Head to head(stone)

Joan and Bill Cameron, co-superintendents of the Grove Street Cemetery, live among ghosts. After almost 56 years of marriage and 35 years at the cemetery (25 years as co-superintendents), they have seen, heard and tape-recorded the spirits of the dead. In their bustling office near the cemetery gate, the couple sat down for a rare interview with scene.

Q: Who digs the graves?

Joan: We have men out there. They dig by hand. Most of the places aren’t easy to get at with a backhoe.

Bill: If you use the backhoe you’ll do damage to the existing stones. So we dig by hand. She’s dug graves.

Joan: Years ago, yeah.

Bill: Ice cold winter. We had to chop through the ground with an axe.

Joan: That was our job back then. Before we became superintendents. Back in ’85. It was the worst weather. Either pouring buckets or snow.

Q: How did you become interested in this line of work?

Joan: He started it.

Bill: Yeah, just by accident.

Joan: He drove by one day, looking for a job. He came in and they hired him right away.

Q: Do you believe in ghosts?

Joan: Yes. We have proof of ghosts. Certain things have happened in here. You just get the vibes. You know, my son used to work here. He’d be in the back room doing something. And we had a stack of papers on a chair. And he’d see the papers just go down, like somebody was sitting there. That’s no lie.

Bill: He was sitting in another chair, putting his work shoes on. He looked over and the papers were going down like somebody was sitting. Then maybe twenty minutes later, it was still sitting there, reading the morning paper or whatever it was. We hear noises all the time.

Joan: There are spirits everywhere.

Q: Can anybody see ghosts? Or do you have to live and work around the dead?

Joan: Well, I think concentration is part of it. People that don’t believe in them, who go pfft [bats the air with her hand], like that, you know, aren’t subject to it.

Q: There are many well-known people buried here. Are there famous ghosts that correspond to those people?

Joan: No. But tell him the incident back… Well, Sabrina was working here and heard the voices…

Bill: Well, the girl worked here at Yale in the dining halls. She and I and my son came here one night when it got dark. Pitch dark. You can’t see anything.

Joan: Yeah, you can’t see anything.

Bill: She had a tape recorder, and we heard all sorts of weird things. No screaming or anything like that. But footsteps. All sorts of little things. Anyway, when we finally left the cemetery, we went home and we played the tape recorder in the kitchen. Definitely heard the sounds.

Joan: They’re not going to come up to you and go “boo!” I mean, they’re there. But you have to have the vibes. Like, sometimes I’ll be sitting here and all of a sudden I see something to my right, and… [laughs]. That’s happened so many times.

Bill: There’s windows up in the attic. And my son and I — I know we’re not imagining this, because on several occasions, something was in that window. In human form. It wasn’t as, you know, obvious as we are, but there’s something there.

Joan: It’s like they move. It’s not like somebody — it’s not like you going by the window. It’s nothing like that. It’s just a movement that you know is there. And I won’t go up alone.

Bill: She won’t go in the attic alone. She’s not afraid—

Joan: It’s not that I’m afraid. I don’t think they’re going to hurt you. These spirits are there. They’re not going to hurt you.

Q: Does the ghostly presence disturb you in any way?

Joan: No, no.

Bill: Not in the least bit. They’re at home living near us.

Joan: We find them very harmless.

Q: Did you have any sort of supernatural experience before working in the graveyard?

Bill: No, I never did. How about you, Joan? Did you see any ghosts?

Joan: You know, sometimes I’ll just have the feeling that somebody is there.

Q: When you started working here, did it surprise you to encounter spirits?

Bill: It surprised me a little bit. You hear so many conversations about these sorts of things. But I’d never run into it. A first I was a little surprised. Especially hearing footsteps upstairs. I’d go up and look: there was no sign of anybody walking around. People would say, it must be birds that got in. And then they said mice. But I did hear footsteps. That slow … [steps heavily]. Definitely footsteps. I’m not kidding you.

Q: How do you plan to celebrate Halloween?

Joan: In here, or at home?

Q: At home.

Joan: At home we have a blast. We have all the decorations. I love the skull we have. As the kids [trick-or-treaters] walk by it yells “Hey!” [laughs.] “Where are you going?” I love it. They go get scared and run to their mommy. We have fun.

Q: Do the kids know you work among ghosts?

Joan: We hardly know them. They’re just trick-or-treating.

[As the reporter was leaving…]

Bill: It might be interesting to know that more than 80 percent of our interments today are cremations. When I first worked here, it was between 5 and 10. Now it’s more than 80 percent. That’s how people have changed.

Q: Is that a religious thing? Or cultural?

Bill: People just think about death and burials in a different way than they used to. It’s amazing how things change. So many things change. Death to me is amazing. Is that right, Joan, 80 percent?

Joan: Yeah. People are getting wise. They don’t want to use a lot of land because there really isn’t much left. And it’s cheaper. A lot cheaper.

Bill: If you have a regular burial you can put one body in there. With cremation you can put four in each grave.

Q: So a family might do that?

Bill: Yeah.

Joan: Graves here are [$]6,500. That’s a lot of money for most people. They go with cremations because they can put four.

Q: For the price of one.

Bill: People today believe in saving land, you know. A lot of thoughts. Everybody’s got a different idea about everything. You could go out to the street and ask a hundred people what they thought about one thing, you’d get a hundred different answers.