Greenlawn Cemetery is a huge, old burial place dating back to 1848 that can be found southwest of downtown Columbus, Ohio. I understand that it was once surrounded by forest. My father's parents are buried in a relatively new section of the cemetery. The history of the place includes references to Victorian and even earlier generations visiting the park-like grounds on Sundays for picnics and walks. Many of the trees in the older parts of the cemetery are rumoured to be remnants of the original old growth forest. Bird watching fans are welcomed as it is a sanctuary for both local and migrating birds; this is important to note for the experience I will later recount. It is one of the few times I believe that I actually saw a ghost.
A former pond on the grounds, now an overgrown pool of somewhat stagnant water, is surrounded by lovely old family mausoleums, some of which face the water rather than the nearby roads and paths. The park includes wrought iron fences on the edges of the older sections, which are reflected in the smaller iron enclosures surrounding some of the century-old or even older family plots. Huge purple beech and dark evergreens serve as the dramatic backdrop for an expansive civil war section of evenly-spaced, small limestone markers. The site is packed with amazing sculptural gravestones and structures, including numerous renditions of angels carved from limestone, marble and even granite. A poignantly carved little boy sits atop a gravestone near the west entrance. Someone unknown replaces various hats on the little statue's head on a regular basis. A baseball cap was the most recent version of the many hats that I saw. The place is so vast, purportedly 400 acres, that the graves and roads give an impression of having moved between visits. The grave markers seem randomly askew due to their age, which only adds to the delightfully spooky and disorienting effect.
Despite being surrounded by the city, the cemetery seems somehow separate from time. One spot on a small hill on the very edge of one of the oldest sections of the cemetery includes a family plot with an obelisk at the centre that saw the last burial before the turn of the 20th century. The plot is surrounded by a small decorative iron fence in a state of perpetual disrepair. Just beyond the nearby cemetery fence is the block wall of a 1960s era strip mall and beyond that can be seen the skyscrapers of downtown. Somehow the juxtaposition of great age in the cemetery with the modern architecture beyond only enhances the timelessness of the entire area, as if in a bubble of an earlier time.
My mother's brother used to live in an apartment just across the road from an old section of Greenlawn. It gave me chills as a child when visiting my uncle to think how near I was to the dead interred just across the road. The iron fence along that section served as the boundary, at that time, for a sort of overgrown hedgerow that blocked the view of most of the graves from my uncle's place. The few markers and partial monuments that could be seen only enhanced the sense of mystery.
Once as a young adult, while visiting on a spring afternoon, I discovered a hollow beyond the civil war section with a narrow gravel road running through it lined with locust trees. The trees were all covered with flowers, which wafted a strong fragrance on the cool air. The hollow literally hummed with bees attracted to the hanging blossoms. As I walked the shaded, curving gravel lane into the hollow, I was shocked to see a greenish-tinted, weather stained, cast iron bridge from the 1890s; the date is on a stone near the bridge, but I'm not sure of the exact year. It was lonely and deserted on that bright day.
I called my mother once I arrived home (pre-cell phone days) from my cemetery walk and asked if she would like to return with me the next day to witness the spectacle of the blooming trees. I didn't tell her about the bridge in case it might be a surprise. The next day was again cool and amazingly clear with a brilliant blue dome of sky. We parked and as we slowly stepped into the hollow, my mother, who had been to that cemetery many, many times, remarked at how she had never known of that spot and marvelled that it could be so well-concealed in plain sight. The drumming sound of the throngs of bees was the same as the day before.
I walked a little ahead of my mother in order to watch her reaction, just in time to see a middle-aged man climbing down the steep bank to my right next to the bridge. He was wearing what appeared to be binoculars or perhaps a camera hanging around his neck. He had short, dark hair that was balding on top. He wore glasses with heavy, dark rims like Ray-bans. I noted his appearance in those first brief moments when I spotted him because he seemed to be straight out of the 1950s or early 60s: he wore a white, short-sleeve shirt with a button-down collar and black pants. Since he was above me on the slope, I could also see his heavy, lace-up black leather shoes. He seemed as solid as the bridge.
Aside from noticing his retro appearance, I didn't really think about the man except for feeling minor disappointment that we weren't alone in our reverie like I had been the day before. I looked back for a split second to see if my mother was coming and as my gaze returned to the spot on the slope where I had seen the man, he was gone. He wouldn't have had time to take more than a single step in any direction and should still have been visible. Perhaps it was the atmospheric setting, but I immediately felt a rush of eeriness. I quickly said to my mom something like, "There was a man here. I'm going to look for him." She shot me a confused look but I didn't hesitate to run up the slope and across the bridge. I quickly circled the entire area, and no other person could be seen. In fact, there were also no cars parked, aside from my own, or driving away. This all transpired in the space of about three to four minutes. There was no place for that man to have gone. Although I likely witnessed a residual event, I couldn't help but wonder if that man was bird-watching in that beautiful old cemetery for eternity.
When I returned from my quick search, my mother was clearly as entranced by the old iron bridge in the hollow as I had been. She said something indicating that she had never known it was there and how amazed she was. I had expected to have a voila moment with a sweeping gesture to introduce her to the bridge, but had been distracted by the apparent apparition of the man. I told my mother about what I had seen, and although she would have easily been able to see him as she approached the bridge, she said she said she saw no one. I had always suspected that cemeteries would be an unlikely haunt since I imagine people don't typically die there, but I began to wonder if that notion is true.
Years later, I was told that my brother's extremely old house - old for Columbus, anyway, and about a mile or so from the cemetery - was the farmhouse for the land from which the cemetery had been carved. I have not yet verified that information. My brother bought the house from my grandmother, who is buried in Greenlawn. I am not related to the original builders of the house, but I like to think that there is a family connection to the cemetery through that house and my grandparents whose graves are there. I'll try to tell about my experiences in my brother's house, when my grandparents still owned it, in a later story.