Restless spirits speak at Old Baptist Cemetery ~ Hannibal, MO

Years ago, I watched an old cemetery caretaker locate occupied, unmarked graves using dowsing rods. George was a devout Christian, yet seemed to have no issues utilizing this bit of witchery to accomplish his tasks.
Last Wednesday, using the same technology, I conversed with some restless souls at old Baptist Cemetery in Hannibal.
It was ostensibly your standard haunted tour, with stops at various decaying structures and stories of “what happened one time” but I did NOT expect the tour to end this way.

It was hotter than Hades, with barely a breath of breeze stirring except when our tour trolley was in motion. There was the expected aforementioned stops and tour guide banter, but as the trolley struggled up the last hill to reach Old Baptist Cemetery, the energy changed. The evening cicadas sang and ancient headstones leaned drunkenly, if they stood at all. Years of obvious neglect had left it in a shambles, and the professional side of me cast a slight frown on the use of a cemetery for tourism, but all that vanished when the dead began to speak.
I got my pair of dowsing rods, grasping them as George had shown me years before, and cleared my mind of any expectation or anticipation.

Then they moved.

They aimed to my left so I turned and they straightened as I faced their desired direction. My footfalls were soft, deliberate as I followed each gentle swing of the rods. Finally, I found myself at a clump of shrubbery, with a jumble of headstones underneath.
The conversation was silent, all mental, with the rods speaking for the other side. If the tips touched, the answer was yes. If they didn’t move, it was no.

Is this where I’m supposed to be?
Yes

Are you buried here?
Yes

I wanted to take a picture of the stones, but it didn’t seem right to do so with asking.
May I take a picture of the headstones?
Yes.
I moved some branches aside and snapped a few camera shots, including the one above.

I didn’t know what to ask next so I turned and started to see where to check out next.
The rods quickly swung around, pointing back to the headstones I just turned away from.
OK, I thought. Unfinished business.

We aren’t done visiting yet?
No

Is there something I can do for you?
A pause…
Yes

I had a strange feeling coming about me… not necessarily sadness but more of gentle anger, if that makes sense.

Are you upset?
Yes

I wasn’t sure what to ask next. Then thought occurred:

Would you like me to say a prayer for you? (Now this goes against my heathen nature, but in days of old it was tradition to pray when visiting the graves of family.)
Yes

Are you a Christian?
Yes
I mustered out a prayer that this restless soul would find peace and rest in the next world.
I paused for a moment, thanked and bid farewell to this soul and turned to see if the rods would swing back that way.

They didn’t.

I had a shorter experience at some toppled markers along the tree line. In short, I think they just wanted their presence known.

Now, as this experience unfolded, I had memory of visiting a palm reader and spiritualist a few years back. As she touched my hands, she yanked them back almost immediately, almost as if she had gotten an electric jolt from me.

She seemed very unsettled and surprised as she stammered out a question.

Have you had a lot of relatives die recently?

Ummm nope.

She continued “I see death all around you” and it obviously didn’t sit well with her.

I smiled. I told her that it was probably my job.

And with that, she relaxed. That makes sense, she said.

She went on to say that I had a unusually large number of spirits attached to me.

Now that surprised me.

She explained that they were attracted to me because of the kindness I had shown them.

Them?

She smiled. Yes. Don’t you realize that very often you are the last person to touch their physical form on Earth?

I guess that I had never thought about it, but it sort of made sense.

She closed her eyes. There’s one in particular right out front. A little boy, 8 or 9, maybe. Dark hair. He’s very close to you.

At that moment, I realized exactly who she was talking about. One of the worst funerals I ever had to do. A true heart breaker. A nine year old who died in a house fire. His service was so stressful that I had started smoking again because of it.

I asked her if there were any spirits attached that I needed to be concerned about. She said no. No evil or ill intent found among them.

As I stood in that cemetery, I decided that I would ask if she was right.

Are there spirits attached to me?
Yes

Is one a little boy named Brian?
Yes

Are there any spirits attached that I need to worry about?
No

At that point, the tour guide summoned us all to return to the bus. Others with me had some experiences just as interesting. If you find yourself in Hannibal, take the tour. Place your skepticism aside and take a walk through Old Baptist with an open mind. Ask questions that only you know the answer too.

My guess is that you’ll find the answers among the tombstones.

Waking Annie ~ Curate of Souls – continued…

“Wake, child.”

The witch stirred uneasily.  She had been down for a long time in the Silence when the soft voice called her.

“Wake.  You are needed.  It is time.”

She resisted.  Her slumber of centuries should not be interrupted.

The voice grew insistent.

“Annie.  Now is the time.”

Memories began to flood her mind.  Angry, violent memories.  Warm, carnal memories.  Memories of the life she led so long ago.  Palm trees.  Breezes of the Caribbean.  Sharp-edged blades meant for cutting sugar cane.  The taste of blood on her lips.  Heart-pounding.  Fear.  The salty air as the wooden walkway creaked beneath her feet.  Panic. Escape. Rhythmic pounding of drums.  The gurgling hiss of her husband’s throat as she cut.  The taste of the dark skin of her lover as lovemaking kept time with the drums outside.

And  then she could see.  Grass.  Trees.  A hazy figure standing over her.

She was not in the Caribbean.  She did not feel alive, but she was aware.  Angry, mournful and confused.  What was happening?  Why are all these images in her head?  Why was she back in this godawful place that she had freed herself from with swigs from the amber bottle so many, many years ago.

Her vision cleared.  The figure standing over her was a woman.

“It is time.  Come with me.”  Annie heard the words, but saw no movement of the woman’s mouth.

Annie felt herself moving in the direction of the figure, but without actually walking.  It was as if she was magnetized, getting pulled along without effort.

“Come, child.  I need you to do what you excel at.”

“And what is that?”

“Seduce a man.  Seduce…and kill.”

“Who is this man?”  She didn’t need to ask why.  She never needed a reason before.  It amused her.  Men were drawn to her in life, drawn to her beauty and her body.  She knew this.  She loved the thrill of enticing…letting her dress slip off her shoulder.  Letting a little too much cleavage show.  Men were easy to draw close when you let your hips sway and undulate a little. So easy to predict.  Fumbling, shaking hands groping, and she loved to let them.  She loved to let them think that they had the power, right up until the moment they felt the clean, sharp sting of the steel on their neck.

Stand By Me…

I was fifteen years old when I saw my first dead human being… outside of the sterile environment of a funeral home casket, that is. Just like the slightly younger main character of the movie Stand By Me, which was based on a story by Stephen King.

Due to my profession, I have not only seen but handled hundreds of dead bodies. Young and old. Male and female. Rich and dirt poor. Clean, warm deaths in beds at home with family close and medicated comfort. Cold, nasty deaths with no warning on dirty pavement and fluttering yellow police tape.

In short, I’ve seen a lot.

But you never forget the first. I remember the sights, the smells, the temperature. Everything.

A bit of backstory: As a teen, I was a cadet in the Civil Air Patrol, which is the civilian branch of the Air Force. One of CAP’s main missions is search and rescue. In fact, they run about 90% of domestic aircraft search and rescue operations in the country.

Several times during my time in, I was called away from home in the middle of the night to go find an aircraft that went missing, or chase the ghost of a distress signal from an aircraft’s ELT (emergency locator transmitter).

On my first time out, we found a plane. And a body.

I got the call around 8pm. Our team picked me up and off we went into the hills of Southern Missouri.

We drove up and down backcountry washboard roads chasing the ELT signal with our equipment.

But the damn signals bounce off the hills, diverting us off on several wild ghost hunts.

We drove and searched for about 10 hours, listening carefully for the signal to get stronger or weaker. I had the harsh smell of our search vehicle’s burning clutch stuck in my nose all night.

Just as we thought we might have triangulated the location, the signal would get weak or disappear completely.

You always have the hope that the planes occupants might just be sitting on the ground waiting for you to show up, maybe a little beat up or hurt. I could almost see the relieved look on their faces when they see us walking up.

As we bounced through the dark backroads and one hour vanished into the next, my hope faded.

Just after sunrise, the State Highway Patrol sent up a helicopter to the area that our signals were the strongest. Within an hour, they had located possible debris on a hillside a short distance from where we were searching. The chopper pilot had radioed in the location of a dirt road that would get us to within 100 yards of the site.

We flew down the highway until we found the road. A battered metal trash can lay discarded along the highway. We stopped so we could mark the road for the other teams and rescue personnel. I righted the can and tied my orange safety vest to it. I wasn’t moving as fast as I should have, dreading what was waiting for us down the road. A fellow team member hollered from the vehicle for me to hurry up, that people could be dying.

But I knew, somehow, that there was no grateful pilot waiting for us. I just knew it, but I can’t explain how.

We pulled down as far as we could. We humped our packs down to a clearing and started seeing pieces of metal. Not big pieces, but suitcase-sized.

And then I saw the fuselage with the full accordion treatment. I glanced up at the trees. There was no swath of broken branches or decapitated trees in any direction. So the plane didn’t glide into the trees, it nosedived right into the hillside.

My eyes scoured the terrain, looking for a victim. But I noticed that no one else was looking.

“Does anyone have eyes on the pilot?” I asked.

He’s about three feet to your left, under the fuselage, came the reply.

I had almost kicked him while I was walking past the wreckage. I knelt down in the dirt to look closer.

The impact had folded him up and driven him into the dirt. Only the back of his light blue nylon warmup jacket was visible. And the back of his head and neck. A single dried rivulet of blood had made its way from his hairline down to the jacket.

An instant death for a young pilot, 18 years old, with a freshly-minted pilot’s license that was doubtless somewhere in the mangled mess.

No matter how quickly we would have found him, the end result would have been the same.

And just like that, a life snuffed out like a candle. No more Christmas. No more birthdays. No more dreaming of the love of his life. No more hope for the future.

I was thankful that I didn’t have to see his face.

The next day, I was sitting at the dinner table with my parents, eating and watching the local evening news.

The pilot’s parents were being interviewed. They expressed their disgust at the length of time that it took to find their son’s body. Why wasn’t he found sooner, the mother asked.

I felt both of my parents looking at me, wide-eyed and silent.

I snapped the television knob to off and growled something about them not knowing what the hell they were talking about and how it wouldn’t have made a goddam bit of difference when he was found.

Strong language that I rarely if ever would have used in the presence of my folks.

They said nothing.

I stewed on it for a couple of days and then thankfully, my mind let the anger go.

But the memory remains.

And I am still thankful that I didn’t have to see his face.

Curate of Souls

“Do you remember, Gerard?” the angel asked me from across the battle-scarred table.  “Remember how it felt the first time you accepted His will?  How good it felt?  How loved you felt?”  His gaze was intense…burning right through me.  His eyes were a brilliant silver color.

I must be dreaming… and I really hoped that the bikers that surrounded us were totally ignoring this conversation.

“Don’t you want to feel that way again?”

I couldn’t answer.

“You still believe.”  It was more of a question than a statement.

I just stared at him.  The silence was answer enough.

“Don’t you?”  Baleful.  Chiding.

“I don’t know what I believe anymore.”  Fifteen years of doing His work on earth left me scattered emotionally and faithless.

“You were tortured by leaving the work.  Can’t even describe how it feels, can you?”

“I have enough to answer for without adding that to His list.”

“At least you had the option of walking away.  Some of us don’t get that luxury.  But the price for walking away is what you’ve been feeling.  Just a tiny taste of Hell.”

“How do you know that?  How could you know that?”

Occasionally some biker would glance over at the table and wonder what I was on, sitting by myself and staring intently at the empty seat in front of me.  The whole conversation was silent, strictly in the minds of the angel and I.

“You are the curate of lost souls.”  The words rang like steel against marble.

My temples started to throb and I felt my blood pressure rising.

“Ezekiel 25:17.”  The angel was clearly hopeful that this meant something to me.

“What?”

“The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of the darkness. For he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children.”

“Why me?  Don’t you need someone pure?  Someone like you?”

He smiled.  Indescribable eyes.

“No.  We need someone… He needs someone who can think like they do.”

“Who are ‘they’ exactly?”

“The damned.  Lost souls.  Eternally suffering.  God’s lost children.  Just like you.”

I felt the creeping sting of shame and anger, like anyone stung by deserved insult.

The angel continued, “You’ve been astray yourself, thinking your deeds unseen.  But they weren’t unseen, Gerard.  No matter how hard anyone wished they were.”

“So what is this then? Punishment?”

“Atonement?  I can see why you might think that.  But you never really believed Him to be that way, did you?”

“You were the one who just mentioned my tiny taste of Hell.”

“That wasn’t Him.  That was you.  Your own soul feeling the pain of knowing His love and then turning your back on Him.”

“I didn’t turn my back… I just simply couldn’t do it anymore.”

The eyes.  The angel’s eyes started to glow.

“Couldn’t or wouldn’t?  You lost your faith.  You lost your belief that your strength came through Him.”

My anger cranked up to full steam.  “What is this?  I did it.  For fucking years I did His work.  What did I get for it?  A paycheck and the burden of knowing what the true nature of this life is.  I saw and I felt the agony of good, faithful people handed tragedy that they did not deserve.  I saw countless unanswered prayers from bedsides of the dying…prayers that ‘never fail’.  Novena after novena… all the while I’m having to taking dead babies from their mother’s arms…it was just…”

What was that I saw in the angel’s eyes that changed?  Did the pain I felt slip in and scatter his focus a bit.  I saw an opening and decided to keep digging.

“Where was He when these horrible things were happening?  Where was He?  It’s a fair question.  Go ahead and think about it.  I’ll wait for answer.”

The waitress slipped past the table, trying not be noticed.  She wondered why I hadn’t said a word since walking in.  I hadn’t asked for a drink.  She was grateful I hadn’t.

No answer came.  I knew it wouldn’t.  Long ago, in my studies, I came to the conclusion that when the prayers of His own Son went unanswered, my own would be quite farther down on the list.

“What is it exactly that I am to do?”

There was no answer in the angel.  His look intensified.  “They will be drawn to you.  To destroy you.  All you need to do is make them notice you.  The rest will just happen.”

“’Drawn to destroy me’…sounds wonderful.  You’re not really selling me on this gig.  What if they catch up to me?  I don’t like the idea of spending my life as demon bait.  Tell Him I said ‘no thanks.’”  I got up and headed towards the door.

I walked out and threaded through the row of choppers and bikes, cautious not to touch any of them.  I was a lot more afraid of pissed-off bikers than I was of supernatural trash.

My car was parked just up the block.  I slid in the seat and keyed the engine.  As it cranked up, I glanced to my right and nearly jumped through the driver’s side window.  The angel was sitting to my right, hands folded in his lap.

“How shall I put this?  You really don’t have a choice.  Well, you do have a choice.  You can either do this with our protection, or do it without.  But you will be pursued by them.  You always have been.  You’ve just never known about it.”

“Why me?  What have I done?”

“You’ve simply been chosen.  Chosen by both sides,” the angel continued “before you were ever born.  You are of the Nephilim bloodline.”

I remember reading of the Nephilim in my seminary days.  They were the offspring of Angels and human women, known by their large size and were sought out and destroyed as abominations.

But they must have missed one.  One who was able to be sheltered and protected.  One who would go on to father future generations.  But enemies remained, and they still hunted.

My gut started feeling hot and loose…pure fear.

“You remember feeling terrified at times and not knowing why?  It meant that one of them was very close to you.  Close enough to feel your heartbeat.  You were in the gravest danger and your instincts were putting you on alert.  Even though you couldn’t see anything, you could sense the danger.”  The intent stare was back.

“But nothing ever happened. It was just nerves. Nothing ever happened.”

“You don’t think so?”  The angel’s look was long and telling.  “No thanks necessary.  You’re welcome.”

The ghost of a friend

I wasn’t afraid when I woke and saw the ghost standing in the doorway of my bedroom.

I daresay I was expecting it.  Perhaps even hoping for it.

No Dickensian chains or banshee wailing…but a good-looking guy with a smile and a mustache, dressed in jeans and a denim shirt.

Exactly as he was dressed the last time I saw him alive.

Rick.

We weren’t close friends.  I doubt Rick had let anyone beyond arm’s reach into his life.  I don’t know if he’d been hurt, or what his deal was.  He kept me at the same distance as everyone else.  He had nobody in this world other than an elderly mom and a teenage son that he hadn’t seen or heard from with any regularity.

He was becoming a funeral director, like me.  I was learning as he was learning.  I saw the toll that the pressure was taking on him:  the bickering client families-already carving up the estate before the body is even in a casket and the corporate management that demanded allegiance and sales performance from their employee numbers.  I know.  I was employee 466510013.

The pressure was more than he could bear.  I could tell that purely from the number of cigarettes that he smoked.

I saw him slide away to a nervous breakdown in 1997.

And in May of 1998, I found myself sitting in his mother’s kitchen, holding her hand across the coffee-stained and cigarette-scarred table.  We had each gotten a call that Rick had jumped off a bridge when the burdens of life finally outweighed the fear of death.

She wanted very little to do with it, other than to make small payments as her senior citizen’s fixed lower income allowed.  To her credit, she paid every red cent she owed.

I caught some hell from management by giving her a steep employee discount.  “He didn’t work here anymore.”

But I knew she couldn’t afford even the discounted price.  Let them ink a black mark against me for that.  I didn’t really give a shit at that point.

I identified his body and made the arrangements to have him cremated.  Fortunately, he had spent a little time in the military which got him a burial space at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery.  The day I delivered the cheap plastic urn to the cemetery, the VA rep looked at me and said “where’s the family?”

“You’re looking at it” I replied.

The rep and I talked what to put on the headstone.  I decided on “Our son and father” in the off-chance that either his mother or his son made their way to the cemetery.  We went to the gravesite to place the urn in its little earth pocket.  I played the role of mourner/minister/funeral director.  The one and only time in 20 years that all three have fallen on my shoulders.  I left the cemetery feeling worse than when I drove in.

A year or so later, I woke to find Rick standing in the doorway of my bedroom.  Amazingly, I wasn’t at all frightened (I always imagined that I would most likely piss myself if I ever happened across a real ghost).

He smiled.  The soft, familiar smile.

“Thanks for being so good to my mom” he said.

All I could reply with was the question that had been stewing for over a year.

“Rick, why’d you do it?”

Another smile.

“I just had to get out from under some things.”  He turned and started to walk away.

I rolled over to wake my wife so she could see him.  “You’re dreaming” she said, dismissing me with a wave of her hand.  I don’t think that she even opened her eyes. By the time I turned back, he was gone.

I still visit his grave when I have burials at Jefferson Barracks.  Sometimes I leave an unsmoked cigarette on top of the headstone for him.

Sometimes I just think about his last visit.