Halloween Haunts: How to be Safe in the Cemetery by Loren Rhoads
Halloween Haunts: How to be Safe in the Cemetery
by Loren Rhoads
One foggy summer day, I explored the historic cemeteries a mile outside of Pescadero, California. The grass was ankle-high on the Protestant side, but over my knees on the Catholic side. Holes the size of juice glasses riddled the ground, but I never saw a mouse or gopher poke his head out.
Where there is prey, there will be predators. I kept an eye out for snakes. When I could, I walked on the graves’ copings.
I’d nearly finished my exploration and was headed cross-country down the grassy slope when something caught my eye. In the grass lay the longest snakeskin I’ve ever seen shed in the wild. I should have thrown my notebook down for scale when I took the photo. Trust me, this snakeskin was as long as my leg.
I was alone, with no one in shouting distance except dairy cows. If I stepped on a rattlesnake in my tennis shoes, I could probably limp back to my car and drive myself into town, but the closest thing the village would have to a doctor might be a vet. Hopefully she’d have some antivenin on hand.
Which got me thinking: I’ve explored American graveyards from innercity Detroit to ghost towns in the Sierra Gold Country. So far I’ve been lucky, but the time had come to get serious about how to keep safe in the cemetery.
When dressing for a cemetery excursion, think about where you’re going. If it’s a nice, manicured place, dress respectfully. A polite hat and sunscreen are always a good idea. If you’re going further afield, wear long pants. They’ll protect you from ticks, thorns, and poison oak. If you expect to meet snakes, wear boots that protect your ankles.
If you can, ask the locals about their graveyard before you go. They’ll know if it’s not safe to walk alone in St. Roch Cemetery or if you have to watch out for pickpockets in the crypt of St. Peter’s. They’ll tell you if there’s been a mountain lion in the area or if it’s fire ant season.
Always let someone know where you’re going and when to expect you back. Lock anything you can’t afford to lose in the trunk of your car. If you’re carrying a camera or cellphone, keep track of other people around you. Don’t look like a target.
In fact, a fully charged cell phone is a smart thing to carry as you explore, but many cemeteries — especially those off the beaten track — get no reception. In case of emergency, I wear a RoadID bracelet that warns EMTs of the medications I’m on and lists my contact numbers. You can get your own bracelet here: https://www.roadid.com/.
The first thing to remember in a cemetery is NEVER lean on the headstones. Tall stones may barely be held to their bases. Granite is remarkably heavy. You do not want something toppling over on you. Corollary to that, watch out for sunken graves in tall grass or fence posts or stakes sticking out of the ground. A walking stick can be useful for poking around underbrush and avoiding holes, as well as for not stumbling over fallen tombstones.
It wouldn’t hurt to keep your tetanus shot up to date, too.
If the cemetery is old, overgrown, or has recently survived a storm, make sure to watch overhead for tree branches that might pose a threat.
Always take more water along that you think you will want to drink. You can’t count on water in cemeteries being potable. It’s not a bad idea to take along trail mix or something similar, so hunger doesn’t cut your exploration short.
Exploring in the winter will lessen chances of an encounter with a snake, but be aware of the wind chill and the glare of sun off snow.
In the summer, pay attention to the signs of heatstroke. If you feel lightheaded or your skin begins to feel clammy, pour water over your clothing and move to the coolest place you can, either the shade, a chapel, or an air-conditioned car.
You will want to familiarize yourself with how to recognize poison oak, poison ivy, or poison sumac, depending what grows in your area. If you stumble into some by mistake, wash your exposed skin with soap as soon as possible.
Mosquitoes aren’t a worry in desert graveyards, but if the grounds crew has been watering or rainwater could be standing in urns, birdbaths, or statuary, mosquitoes can breed. You can avoid them in the heat of the day, but if you prefer more dramatic lighting for your photos, wear something to ward off the bugs. West Nile virus is no fun.
Be wary of wildlife in general. Deer look sweet in Disney movies, but they are actually big, nervous creatures. If they feel threatened, they will go through you to escape. Never get between an animal and its exit, even if that animal is only a raccoon. If any animal approaches you, don’t be fooled into thinking you’re Cinderella. Distemper and rabies make small animals lose their fear of humans.
Anywhere that there are deer, there can be ticks. If you’ll be poking around long grass, wear light-colored clothing and long light-colored socks. Before you get in the car, check yourself over for moving black spots. Make sure your check your head as well, in case a tick dropped out of a tree onto you. Ticks can ride around on you for hours before they embed their heads under your skin. Lyme disease is also no fun.
In the Forest Lawn in Cypress, California – a grassy memorial park with fairly wide-open vistas – a coyote snatched a toddler in 2013. If you take your kids along to explore, make sure you keep an eye on them.
Bet you had no idea cemetery exploration could be so risky. As I said, I’ve poked around hundreds of graveyards. The only negative experience I’ve ever had came from security guards who were driving way too fast. Just be smart and keep safe!
TODAY’S GIVEAWAY: Loren Rhoads is giving away a full-color ebook copy of Death’s Garden Revisited: Personal Relationships with Cemeteries.
Loren Rhoads is the author of 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die and Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel. She’s also the editor of Death’s Garden Revisited: Personal Relationships with Cemeteries. You can keep up with her cemetery work at cemeterytravel.com.
The book Death’s Garden Revisited collects 40 powerful personal essays — accompanied by full-color photographs — to illustrate why people visit cemeteries. Spanning the globe from Iceland to Argentina and from Portland to Prague, Death’s Garden Revisited explores the complex web of relationships between the living and those who have passed before.
Genealogists and geocachers, travelers and tour guides, anthropologists, historians, pagan priestesses, and ghost hunters all venture into cemeteries in these essays. Along the way, they discover that cemeteries don’t only provide a rewarding end to a pilgrimage, they can be the perfect location for a first date or a wedding, the highlight of a family vacation, a cure for depression, and the best possible place to grasp history…not to mention that cemetery-grown fruit is the sweetest.
Death’s Garden Revisited was a finalist for the Next Generation Indie Book Award in the Travel/Travel Guide category.
Contributors include horror authors A. M. Muffaz, Angela Yuriko Smith, Christine Sutton, Denise N. Tapscott, E. M. Markoff, Emerian Rich, Frances Lu-Pai Ippolito, Francesca Maria, Greg Roensch, Mary Rajotte, Melodie Bolt, Priscilla Bettis, Rain Graves, Rena Mason, Robert Holt, R. L. Merrill, Saraliza Anzaldua, Stephen Mark Rainey, and Trish Wilson.
Available as a fully illustrated paperback or hardcover on Blurb https://www.blurb.com/b/11281469-death-s-garden-revisited
Or as a full-color ebook on Amazon at https://amzn.to/3Zy7SfI