Literally the Best Thing Ever: Cemeteries

The funk of 40 thousand years.

Illustration by Leeay

Illustration by Leeay

I’m kind of a scaredy-cat—when I first watched The Ring I was too afraid to go into my garage or basement or anywhere I might see that terrifying death-omen girl for a over a week. And yet I love cemeteries, for so many reasons. They’re spooky but not too spooky—you might see something, but at least you are out in the open and can easily escape if stuff gets too intense. Also, since my spiritual beliefs are kind of a make-believe work-in-progress, I’m fascinated by the afterlife. When I’m feeling reflective or lost, I think an encounter with something otherworldly will provide me with answers or special guidance. And since cemeteries are generally so quiet, they’re a good place to go when I’m seeking peace. But more often than not I’m seeking a thrill among the tombstones—whether it’s catching a glimpse of something ghostly that will leave me with a story tell or that electrical charge of being somewhere you know you’re not supposed to be after dark. Here are some of my favorites:

Jewish Waldheim Cemetery, Forest Park, Illinois

I snuck into a cemetery for the first time in November of my sophomore year of high school. I was with my friends, and we were bored and stoned. The air was cold enough to make my nose red after 10 minutes or so, but I ignored it so I could inhale that amazing scent of fallen leaves.

The Chicago suburb of Forest Park is really close to where I grew up, and it has a ton of cemeteries. Jewish Waldheim Cemetery has a gate and fences, but one night my friends and I noticed a construction site next to it, which meant we could probably sneak in. We hid my friend’s car behind a backhoe, walked through a muddy ditch, and we were in. I was hanging out with a new crowd and dating a guy I didn’t really like, so I wandered off on my own. That’s when I caught a glimpse of something white and felt compelled to follow it. I would learn later through reading and discussing on local lore that a lot of people had seen and followed white lights in that cemetery. My boyfriend called out to me, but I pretended not to hear him, my eyes on the white light that appeared and disappeared on the ground, leading me deeper into the cemetery. I followed it until I couldn’t hear my friends’ laughter or see the glowing red embers of their cigarettes anymore. I knelt down and examined the nearest headstone; the name Hazel was engraved on it. Hazel was also the color of my eyes; I became convinced that it was some sort of message. Maybe Hazel the ghost had something to tell me, or maybe she was my guiding spirit! Before I could fully take in my surroundings, my friends caught up with me. I didn’t want to share Hazel with anyone, so I just laughed and said my eyes were playing tricks on me. The next summer when I got my license, I drove back to that cemetery on several occasions and searched high and low for Hazel’s gravestone to no avail, but the thrill of seeing something that might have been paranormal and the idea that someone from the Great Beyond might want to communicate with me inspired years of cemetery adventures to come.

“G.R.,” Sun Prairie, Wisconsin

“We’re going to G.R. tonight, if you want to come,” Simon* told me. I was seventeen and I’d moved to Madison, Wisconsin, after graduating high school early, hoping for a fresh start. Simon, the 23-year-old goth guy I’d met the night my roommate and I snuck into a University of Wisconsin dance night, definitely was an adventure. We’d gone to parties, nightclubs, an abandoned house and now…whatever this was.

“What’s G.R.?” I asked.

“It’s a cemetery in Sun Prairie. We just go there to drink and hang out. It’s up on this hill and there aren’t really any houses around. Plus,” he whispered, “I’ve seen some things.”

I hadn’t seen anything ghostly since Hazel, so I was game.

G.R. (which stood for “Grim Reaper,” so named by Simon and his friends for the big pine tree that resembled the Angel of Death) was smaller and more isolated than any of the cemeteries I’d haunted in high school. I instantly loved that—it felt classically creepy like the rural cemeteries in black-and-white horror movies like Night of the Living Dead. Simon and I thought we saw supernatural phenomena there once. We kept seeing eerie white flashes in the fields that lined the edge of the cemetery. “I don’t think we should go out there,” he warned, pointing at the lights. “I just get the feeling those spirits are malevolent.”

“But she’s not,” I said, pointing to another white light that was closer to us, illuminating the trunk of a tree. The lights in the field were like little orbs, but this one was different. Though it wasn’t quite human shaped, the curve at the center reminded me of a woman’s hips, and for a split second I thought I saw a female face and long hair. It was near my favorite grave, one I just felt drawn to: Louisa Fehrmann, November 1847 to January 1936. It was a small headstone, strangely positioned behind the large family monument. Maybe that’s why I connected with her; I assumed she was different, maybe a little bit of an outcast, like me.

I took numerous pictures in front of her grave and wrote poetry under the tree where thought I saw her. I promised her that I would write a story about her, and I did, sort of: In my first book, one of the main characters is an outcast from a small town in Wisconsin with shimmering white-blond hair. Her name is Louisa.

Lake Ripley Cemetery, Cambridge, Wisconsin

“It’s like the ultimate goth playground,” I would later tell my college friends. “There’s a cemetery, a lake, and an actual playground. Swing, swim, and get spooked. It’s the most perfect place on earth!”

Though I always felt somber and introspective at G.R., I was open to adventure at Lake Ripley. My friends and I spent more time at the lake part than the cemetery part; it was perfect for night swimming (not a lot of people want to sneak through a graveyard to swim or skinny dip). Once my friend Bran and I decided to swim all the way across the lake; we got halfway across before we realized oh yeah, we’d have to swim back. I also spooked myself by thinking about how HUGE the fish must be out in the middle where it was 40 feet deep, so I turned back; Bran laughed loudly, but followed.

Glen Forest Cemetery, Yellow Springs, Ohio

The only time I got truly scared in a cemetery was in Ohio, where I lived for a year when I was 18. There was a nature preserve on campus, thought to be a magical place where ley lines intersected and faeries resided. My friend Kirsten and I were interested in paganism and supernatural lore, so we spent a lot of time there. One night, we decided to scope out the cemetery next to the glen. As we walked up the road toward the entrance, we noticed something about Kirsten’s shadow was strange: The shadow of the chain she was wearing on her wallet kept twisting even though the actual chain was barely moving at all! As we got closer to the entrance, we saw white lights in the graveyard. We paused to make sure and they appeared even when there were no cars going by, and they did. As we reached the entrance, those lights turned red and a black figure appeared. We conferred, blinked to make sure our eyes weren’t playing tricks on us, but no, we both clearly saw a dark, human shape—a shape that zoomed toward us before we could set foot in the cemetery!

We ran off in terror, but we went back the next night, and we saw our shadows on the ground run away from us! This still didn’t deter us, and we went inside. The thing that scared us off that night was an actual person, an old man who lived in the house next to the cemetery. He came outside and clapped three times; we thought maybe he was calling a dog, but no dog appeared. He looked like he was going to speak, but then he vanished into his house and all the lights on both floors went out instantaneously!

I never had good feelings about Glen Forest Cemetery, and there were no muses or spirit guides waiting there for me. Drawn to the dark forms and eerie lights, Kirsten and I went back again and again for the thrill.

Forest Home Cemetery, Forest Park, Illinois

When I moved to Forest Park at 24, I made jokes about the zombie apocalypse occurred; if it was coming, there were cemeteries all around me, so I was screwed. Most of the tombstones at the front of Forest Home belong to gypsies; they’re marked with crescent moons and hands, palm out, and their relatives visited regularly to leave coins and flowers and bottles of beer and wreathes of flowers shaped like bottles of beer. Emma Goldman is buried there, and there’s a historical marker that pays tribute to the Haymarket Martyrs. In the back, near the river that floods when it rains too much, is an unmarked grave that contains the body of Belle Gunness, one of the first female serial killers—or it might be the body of one of her victims, they still aren’t sure. I learned all of this on an annual walking tour given by the historical society, where I also learned that when the cemetery was created, it was viewed more as a park; people from Chicago took long horse and buggy rides to spend the day picnicking with their dead relatives. Forest Home was close to my house, huge, not a lot of people visited, and it was considered an actual park? When I heard that I got the idea to start jogging there. It was open to the public but sometimes the maintenance workers looked at me funny; I never ran through a funeral or anything (if I saw a funeral I always I steered clear out of respect), but I guess they still thought it was weird. Being there during the day meant I didn’t see anything strange, but I was there for peace and reflection, not for thrills. Well, this time, anyway—I still peek around every tree, searching for those dancing white lights, waiting for another spirit to show me something spooky. ♦

*All names changed except those belonging to the dead


  • Sophie ❤ August 15th, 2013 7:04 PM

    I did get a scare from the title, but I loved this!

  • AidaA August 15th, 2013 8:28 PM

    I loved this post! I love cemeteries too and I know what you mean about just the right level of spook. It’s why I love abandoned mansions too

  • Kaetlebugg August 15th, 2013 8:30 PM

    I have mixed feelings about this, because I absolutely love it, and I love graveyards, and I used to bike around one near my family friend’s house all the time, and I fully support loitering in graveyards – but part of the reason I want to visit graveyards after dark is because of the thrill of doing something that feels slightly wrong. I dont really believe that doing so is morally wrong, but I’d also like to hear a solid argument to back up my feelings. As in: I want to be able to articulate why I think its OK and not disrespectful to loiter/lurk/explore around graveyards after dark. Anyone have any thoughts?

  • Cerise August 15th, 2013 8:34 PM

    I love cemeteries, too! I scare a bit too easily, though, so I mostly just go during the day. They’re a good place for picnics, very peaceful.

    • lauraunicorns August 15th, 2013 9:24 PM

      I agree! They’re a good place to think and usually really green. There are a lot of trees where I live, and there is one really old cemetery up on a hill that’s just surrounded by all these tall, pretty trees. I’d like to visit it (during the daytime, of course!) Plus it’s called Pleasant Valley, which I think is kind of sweetly ironic.

  • tweedcoats August 15th, 2013 10:46 PM

    Whoa, I was moderately spooked until I saw one story of a graveyard that is literally in my small hometown. I’ve walked through it a few times, but never at night. Totally freaky that this article would mention it!

    • Stephanie August 16th, 2013 6:11 PM

      WHOA! Now I’m spooked! that’s so cool!

  • Roz G. August 15th, 2013 11:32 PM

    you should come to Mexico

    • Stephanie August 16th, 2013 6:12 PM

      I would love to! Some day!

  • Kira Belle August 16th, 2013 12:20 AM

    I loved this article! It was really interesting to read, thank you Stephanie!

    I also live near a cemetery so this has given me motivation to go check it out sometime! x

  • ohclemence August 16th, 2013 1:03 AM

    I really enjoyed reading this until I started getting eerie chills down my back. I live in a 168 year old house and I am thoroughly convinced it’s haunted.

    I’m fascinated by the paranormal and spirits but I’ve never actually been to a graveyard at night? I don’t know, I just felt like it was something you shouldn’t do, but I would totally do it now, with a group of friends to be safe, of course ;)

  • whyamidreamingwhenimstillawake August 16th, 2013 1:07 AM

    I live five minutes away from the biggest cemetery in the state and I go there all the time. There is a beautiful green grassy area surrounded by old trees and a little pergola on the side that I love.
    It’s really old and a lot of the graves are 200 years old and crumbling. The best part is that it is surrounded by a big road, but it still manages to be really calm.
    Cemeteries are the best.

  • Sarah August 16th, 2013 2:40 AM

    I love cemeteries!
    When I went to my friends beach house we walked to the local cemetery and played hide and seek. The creepiest part was when you had to stand by yourself and count…I kept imaging a hand tapping me on the shoulder! We made sure to jump over the graves and when we accidentally lay down on one not realising it was a grave we went and got flowers and put them on it to apologise.

    Some people think playing in cemeteries is disrespectful but I know that I’d like children to be having fun and playing around my grave.

  • paige.xo August 16th, 2013 7:01 AM

    no one ever wants to go to cemeteries with me!

  • gllegz August 16th, 2013 8:59 AM

    I find the whole cemetery thing to be a little disrespectful to be honest. Regardless of what you believe happens to someone when they die, it’s kinda gross to treat someone’s final resting place like your playground. If someone were act so flippant towards where my grandmother rests, I’d be furious…so why do it to someone else? Not attacking you personally by the way, but it’s just another perspective to think about.

    • pygmypuffs August 16th, 2013 11:53 AM

      I feel the same way! Back when I was in middle and early high school (so like 5-7 years ago because I’m old) I was a wanna-be-goth kid and all my friends thought hanging out in graveyards was the coolest thing. But my grandparents had all just passed in the span of like 3 years so I was uncomfortable with that. They all made fun of me for being a scaredy cat but like, yo that’s someone’s family member you’re posing with.

      • Stephanie August 16th, 2013 6:19 PM

        I definitely get what both of you are saying. Having lost a few people in a 6 month span a couple of years ago definitely had me thinking about that as well, but in my mind it is all about being respectful. I wouldn’t do anything in any other cemetery that I wouldn’t do in my loved one’s cemetery. Now, of course that depends on your personal views too, though because we like to bring pinwheels and fly kites at the cemetery where my good friend is buried on his birthday. Playfulness is my way of celebrating the lives people had. But I am always respectful of where I walk (and was even when I was doing sillier things like hide and seek), of other visitors when I’m there during the day, and especially of headstones, etc. It really upsets me to see those vandalized. I’ve taken photos of them because I think they are works of art. I’ve definitely be around people who aren’t as respectful though, and it is upsetting. I certainly understand why you both feel the way you do.

  • Pocket Cow August 16th, 2013 10:41 AM

    I don’t think it’s disrespectful to go to graveyards at night. As long as you’re feeling respectful about it (not running over people’s graves, laughing at funny names- which my friends do sometimes and I hate- or stuff like that) it’s fine.
    One time my friends and I went through our local cemetary at night on All Souls Night. Everyone else was really flippant about it but my one friend and I kept seeing things because we’re really sensetive about that stuff and it was really creepy.

  • Simone H. August 16th, 2013 1:17 PM

    Oh my gods ! I love cemeteries ! Loved this !!
    The Louisa story and the Glen Park thing are awesome. Louisaactually made me feel all fuzzy and warm. <3
    Years ago, for Halloween, I had invited a friend to come to my country house, in a little village in the middle of nowhere.
    My dad had organised a treasure hunt for us. So there we were, walking to the cemetery, where distant relatives, friends of my family and my grandpa were buried, at midnight on Halloween.
    We were completely freaked out. But as soon as we entered the cemetery, we felt… Reassured. Like the dead people surrounding us were smiling at us, patting our back and whispering "shhh… 's okay…".
    It was one the best feelings in the world.
    As soon as we got out, we felt cold and scared again. But a cat followed us until we were home so we just concentrated on him and it was okay.
    I went to Ireland in January. As we drove, we saw a cemetery on the side of the road, on a hill, so we stopped. The stones were sculpted and engraved with celtic stuff. Some graves were in what used to be a building, but it was too… Er… Crumbled to know what is used to be.
    The wind was blowing and making weird, spooky noise. It was great, but creepy, so I just took some pictures and went back to the car.

    • Stephanie August 16th, 2013 6:22 PM

      These sound like amazing experiences! I love the idea of the people patting you on the back! And the old graveyard in Ireland sounds so gorgeous and interesting. I do love visiting really old cemeteries and thinking about the history of the people there. Of course being in America, the oldest cemetery I’ve seen was in Salem, MA with graves from the 1700s, but that was pretty amazing.

  • wallflower152 August 16th, 2013 2:23 PM

    This is great! I went to an old cemetery a couple months ago with my Mamaw to see her parents’ grave and there were so many old graves. Lots of kids that died at a couple years old and teenagers. Their names were old an charming like Edwin and Charlotte and Clara and Gladys, names that you don’t hear a lot these days. And it’s really sad when you think about it, people that died in 1915, everyone that ever loved them are probably dead themselves by now. So I took a second to just pay my respect to them cuz they probably haven’t been thought of for years. There were so many angel statues and I pretended they were the weeping angels of Dr Who. : )

  • EmmaS August 16th, 2013 3:34 PM

    I always wondered why spirits would be drawn to Graveyards, you would think they would go somewhere familiar, like their home.

  • raggedyanarchy August 16th, 2013 4:13 PM

    My friend lives across the street from a teeny graveyard! We like to walk there to hang out sometimes, but we’ve never seen anything supernatural.
    Some of the graves were back from the times before caskets, so the pine coffins rotted away and the ground caves in. Once, we walked over barefoot and my other friend’s foot went through one of the old graves! She swears to this day she felt a crunch of bone underneath her foot. We see a lot of snakes there, too, although they’re all King Snakes.
    Oh! And the house right next to it is supposedly haunted by the old man who died there. His daughter still comes to visit the house, and brings the newspaper and groceries and swears he reads it and drinks all the milk. This has never been proven, though!

  • Lemons August 16th, 2013 6:24 PM

    Yes! I love cemeteries too! When I was growing up, in the summers we would go to my dad’s farm in the middle of nowhere and the only thing to do was to play in the nearby graveyard, planting flowers and making everything look beautiful. I never really thought of them as spooky places until I started watching horror movies! I love thinking about all the people underneath and what they were like and who they loved, and what became of them. It does sharply bring into focus your sense of mortality though, and that can be tough to handle! Cool topic.

  • sunshine August 17th, 2013 11:23 AM

    Wow and I thought I was the only one weirdly drawn to cemeteries…I guess not!

  • GabbyCat August 17th, 2013 5:52 PM

    My family and I found the small community where my mom’s family is from during a vacation, and we wanted to find some family graves, so we basically just cemetery hopped for an hour. We actually found my great-great-great grandparent’s graves! One of my favorite places in the world is a cemetery within walking distance of my house. It’s very secluded and small, surrounded by trees and pretty much on the edge of a cliff, with an amazing view of the ocean. I’ve never really thought of graveyards as being anything but peaceful.

  • pendulous-threads August 19th, 2013 3:43 PM

    Great read! I am a lover of cemeteries as well.
    I live in an almost 400-year-old town (the oldest in Connecticut!) and there’s a spooky and very, very old cemetery on top of a hill behind our first church, right down the street from my best friend’s house.
    It’s my favorite spot in town to wander through, and when I was younger I’d go through it on halloween night searching for the supernatural but would never find anything. If you love cemeteries you’d love all the old ones in new england!

  • abby111039 August 19th, 2013 6:41 PM

    Cool article. I have a sort of fascination with cemeteries as well, what with all the history and everything. They’re the perfect blend of spookiness, beauty, and a quiet kind of sorrow. They’re quite lovely and peaceful really.

    And I’m pretty sure my grandpa on my dad’s side is buried in Jewish Waldheim Cemetery. What a coincidence to see it mentioned here haha.

  • agnosia September 2nd, 2013 3:02 PM

    loved this article but i just wanted to point out that g**sy/g**sies is a racial slur that you shouldnt be using.

  • panfried September 17th, 2013 12:41 AM

    woah, weird! jewish waldheim and forest home are 5 minutes away from my house, i go past them all the time and never thought to go explore them! i’ve always loved looking in on them as i pass, though. great stuff.

  • RosieRavenclaw01 September 29th, 2013 8:40 PM

    This is cool, but cemeteries kinda freak me out. ^_^ My parents almost bought a house right behind a cemetery, but decided not to because it needed a lot of fixing up. I wish they had bought it, though, because graveyards, although creepy, can be very cool.

  • Isabel November 29th, 2013 8:50 PM

    I love this post so much, as well as cemeteries! I love graveyards so much. I feel like they bring out a different side of me. I have a graveyard next to my house and I like to go there alone and read or doodle what I see into my journal. I love the fact that they seem so quiet and empty, but when you’re sitting there, you can imagine a world of spirits around you, and it’s like you’re never alone. I always make up stories for the different people buried there too. My favourite thing to do is sit next to a grave and talk out loud about everything, I find it fun because I think about how bored and lonely spirits may feel, so I like to entertain them with stories. (and if in the end they don’t exist and I really am talking to myself, it still feels nice to get things off of my chest every once in a while.)