Haunting the Cemetery
On my visit to Whirlwind Hill in October 2013 I spent more time with cemetery ghosts than I’d planned to. I had a “bee in my bonnet” and was drawn to the resting place of my early ancestors.
The sign at the entrance to the Center Street Cemetery in downtown Wallingford, Connecticut reads “Established in 1653.” Many of the oldest headstones, especially the ones prior to 1750, are themselves ghostly. The stones still mark the graves, but the inscriptions have been smoothed or crumbled by wind and rain.
The bee in my bonnet was my great-great grandmother Cornelia Andrews Hall. I wanted to find her grave. I’d seen her headstone during one of my online genealogy searches. A picture of the stone popped up on the “Find a Grave” website, and I wanted to see it for myself. My brother didn’t remember running across it at the cemetery, even though he worked for many years as the cemetery’s caretaker – roaming among the dead as he cut the grass and repaired the stones. So on a beautiful New England October afternoon last year he joined me in my search for Cornelia.
At this Halloween time of year the word ghost conjures images of spectral spirits rising from their resting places in dark and haunted burial grounds. Children wear white sheets over their heads and say boo. People pay money to visit fake haunted houses with creepy, scary, heart-stopping surprises.
But my brother and I were looking for a different kind of ghost – the kind listed in the dictionary definition as “a faint shadowy trace.” Since I started writing down Whirlwind Hill stories two years ago, shadowy traces of my ancestors have haunted me. Every time I find a piece of physical evidence of their presence on this earth I feel the power of life’s continuity. The inscriptions on the headstones prove that the person lived, died, and was mourned by family and friends.
My brother and I started at the far end of the cemetery where my great-grandparents, William and Lydia Hall are buried. We walked back and forth in this flat city-block field of stones, but when it came time to leave we had not found what we were looking for.
So the next morning, fortified by another peek at Cornelia’s grave on the website, I drove back into town by myself and began a more methodical wandering. As often happens when you’re looking for one thing, something even more significant appears. Suddenly I came face to face with my great-great-great-great grandfather Captain Asahel Hall and his wife Sarah. The beauty and grace of their headstones surprised me. Carved with skill and care, the inscriptions remain fairly clear and readable. Here was the first couple to live on the farm on Whirlwind Hill – two people I knew very little about, but who, in that moment, became ever so real to me.
Asahal’s inscription reads: “In Memory of Capt Asahel Hall who Departed this Life November 11th AD 1799 in the 79th Year of his Age.”
Sarah’s reads: “In Memory of Mrs. Sarah, consort of Capt. Asahel Hall died Feb 25th AD 1789 in her 70th year.”
On Wednesday: Ghosts – Part II – Finding Cornelia