Illustration by Beth

Illustration by Beth

Despite my goth tendencies and obsessions with ghosts and other creepy things, I have never liked visiting cemeteries. As a child, I was always afraid I’d step somewhere I wasn’t supposed to step. It never left my mind that people were below me, even if their spirits were long gone. The fact that their bodies rested there seemed like a good enough reason for me to keep my sneakers off the grass.

All four of my grandparents are gone. My mother lost both of her parents before I was born, and I have only faint memories of my father’s father, who died when I was four or so. My father’s mother—my beloved grandmother Isabel—died when I was 18. They are all buried in the same cemetery, hours away from where my parents live. We haven’t been there together since my grandmother died. We’re a family that prefers to daydream about our deceased loved ones rather than visit the place where they rest.

But there is one cemetery that we are all obsessed with and have been since one night nearly two decades ago, when we sat together in the family car and tried to make sense of something we still don’t quite understand. It was the night we saw…the dancing mime.

The Sacred Heart Cemetery, which sits on a busy corner of Gypsy Lane and Broad Street in my Connecticut hometown, is an eternal resting place that continues to sleep while suburbia builds up around it. Built in 1880, it somehow retains its sense of serenity even as traffic hisses and sputters by, concrete replaces trees, and nearby car dealerships advertise “deals of a lifetime” with gaudy banners.

I probably passed Sacred Heart hundreds of times before I was a teenager. Gypsy Lane was the best route from my family’s house to my aunt and uncle’s house, where my parents were constantly chauffeuring my sister and me for family gatherings and to play with our cousins. When we’d pass the cemetery, I’d usually look away—especially when we were going home at night.

One clear evening in May, as my family was heading home from a cousin’s birthday party, we waited at a red light that was between the car-dealership side of Gypsy Lane and the cemetery side. Then out of nowhere, my father, who was driving, yelled, “Whoa! Did you see that?”

“What?” my mother asked.

“There it goes again!” my father called out.

“I see it too!” my sister, Jill, screamed.

“What?” my mother asked again, this time with panic in her voice. “What is it?!”

“There’s a guy in the cemetery!” my father shouted.

The light turned green, and so did my face. I kept my eyes on my fingernails, which were already bitten to the quick.

“Oh my gawd!” my mother gasped as the entrance to Sacred Heart came into view. “There he is! Pull over!”

My father veered the car to the side of the road but kept it running. My mother hit the automatic locks. My sister, who was 10 at the time and loved R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series, was thrilled. She pressed her face right against the window to get a better view. I, who was 12, had my head in my hands, waiting for the inevitable moment when whatever it was I had purposely not seen yet would jump the gates and destroy us all.

“Come on, you’ve got to see this,” my sister said, pulling me toward the window.

I don’t know what I expected would be there. A zombie, maybe, like one of the extras from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video? Jason Voorhees? What I was definitely not prepared to see was a dancing mime. I didn’t know whether to scream or laugh—so I kind of did both.

“Look at this guy,” my father laughed. “He’s great!”

The Dancing Cemetery Mime had a routine: He sashayed his way from the property’s mausoleum down its main path to its main gates, tipped his head, smiled serenely, and then danced back. Whenever he approached the gates, we screamed. Whenever he turned around to go back down the path, we scream-laughed. Soon other cars joined us on the side of the road, where they idled without dimming their headlights.

Too entranced to leave, we sat and watched the mime for nearly 30 minutes as he performed the same routine over and over. In that time, we started a family debate that has raged on for more than 20 years. Who was this man? Why was he there? And what—if anything—was he trying to say? “Let’s ask him,” cracked my dad, ever the comedian.

That night, each of us had a theory about the mime. My father thought he was a “joker” of some sort, probably just a kid who went out there “hopped up on goofballs,” on a dare, or to do some weird prank. He also may have done it to make himself an urban legend, which would have been pretty impressive when you consider that it was the pre-YouTube era and only a few cars were there to see this grand show.

My mother insisted—and to this day continues to insist—that the entire thing was performance art. A local school was having its prom that night, and the mime’s “message” was to remind kids not to drink and drive. It’s a solid idea, but it doesn’t really hold up when you consider that it was 9 or 10 PM and most of the kids would still have been at the prom. It’s true that some of them were probably getting drunk or high somewhere, but even so, the mime had to have known that showing up in the cemetery and scaring the crap out of them would not have been the way to help them stay safe on the roads. (My mom’s other theory is that the dance was a tribute to someone he had lost, perhaps on prom night, which is a much darker one that has been discarded by the rest of us, I suspect, on the grounds that it is simply too sad to handle.)

My sister and I had, and maintain, a consensus: dude was a straight-up ghost. He was not playing a prank, or memorializing the prom, or any other logical option that our parents threw out there. He was the real deal, and he’d simply chosen that night to give a special supernatural performance. Even though he was creepy as hell, there also was something marvelous about the mime; his dancing was effortless, light, and filled with happy movements. It seemed celebratory, not mournful. I like to think that he enjoyed all the headlights, that they were a spotlight under which he happily performed.

For weeks after the incident, my family scoured the local paper, sure we’d see something about the mime—some kind of explanation—but we never did. It’s still a mystery, and we still talk about it often. “Remember the mime?” is a question that continues to set off hours-long family sessions of Law & Order: Supernatural Unit (P.S. Why doesn’t that show exist?). It’s a discussion I love, and one that I initiate and want to have a million more times because it shows me how my family takes the unknowable and tries to make it known. It gives me a glimpse into their minds. We may never know who the Dancing Cemetery Mime was, but in trying to figure him out, we’ve had the chance to solve a few mysteries about one another.

Watching the mime spin and skip down the path to the mausoleum is perhaps the most vivid image of my entire childhood. It’s a true story that I have no real explanations for or answers to. I’ve told it to several people over the years, and their general reactions are subtle variations on “Dude, creepy” and “He was probably some goth kid on acid.” I kind of love all of these reactions—they’re a window into other people’s imaginations. I’m still not a fan of visiting cemeteries, but, because of the mime, I’ve ceased to associate them purely with sadness. Now they have a little bit of magic.

My aunt and uncle moved to another city many years ago. Whenever I go back home to visit my parents and somehow end up near Gypsy Lane, I can’t help myself from driving by Sacred Heart Cemetery, looking for clues that the mime is still there—or that he ever was. Maybe one of these days, as modern life continues to crowd around the resting place of so many souls, there’ll be a sign that someone once waited until the sun went down to dance in the lovely silence. ♦