My first article for The Baltimore Banner (where I’m now a copy editor) is about one of my favorite hobbies: visiting and photographing cemeteries. You can read it here: Baltimore’s cities of the dead.
I always feel a strange and distinctive sense of peacefulness coupled with — and yeah, I know it sounds strange — an aliveness, even when I’m alone (and I usually am alone, because asking someone, “Hey, you wanna go walk around a cemetery?” is not very productive).
It’s an atmosphere I’ve felt at home in since I discovered an abandoned 19th century cemetery in the woods as a kid. I loved hanging out there and thinking about the lives of those named (the Smith family) on the faded marble. (Did I tell you I was a weird kid?)
Back then, fueled by all the Stephen King I was reading, I found cemeteries spooky. But I learned that if you open up, and let the spirit of place (genius loci) speak to you, you’ll find it’s no longer about grief and loss, but rather a deep and powerful connection to the enduring mysteries of life and death.
And although I’m not someone who speaks to the dead (at least not consciously), I can only describe the feeling I get in a cemetery as being among a crowd of very real and attentive presences. Whether it’s just my admittedly active imagination, it always feels like I’m being watched by countless invisible eyes.
I’ll never forget one of my early visits to historic Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore, when I was driving through the 70 acres of exquisite funerary art and architecture and abruptly stopped, transfixed, at the sculpture (pictured below) of a child in what appeared to be an animal-skin cloak. I was absolutely mesmerized, but also puzzled.
What was she doing here, wrapped in the skin of a beast, lost and forlorn and resting her chin on her walking stick? Was she perhaps the fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood?
After doing some research, I discovered she was a favorite sculpture of William Black, who had kept her next to his fireplace. He loved the piece so much he had it installed at his grave when he died.
But there was some contention about her identity: While many believed she was indeed Little Red, others suggested she is a he; and the skin is that of a lion, not a wolf.
Regardless, I pause and say hello to her/him every time I visit (and thank William Black for bringing her to accompany him in his rest).
And here’s a personal story that still gives me goosebumps.
One day I found myself passing by the cemetery where my father was buried in 1984. Sadly, because it’s not a part of town I frequent, I had not been to visit since he was laid to rest almost 40 years ago.
I only knew the general area of his grave (in a section for veterans), and the cemetery is huge, flat, and largely featureless, with memorial plaques and very few gravestones or other identifying landmarks.
So I said, “Hey, Dad, I came to pay you a visit. Show me where you are.”
And I just slowly wandered, letting myself get pulled along. It was a calm, windless June afternoon, with the only sound being muted traffic in the distance.
After a few minutes of wandering, I stopped, looked down, and there he was.
It felt like time stopped in that moment, and I had no doubt he had directed me.
I cleaned up the plaque, wiped away dirt and grass, and found a few stray artificial flowers and placed them next to his name before saying goodbye.
So if you haven’t done so, consider visiting a local cemetery — the older the better. Take a camera or your phone to capture the beautiful forms sculpted and chiseled into marble and granite. If you feel drawn to a particular grave, take note of the name, and maybe look up the person later to find out who they were.
Because as it has been said: what is remembered, lives.
The cities of the dead hold many secrets. You can find deep and fascinating history, captivating art, and — if you’re open, and lucky — maybe even an unforgettable connection.
HEADS UP, FRIENDS!
My new comprehensive tarot class, The Art and Magic of Tarot: Fundamentals is now available online! If you’re new to tarot or want to deepen your practice, please check it out!
Michael M. Hughes is a writer, speaker, and magical thinker. He is the author of Magic for the Resistance: Rituals and Spells for Change as well as numerous other works of fiction and nonfiction, and he speaks and teaches classes on magic, tarot, occultism, and more.
His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, CNN, The L.A. Times, Rolling Stone, Comedy Central, Wired, Elle, Vox, Cosmopolitan, and even the ultraconservative The American Spectator, which wrote: “He may play footsie with the devil, but at least the man has a sense of humor.”