In my line of work, it seems that I have pretty regular interaction with graveyards and cemeteries.
As a storyteller, I hear stories about graveyards and burials all the time; as a folklorist and heritage officer for the Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador, I often get questions from communities concerned about historic cemeteries.
This is not a new thing for me, either. For as long as I can remember, I have carried on a bit of a love affair with cemeteries. I have childhood memories of my parents stopping the car on family outings to look at old burial places, and I have always been fascinated by the art and architecture of death.
Earlier this summer, the Heritage Foundation worked with Memorial University’s “Make Midterm Matter” program, the Town of Portugal Cove-St. Philip’s, and the local Roman Catholic church to organize a cemetery cleanup project. Anthropology students from Memorial were bused to the site, learned about cemetery conservation and the symbology of tombstones, and helped removed brush and debris from the area.
While there, I told the students a few of the stories I have heard over the years, and showed them how the stories we tell about graveyards reveal beliefs about the way in which the living and the dead do, or should, interact.
One of the stories I told was one about a missing tombstone, a tale told about the old Anglican Cathedral burying grounds. According to St. John’s legend, a woman named Alice was interred in the graveyard, and a stone placed to mark her resting spot. A year later, on the anniversary of her death, passersby at the site of her death were startled to see her ghost, sitting on a rock, with eyes like burning coals.
The legend states that friends gathered at her burial site to pray that she would rest in peace. Upon their arrival, they were shocked to find the tombstone missing. For 10 years, the ghost of Alice haunted the site of her demise, her spirit only finding rest once her tombstone itself was found, and returned to its rightful location.
A different story, from Trinity Bay, tells of a man and woman who built a little house in a desolated spot. One night, with the husband gone visiting friends, the wife was paid a visit by the silent figure of a man, dressed all in black, with a hat in his hands. The stranger left without a word, but returned the next night, the husband again missing from the house.
On the third night, the stranger returned again, and on this occasion, the husband was home.
“What do you want?” asked the husband.
“If you move your door,” said the stranger, “I will never bother you again.”
With that, the figure walked out of the house, shut the door, and was gone.
The next morning, the husband examined the space outside the house. A large rock lay flat just outside the door. The husband flipped the stone over, and found an epitaph carved into the rock. Unbeknownst to him, he had built his house directly adjacent to a grave. The man boarded up the doorway and made a new entrance in another wall, ensuring that they would no longer walk over the grave of the annoyed spirit.
What these stories reveal, other than the fact that Newfoundlanders love a good ghost story, is that there are old traditions which still guide our actions about how we pay respect to our dead, and how we mark which territory belongs to them, and which territory belongs to us, those of us still on this side of the sod.
Storyteller and author Dale Jarvis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.