Our perception of death has been accompanied by superstition and tradition since humans first implemented the practice of burial around 60,000 BC. Every culture throughout history has observed its own elaborate customs, both to keep safe the living and chaperon the dead to their next stop.
Our modern cemeteries are no less exempt from the vestigial residue of archaic myth. Combining an array of traditional elements – from a uniformity of layout (the feet of the decedents to the East and heads to the West), to gun salutes, bells, and headstones decorated with symbols ranging in theme from the cherubic to memento mori – is it any wonder that cemeteries have long been a source of both curiosity and trepidation?
Local legends have long been born of this combination of history, ceremony, and mankind’s parallel apprehension for and fascination with the unknown. The final resting place of our ancestors comes to life as a veritable breeding ground of lore and an excellent backdrop to our most favorite literary drama, the ghost story. From innocuous orbs and lights, to white ladies and vanishing hitchikers to visits by the devil himself, there are no shortage of tales of cemetery hauntings – it seems nearly every town has one. But is a cemetery really the best place to find a ghost?
The general consensus is that there are two main types of hauntings. Some hauntings happen when a once-living spirit has a strong tie to a physical location or a particular person, or has some unfinished business to sort out; this is an intelligent haunting which has a tendency to interact with denizens of our plane in a variety of ways, and wishes to be heard. Conversely, when something particularly emotional has happened at a site, the residual energy may reverberate and manifest as an apparition having all the qualities of a movie projected onto a screen; this type is merely a stored memory and does not interact with this world, and would continue playing with or without it.
A cemetery would seem to have a low potential for either of these types of apparitional demonstrations, but yet the stories persist. In an overwhelming number of these myths, the ghosts in question appear to have made the connection to their places of rest not in life, but after death. Whether recalled by would-be necromancers, or to avenge a desecration, or through a general inability to rest, these ghosts return to habituate the site of their burial. No matter the individual circumstances, legends of cemetery hauntings presuppose that a spirit has an interest in its former physical vessel beyond a passing curiosity.
Could these ghost stories – as embellished and prone to hyperbole as they are today – rest upon a basis of fact? I can’t say with any certainty that they do. But, as an otherwise rational person whose step hastens a bit while passing a dark cemetery at night, I can’t say with any greater confidence that they do not.