A turning point in the plot of Soul Search takes place in a pre-Revolutionary War Moravian cemetery located in Warren County New Jersey. Fia, the main character, must confront her fears and the dangers inherent in helping her first spirit pass on to the next life. The setting is defined by the entrance to this burial ground, an intricately fashioned, black wrought iron gate that bears the name of the cemetery. Right next door in Pennsylvania, another historic cemetery exists that recalls a different era. To enter this cemetery, one must pass through the formidable Gothic Revival Gatehouse replete with four turrets separated by a large central arch that is balanced on either side by smaller arches. More than anything else, the gates define these sites as liminal spaces, occupying a position on both sides of the disparate states of life and death.
Easton Cemetery was established in 1849 and strongly reflects the Victorian sentiments towards death and dying. It’s a peaceful place of gentle rolling hills adorned with fine, old trees and heirloom roses. Unlike modern cemeteries where gravestones are organized in regimented row by column grids to facilitate lawn mowing and to maximize burial space, the gravestones in the Easton Cemetery are spread in graceful patterns inspired more by family ties than utilitarian purpose. The cemetery extends over 87 acres and is the final resting place of more than 29,000 people – and growing. Plots are still available.
Prior to 1831, American dead were buried in family plots or in churchyards. Because of the crowded nature of burials in these limited areas, these sites were viewed as disease incubators during the epidemics of yellow fever and cholera that swept through the cities. After the inevitable urban expansion, land became more valuable and the practice of burying the dead in close proximity to the living was no longer a practical solution. Increasingly, this practice was viewed as unhygienic. Rural cemeteries became the norm and the Victorians designed the space to be park-like and harmonious, but not necessarily sacred ground. At a time when there were no public parks or tamed areas of nature near urban centers, these were places where the living could indulge in picnics, hunting and shooting and carriage racing, in addition to paying respects to the dearly departed as you flew by while chasing game or attempting a new land speed record. Such was the popularity of cemeteries as weekend getaways that Easton Cemetery required a special ticket for admission in order not to over-crowd the site and scare the horses. (Presumably, you wanted calm horses in order to do well at the races.)
There are many notable people occupying the graves in Easton Cemetery. George Taylor (1716-1781) was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Originally interred in Saint John’s Lutheran Church Cemetery in Easton, his remains were moved to Easton Cemetery in 1870 and given an impressive monument topped with an eagle and cloth drape. Perhaps thanks to the presence of Mr. Taylor, Easton Cemetery was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1990.
A favorite of many visitors, the grave of little Lucy Minturn Barnet (1851-1853) is marked by a concrete canopy supported by four columns that surround a stone child lying in a bed. Gone for more than 160 years, this child is not forgotten. An anonymous donor leaves small trinkets like toys and a bouquet of plastic roses on the child’s monument as frequently as once a month.
Belle Mingle Archer (1858-1900) was a nationally renowned stage actress and the most photographed woman of her time. During her acting career, she was as well-known and respected as any actress today. Ms. Archer was cut down in her prime due to a freak accident. While waiting to change trains at the station in Jamestown, New York, Belle Archer fell head first onto the railroad tracks due to a broken board on the platform. Suffering a serious head injury, she nonetheless boarded a train, and by the next morning she seemed to be recovering. Unfortunately, by the second morning, she had become completely paralyzed on her right side and lost consciousness. She was taken to an emergency hospital in the tiny town of Warren, PA, where she died due to a brain clot. Her memorial stone bears a bronze silhouette of the actress and the epitaph reads, “By her brilliant accomplishments and rare graces of mind and person she gave distinction to the historic arts. To the name Belle Archer, the master leaning reached a hand and whispered “It is finished.””
Frederic Osterstock (1884-1957) managed the company that owned the State Theater in Easton from 1936 until his death. As with any theater worth its salt, the State Theater is said to be haunted. Several sightings in the 1970’s were reported, but it was not until an historian saw someone walk off the empty stage while closing for the evening that an identification was made. After the historian matched the likeness of the spirit with a photograph of Mr. Osterstock, theater staff came to believe that the former manager was the source of the house ghost. The annual “Freddy Awards” are named for Mr. Osterstock.
My only potential interactive experience with a ghost occurred while I was working in corporate America. You know from a previous post that strange things can happen when you mix a subversive introvert with the corporate environment. In this particular case, I was attending a scientific meeting in New York City and found a room not far from the conference site in an ancient brownstone. If you’ve ever seen the horror movie The Sentinel, the brownstone I stayed in strongly resembled the movie set. The interior was pure Victorian Gothic with dark woods used for the floors, paneling and trim, and dim lighting that made shadows dance in every corner. The event occurred when I was at that other liminal place, between sleep and wakefulness. I had left a pocketful of change on a (of course) darkly wooded, heavy table in the center of the room. I heard coins being picked up and dropped from a height on to the table. It went on and on, despite my best efforts to sleep through the noise. Rather than do the natural thing and become frightened, I felt groggy and irritable at the same time and finally yelled, “Cut it out!” in my best K9 handler growl. Being half asleep makes you believe that reprimanding whoever was responsible for the disturbance would bring an end to it. Since belief is half the battle in this game of the mind, the noise stopped immediately, and I rolled over with a smug smile and went back to sleep. Game, set and match to the Introvert.
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