Grave Lessons

Halloween is a delightfully spooky time. Creatures from the darkest regions of our imagination come to life as we do our best to put a solid scare into the hearts and minds of our fellow revelers in the true spirit of the holiday. Perhaps nowhere is that more true than here in the rivertowns, home of Sleepy Hollow, and the legacy of Washington Irving’s suspenseful masterpiece.

But there’s another side to Halloween.

imagesThe over-marketed, over-candied, over-Disneyfied version that mocks our rightful heritage. Each Halloween night, swarms of manic, pint-sized princesses, superheroes, and Hannah Montanas are SUV’d into the area to plunder and pillage our community of all its processed sugar. Without a decent beheading in sight.

This pleasant, cheerful, innocent version of the holiday is an affront to the true spirit of our Halloween. I was horrified when my 5-year old daughter, a so-called Lover of Halloween, turned to me and said, “Wouldn’t it be great if there was a holiday all about scary things like ghosts and skeletons?” Right then and there, I knew drastic measures were needed.

So I took my two children to the graveyard.

But not just any graveyard, Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, and, by extension, the Old Dutch Burying Ground, hallowed locations immortalized forever in the short story that dominates the area every October. I wanted to see if immersion into the heritage of our community would give them a better appreciation for what All Hallow’s Eve means to the area.

My first mistake was telling both of them that we were going to the cemetery. My 5 year-old daughter was very excited because, in her words, “You can climb on the stones!” I explained to her that no, she couldn’t climb on the various headstones, even if they were the perfect climbing size, because there were a bunch of rotting corpses underneath and it wouldn’t be respectful. She asked me what respectful meant. Meanwhile, my 2 year-old son heard ‘submarine’ when I said ‘cemetery’ and was pretty much thrown off for the entire trip.

If you’ve never taken your kids to the graveyard, you don’t know what you’re missing. My kids love going – lots of open space in which to run amuck, hills to race down, and tombstones to facilitate an awesome game of hide and seek. I interrupted the game in progress to ask my daughter if she understood where she was. She said yes, she was in a cemetery. I then asked her if she knew what a cemetery was. “It’s a place where they bury dead people,” she said, matter-of-factly.

We walked along, exploring the past lives chronicled on stone all around us. Every one of these people was somebody’s son or daughter, a loved one, a friend. I asked my daughter if she was at all scared to be walking over so many dead people. She said no, not at all, but for some reason she couldn’t explain, she admitted that she wouldn’t want to come here at night. Seizing on this, I asked her if she was afraid of meeting ghosts. She seemed confused and explained that there are no ghosts in the cemetery, only at haunted houses. So then I asked her what she would expect to find here at night, visions of zombies and skeletons dancing in my head.

“Dead people,” she answered again. At this point, she obviously wondered why her father didn’t know anything about cemeteries.

I decided it was time for serious intervention, so I very quickly summed up The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. My daughter was mildly interested, asking if Ichabod Crane was a real person and expressing concern over the Headless Horseman. Not because she was frightened, but because she didn’t understand how he could ride a horse without a head. My son just kept asking where the submarine was.

As we continued our macabre hike, my drive to impress upon my young children the gruesome legacy of Halloween lessened. I began to see the world through their eyes. Who has time to be scared of evil witches, heinous curses, and terrifying legends? They’re still figuring out the very real, very scary world in which they live. Fear the unknown? They’re young children – everything is unknown. If they feared what they didn’t understand, they’d never leave the house. Childhood is for exploring existence, experiencing new sensations, and running head-long into danger without a care in the world. That’s why kids generally come equipped with parents; it’s our job to keep them safe and see that they make it through childhood with as many limbs as possible.

So I really shouldn’t be surprised to find my two children happily singing “Itsy Bitsy Spider” in the middle of the graveyard. They’re busy enjoying themselves on a sunny day while their dad fiddles with his digital voice recorder. They know (or at least my daughter knows) that cemeteries are full of dead people; they just don’t know why it should matter.

Perhaps that’s how it should be. Leave the horrific tales of headless corpses on horseback chasing errant schoolmasters to the adults. For the 5-and-under set, Halloween is about princesses, superheroes, and eating candy.

A LOT of candy.

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About the Author: David Neilsen