When you live in a graveyard, most of your neighbors are peaceful. This seems particularly true of our burial ground, a Quaker cemetery of 17 wooded acres just outside the west edge of Philadelphia. Here all the gravestones are low to the ground with only names and dates inscribed on them, an expression of the Quaker belief that it is your life that should speak, not your death. Many Quakers now scatter the ashes of their loved ones, but for those who desire a resting place, there are burial grounds like ours. My husband, Graham, serves as the caretaker and, as most of his compensation, we are given free rent in the caretaker’s brick house built in 1860, the year the 12th Street Meeting established this home for their dead. This is the place we brought our now 3 year old son home two days after he was born, and where he uttered his first sentence – “Daddy dig hole.”
A few of our deceased neighbors we know by reputation, Henry Joel Cadbury, one of the founders of the AFSC, and Addison Hutton, a prominent local architect, are buried here. We’ve met the families as they’ve come to inter their dead or when they’ve come to visit graves. Over time we’ve buried several of our mostly non-Quaker, recently living, neighbors. Two years ago the man who had been the caretaker for 25 years was buried here. He had been a member of the volunteer fire department and, so, he arrived in a convoy of five fire trucks, his body carried on the top of one of them. Many of the firefighters are northern Irish and wore kilts and the Greek Orthodox priest from across the street, who has Scottish heritage and has shown up on our doorstep in leather kilts on occasion, crept over to the burial after serving Mass dressed in his flowing black robes and stood behind a bush observing the service. He had heard the bagpipes and wanted to see what was going on. As he stood there, lurking, his cell phone rang and everyone turned to scowl at him. The bagpipes played, tunelessly and mournfully, for some time, and then the convoy of fire trucks returned to the station.
Not long ago another of our recently living neighbors, who resided in one of the modest row houses on the back of the burial ground, died suddenly from a heart attack. Her husband found her lying, face down, in the kitchen. A relative of theirs had died not long before and she and her husband had talked, coming home from the service, about what they wanted for their funerals. This was some comfort to the husband, as he knew how to send her home in the manner she had requested. He chose the spot she had liked in the burial ground and Graham made all the arrangements. My mother, who was taking a trip to say ‘good-bye’ to her family as she was dying from breast cancer, was visiting and she and I sat out on our lawn together and watched the quite remarkable proceedings of this funeral. Gina’s ashes arrived carried by a cherry red Cadillac convertible with about 100 cars following behind. As far as I know, the burial ground had never before had so many vehicles arrive for an interment. Bill, the husband, had asked that everyone wear Hawaiian shirts for the occasion and he had assembled, from their many musician friends, a New Orleans style string band to play and lead the procession as they paraded around the graveyard. When they reached the grave, Bill put the urn with Gina’s ashes into the hole, then he pulled out a huge bottle of rum and passed it around. (Graham, needless to say, had not been forewarned of these plans). I could feel the Quaker dead taking notice and raising their eyebrows. Everyone took a sip around the grave and, then, Bill pulled out a small canon. (Another detail Bill had failed to mention to Graham). He took out a match, lit the canon, and it went off. I guess Gina had asked to be sent home, literally, with a bang. (At this point I could feel all the Quaker residents of the burial ground spinning quite energetically in their graves). Bill shot off the canon one more time, then the assembled gathering departed, slowly, from the burial ground. My mom was impressed, though she didn’t follow Gina’s example, I could see her planning and plotting her own send off.
The longer we live here, I know that we will know more about the ghosts that reside here and more of the ghosts will have been our friends. Some people think it’s strange to live so close to the dead, but I believe it just makes a constant reality more obvious. We all live with ghosts, the dead inhabit our atmosphere and their weight and presence stay with us, leaving their mark. When you live in a graveyard, it’s just harder to ignore the dead’s presence.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.