Graveyard Images and Inspiration

My husband says he never dreamed he’d marry a woman who loves to stop at cemeteries to take photos or just admire the surroundings. He doesn’t seem to mind our little adventures, and doesn’t seem to think I’m too crazy (or he doesn’t admit it aloud anyway).photo 1-4 photo 1-5 photo 2-5 photo 2-6 photo 3-3 photo 4-2 photo-28

Having lived in two cemeteries as a child and visited plenty of them along the way, I find them fascinating, peaceful, and even odd. The rituals of death and how we memorialize it are a puzzle. However, I think my main reason for wanting to stop, take a picture or simply look over the grounds is all about writer’s inspiration.

The character in my first novel, like me, grew up in a cemetery. I’ve got a couple of additional plots rolling around in my head for this same character and know I will get to them. However, I’ve started another novel, a thriller that doesn’t include this character. The plot came upon me like a sudden storm, and I had no choice but to start writing it.

Despite what I may be writing at any given time, I know I will likely continue to visit cemeteries and take photos. They inspire me in some weird way. I stare at the images of headstones and lawns dedicated to the dead. I wonder about the lives that were lived and those left behind.

What inspires you to seek your passion?

Photos by Lori Ericson

Crotch Machine to City Planning

I’ve been known to say I’m on my third career, but there have been many jobs before and between. Those before and between jobs include waitress, carhop, bookkeeper and the toughest job of all, being a mother. Although running the crotch machine at a local pantyhose factory is fun to reflect on, my first official job was definitely the strangest.

photo-27I was a telemarketer back when most people had a home phone. I didn’t offer magazine subscriptions or carpet cleaning. Instead, the offer was a free burial space to anyone who’d listen to a sales pitch on pre-need planning for cemetery services. My father set me up doing it when I was just 17. I lasted less than a year. It was a tough sales pitch with many a strange reaction and plenty hang ups.

My dad became ill during my senior year of college, and I ended up back in that cemetery office dealing with grieving families, selling headstones and all that’s involved in making a cemetery run.

I eventually moved on to my second career and used my journalism/English degree as newspaper reporter for nearly twenty years. My third career started when a job came up for a city planning position on a beat I was covering as a reporter. I’d been writing about city and county planning for a long time and knew enough to take it on. I’ve spent the last seven years as a city planner, a job I never dreamed of, yet enjoy… most days.

My absolute dream job, fiction writer, is one I’ve worked at in my spare time for years. I’ve had a few short stories published and hope to eventually call myself a novelist. I’ll eventually retire from city hall and writing will be all I do, but I’m not sure I could ever call it “work.”

What’s the strangest job you’ve ever had? What’s your dream job?

Photo by Lori Ericson

Graveyard Theft

Running from room to room, I searched for a source. An infant’s frantic sobs drove me to throw open each door along the endless hallway, only to find dust and cobwebs, and furniture draped in white sheets. The wood floor creaked, the sound mixing with the wails that were near, but then distant. The final tall wooden door called to me.

Sweat ran down my forehead blurring my vision and a rotten stench caught in the back of my throat. The brass doorknob was cold. It took both my hands to get it to twist. The door finally creaked open.

photo-26Tall windows bowed out in a semi-circle and rain pummeled against the glass. The frantic sobs came from a white crib shrouded in shear fabric in the center of the room.

Inching forward, fear snatched my breath. The crib shook with the wails of the child I couldn’t yet see. I pulled back the shear fabric with a shaky hand.

The baby’s bonnet-covered head was just a skull, empty eye sockets stared ahead, its open mouth ready to let out another wail. Skeleton arms stretched toward me.

I’m not sure if I screamed aloud or just woke from the fright of the recurring nightmare.

They’d been coming more frequently. I’m not sure which was worse, this one of searching for the crying baby, or the other of walking through the cemetery to find ghosts of babies wailing behind each tombstone.

I had to do something and soon. The guilt of what we’d done was eating me up. It was just four a.m. and too early for rising on a Saturday morning, but there was no going back to sleep. I would not rest another night without correcting this wrong.

Within an hour, I was on my way. The small statue of the shepherd wrapped in a blanket in the trunk. I could have disposed of it years ago, yet I hung onto it from guilt. Maybe I’d always known one day I’d make this trip of shame.

The gates to the cemetery were still locked for the night, the sun not yet up. But I knew exactly where I needed to go, and it wasn’t far beyond the marble pillars framing the iron gates. That’s what had made it easy the night I took the dare and stole the statue. The raised garden in the middle of what they called the “Babyland Garden” was easy to access, even when the gates were closed from dusk to dawn.

I thought it was cool, kind of funny, that night years before. Now, the stupidity of it all made me shudder.

Stopping next to one of the pillars, I popped the trunk and pulled the statue into my arms. Making my way around the gates and through the small grove of trees I prayed to not get caught. When I got to the raised garden, I doubted my mission for the first time that morning.

The statue had been replaced with a small marble angel. I hadn’t been back inside those gates since that night and had assumed the shepherd’s platform would still be empty.

“I’m such a dumbass,” I muttered.

There was no telling what the replacement statue had cost. There was no choice but to leave my guilt-ridden token there with its stand-in. I lowered the missing shepherd boy to the rock edge of the raised garden and walked away.

I could only hope my nightmares would now be over.

Most of the preceding story is my imagination. There was a statue of a small shepherd boy with a tiny lamb at his feet stolen years ago from the cemetery my parents owned. My brother and I found it returned one morning some five or six years later. It stood next to the angel statue that we’d bought to take its place.

I’m not sure if it was simply guilt or guilt-ridden nightmares that drove the thief to return the statue so many years after we noticed it missing, but I’d like to think that those who commit such crimes against the dead are tortured for their sins.

Is there anything you feel guilty about that may be invading your dreams? What sort of nightmares do you have? 

PHOTO BY Lori Ericson


For Halloween: Revisit of My True Dead Man Story

My True Encounter with a Dead Man

I woke up to the “swish swish” sound of his arm moving against his windbreaker in the eerie green glow of the living room. His face was covered with blood, as was his chest that was exposed by the open jacket. He wore cut-off jean shorts and tennis shoes. I thought it was a dream, this stranger illuminated by the green glass lamp base. I was stretched out asleep on my stomach on the living room floor in the house next to the cemetery when I heard him. He came through the dining room and sat in my dad’s recliner a little after midnight.

Hatbox_Ghost_Sketch_by_Captain_HalfbeardHe stared at me, the smeared blood making him look surreal. I put my head back down thinking I must be dreaming.

He rocked in the recliner.

Raising my head again, I could see the same image.

“Who are you,” I asked.

“I’m dead. I just crawled out of my grave.” He rocked.

“Oh, come on. Do you know my brother John?” I asked. He looked about John’s age, a few years younger than me.

“I might of, when I was alive, but I just crawled out of my grave.” He rocked again in the recliner and continued to stare.

Frozen in place on the floor in front of him, I was unsure what to do. He wasn’t a dream. I hadn’t ever seen him before. Fear caught in my throat.

His rocking stopped. He raised a hand to his face, drew it back and stared at his palm with a quizzical look on his face as if he’d never seen blood before.

Lowering his hand to his lap, he rocked and looked at me. “I’m bleeding to death.”

“You said you’re already dead. How can you be bleeding to death?” It was an obvious question, or so I thought.

“I’m bleeding to death,” he repeated in a raised voice.

That scared me. Why had I questioned this dead man, this apparition covered in blood?

I started to get up, moving backward slowly and watching him closely.

“I just crawled out of my grave,” he yelled.

I got to my feet, ran around the corner, down the hall to my parents bedroom. I heard him following. By the time my dad sat up in bed and put on his glasses, the apparition was standing in the hall. He reached into the bathroom, flipped the switch, and the light fell over this teenage boy covered in blood.

“Who the hell are you?” Dad asked.

“I just crawled out of my grave. I’m dead.”

He stared back at Dad, who repeated his question.

“I just crawled out of my grave, and I need to use your bathroom.” He stepped into the bathroom. I heard the water start in the tub.

I didn’t see him again until the police officer gently coaxed him out of the tub and escorted the boy from our home.

My dead man had apparently done a few too many drugs, entertained himself by jumping from headstone to headstone in the dark cemetery and broke his nose.

My Near Arrest in the Cemetery

At dusk each night someone in my family would travel the gravel lanes meandering through our nearly thirty-acre cemetery to see if any visitors were still lingering. It wasn’t a good thing to lock the gates and imprison some poor unsuspecting widow inside the cemetery after dark. Leaving the grounds unsecured overnight also had its perils. The least of our worries were the lovers who were subject to a surprise when a spotlight was shown through the car window revealing their private tryst. More troublesome were the teenagers who wanted to spin their wheels in the open gardens of the back acreage, and the evil minded who thought it fun to vandalize a family memorial or a mausoleum.

police_car_227    I hadn’t had my license but just a few days when a friend and I offered to take Dad’s brand new four-wheel-drive Ford truck for the nightly gate duty. Dad didn’t object to my driving the truck for the first time. I didn’t even have to pull out on the road since our driveway was connected to the cemetery’s entrance. I would stay on the grounds. How much trouble could I cause?

We climbed up in the cab, found the appropriate rock n roll music station, giggled aplenty and started our trip. We took our time, cruised around chatting away, made several loops and eventually parked down by the cemetery pond to watch the ducks flapping their wings and chasing each other for a bit of entertainment.

As we made one last spin around the grounds, I realized we were being followed. And it wasn’t just anybody. We were being followed by a Fayetteville Police cruiser. Uh oh! This was a first-time experience for me. I anxiously glanced in the mirror, followed the ten-mile-per-hour speed limit inside the cemetery and eventually made my way to the gates. The officer simply followed and didn’t put on his lights. Stopping the truck just past the stone pillar entrance, I glanced at my girlfriend and climbed out of the cab. The officer had parked just a few feet from the chrome rear bumper of the Ford.

I hadn’t taken but a step, maybe two, when I heard a ‘pop’ and realized the truck was rolling backward. The officer, who had started to step out, jumped back in his police cruiser. I held my breath and hopped up into the driver’s seat, slammed my foot on the brake, and yanked the gearshift into park. I knew I’d put it in park once. Or, hadn’t I?

The officer was more than a little pissed. Questions exploded at me as I stuttered and shook my head, trying to look as innocent as possible. No, I didn’t have my license. I’d left my purse behind. I was the daughter of the cemetery owner and was simply trolling the grounds before locking the gates for the night. I pointed toward the house. He lectured and followed me across the side lawn.

I steeled myself for more lecturing from my father and tried not to cry. I explained what happened and that I thought for sure I’d put the truck in park. The officer added his own account of how I tried to run over him.

Fortunately, Dad came to my defense. He said the truck had a tendency to pop out of park, and that Ford had been talking about recall but there’d been no official word yet. He apologized as well for not warning me to put on the emergency brake. He even accompanied the officer back to the gates, officially closed them for the night and retrieved the truck.

I sat down and cried in relief. I could have crashed into a police car. Or, even worse, run over a cop. What a way to christen my new driver’s license.

These stories of my life growing up in a cemetery seem to be popular on my blog. I’ve incorporated a lot of ideas from these memories in my writing as well. . So, thank you to those who enjoy reading them and for any feedback.

Cemetery Sardines

We huddled against the cold granite slabs of the mausoleum while the moon faded in and out amid the moving clouds. Suppressed giggles and whispers, then a “shush, he’s coming.”

This was so much more fun than the traditional hide and seek. We hid together in a group and weren’t out there in the cemetery stowed away alone all those heart-pounding minutes while someone tried to discover each secret hiding spot.

In the game Sardines, there was just one person walking among the headstones, peeking in the dark hedges and searching in the moonlight for everyone else. There were trade offs, of course.

The loneliness for the seeker would end when at least one player was found in hide and seek. In Sardines, the group was often easier to find. But as the seeker neared, the group was also allowed to move, and attempt to find another place to wait out discovery.

rip-tombstone-mdThere were five or six of us hiding out next to the mausoleum that night. My older brother was doing the searching. We heard his footsteps on the gravel road and tried to slip around to the other side of the mausoleum before he found us. But, we were too noisy. Oh, the perils of keeping a bunch of young teens quiet in a cemetery in the dead of night.

It was my turn to go up to the shop to wait ten minutes alone while everyone hid.

The heart pounding fear traipsing around some twenty-five acres of rolling hills and moonlit headstones in solitude was so much different than the pounding a young heart does when trying to squeeze several young bodies together to wait out discovery.

It’s easy to guess which one I preferred.

Now that I’m older and can look back on those memories of growing up next to the cemetery, I’m glad for it all. What fodder for a writer of mysteries to use and embellish!

This story will likely find it’s way into that young adult book I’ve had bouncing around my brain in recent months.