by Sheila Connolly
I love cemeteries. I spend a lot of time in cemeteries, and I enjoy their history and their carvings. But mostly I go because my ancestors call me.
I don’t think I’m crazy. It’s not that I hear voices or see apparitions floating above a tombstone (wonder what they would say, if they started talking to me?) beckoning to me, but I am consistently drawn to graveyards.
I could blame my parents, particularly my mother. When I was a year old, my family moved to a rather isolated house in Red Lion, Delaware. The best grass could be found in a nearby cemetery, and that’s where my mother took me to perfect my walking skills. I can picture myself lurching from tombstone to tombstone, when I was shorter than they were, not that I have any memory of it. Nobody ever told me that I should be frightened of them, or of those who lay under the grass. I think it was a happy time, with my mother, and that feeling has persisted whenever I visit a cemetery now.
But even beyond that, I believe that my ancestors called me to Massachusetts, although I didn’t always see it that way. I knew my great-great-grandmother had been born and lived here, and her daughter (her only child) had been born here, but I never knew them (although my mother did, as a child) and we had only a few photographs of either of them. I knew that there was one Revolutionary War soldier up the line somewhere, since my great-grandmother had joined the DAR in 1929. And that was more or less where my knowledge of family history ended, for a long time.
I went to Wellesley College in Massachusetts—the only college I applied to, and the only one I ever wanted to attend, once I had visited the place. It was only decades later that I wandered through the graveyard in the middle of town and realized I had a whole batch of ancestors right there. I’d been walking past them for years without knowing it. Coincidence? I started to wonder.
In Massachusetts I visit a lot of cemeteries, and I almost always find an ancestor, albeit distant, wherever I go. One of my favorite discoveries came when I went to a large 19th-century cemetery in Lynn, looking for a great-great-whatever uncle I knew was buried there, and maybe a great-great-grandfather. I had no map and no plan; I told my husband that we’d just drive around and surely we’d find them (he was not convinced—it was a big cemetery).
We found the two I was looking for, but when I looked up from that great-great-grandfather’s stone, I realized that behind him lay four generations of his family and his wife’s family, all in one plot. That’s a genealogist’s dream. Tell me they weren’t calling to me.
I could go on, but unless you’re a genealogist yourself I would probably bore you. But let me add that the same thing has happened to me in Ireland. When I arrived in the countryside of rural West Cork for the first time, in 1998, it felt like coming home—to a place I’d never seen (nor did I have any pictures from the family). And then I started running into people there who had known my family, and who knew where they had lived and where they were buried. All by chance. You may call it luck, but I say there’s something else at work.
Of course I use this in all my series. Meg Corey in the Orchard Mysteries goes to visit the cemetery where ancestors she never knew she had are buried—and yes, she talks to them, if awkwardly. So does Maura Donovan in the County Cork Mysteries. It’s an act of remembrance and respect, but it also provides a sense of connection, of belonging.
Let me assure you, it’s all good. Those ancestors are glad to see me, and if they’re haunting me, they’re benevolent, not malicious. They’re telling me that I’m where I belong.