we think we ought to, prodded by a guilty conscience or a widowed grandmother. We show up on Memorial Day or Veterans’ Day, bearing flowers and a fading memory of the person before whose grave we stand. But visiting a loved one’s grave can be a bit awkward. Where do you look? What do you say?

Our vague unease with cemeteries reveals itself in familiar ways. This is the Halloween season. Trick-or-treat.

This is the time of year when you can walk in any Wal-Mart and come out with a cardboard tombstone and a glow-in-the-dark plastic skeleton. It’s almost as if we try to cut cemeteries down to size, to get a little revenge on these places that frighten and mystify us, by turning them into entertainment, by coming up with silly stories about ghosts that rise with the evening mist.

Cemeteries serene, not just spooky

But cemeteries don't have to be scary or depressing. In the 19th century, cemeteries by and large weren't seen that way at all. Many were designed by renowned landscape architects. They were intended to be public spaces, places of beauty and serenity, where one can find not just rows and rows of stone markers, but elbow room for the mind, for thoughts and reflections too immense and unwieldy for everyday life. Cemeteries were places for family picnics, for carriage rides on summer afternoons.

In the great American cemeteries built in the middle of the 19th century, you can sense this. Americans took their cue from European cemetery designers, especially the French who pioneered the concept of the garden cemetery in 1804. This wasn't about sumptuous riches packed into the tombs of the pharaohs; this was about trees and grass and flowers.

Crown Hill Cemetery here in Indianapolis opened in 1864. Among the approximately 193,000 graves, set amid its 555 acres, are the final stops of President Benjamin Harrison, and bank robber John Dillinger, and author James Whitcomb Riley.

The Midwestern poet Edgar Lee Masters pondered this endless tumble of the cemetery. In his 1914 masterpiece, "Spoon River Anthology," he wrote, "Where are Elmer, Herman, Bert, Charley, the weak of will, the strong of arm, the clown, the boozer, the fighter? All are sleeping, sleeping on the hill."

Cemeteries are sad, but it's a good kind of sad. It's the illuminating sorrow of the falling leaf, the passing hour, the vanished loved one. No wonder ghosts feel at home here. And maybe we should, too.

I'm Julia Keller.