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Aug. 7, 2020 | Friday
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Opinion: A slice of life from a NOTL burial ground
Michael Rifkin and his daughter Elinor, 4, at Butler’s Burial Ground. (Kevin MacLean/Niagara Now)


As a dad of three, I’m lucky to be able to raise my kids in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

In an old town with stories seemingly around every corner, any family walk can quickly turn into a history lesson or a chance to stretch the kids’ imaginations.

Occasionally, though, the kids’ growing minds bump against the tales and traditions I’m trying to help pass along. They see the historic surroundings differently and can even sometimes show me things that I might miss.

This happened in my family recently when I learned that we live within walking distance of a 200-year-old, allegedly haunted cemetery called Butler’s Burial Ground. I’m not a strict believer in the paranormal, but it’s a fun game to play along with and I thought of a ghost-hunting expedition.

I figured my brave and playful and imaginative four-year-old daughter Elinor would be a good ghost-hunting partner and though the haunted history of Niagara-on-the-Lake is mostly news to her, she happily agreed.

On an appropriately grey, chilly afternoon, we set out to look for the spirits of Col. John Butler and company. As we walked, I tried to coax out of Elinor an enthusiasm for the chance perhaps to see a ghost, something she’d only encountered in cartoon form.

After a single shudder and a short moan of worry, she settled into the reasonable but somewhat defiant position that although ghosts are scary, they don’t actually exist. Her politely blunt rationality surprised me and made her seem like a three-foot-tall Carl Sagan. Not who I’d think to go ghost-hunting with.

We carried on anyway down the Butler Street path and arrived at the foot of a little hill, on top of which is the cemetery. The grass on the hill looked like it would be above ankle height and hadn’t been cut yet this spring. Dandelions peeked up over the grass.

“Is this Butler’s Bury-Go-Round?” Elinor asked, approaching the chain link fence that fronted the hill.

It didn’t look like the historic cemetery I had been picturing, but the overgrowth seemed spooky enough for our purpose. We went through the opening in the fence, through the tall grass, up the hill.

The most obvious starting point was the two rows of grave markers, The original markers were so heavily aged that I couldn’t read them any more than Elinor could. From a row of newer markers above them I read out the names of the cemetery’s inhabitants.

“Do you think any of these people are here with us?” I whispered, hoping to create a spooky vibe for us.

“No,” Elinor said, again with chipper bluntness. “I don’t see any ghosts.”

I shrugged and we moved on to the mostly buried vault that holds the bones of Col. Butler and others. I told Elinor that there were several people buried there.

“Maybe,” she said. “Or one really tall person.” Not having seen inside the vault myself, I had to concede the possibility.

My game wasn’t going how I’d hoped. I looked around. No ghosts. Just tall grass and dandelions.

Elinor crouched down.

“Here’s a dandelion shaped liked a star,” she said.

I crouched next to her. She pointed to the dandelion and I agreed it was shaped like a star. It was the first thing we had agreed on since leaving the house.

“Is it time to go home?” she asked as we stood up. She’d been a good sport so far but the way she dragged her vowels told me she was getting tired and impatient. I’d been asking a lot of her in trying to get her to play along with a game involving characters and forces she hadn’t heard of and didn’t take for granted like I did.

I figured I should give up ghost-hunting and end our visit on our note of agreement. I nodded and we started down the hill again.

Turning back for another look at the cemetery, for the first time I saw more than grass and dandelions and stone markers. I sensed vague ripples in the air at the top of the hill. A few out in the open, another one near the tree in the corner.

I began to tell Elinor, but she was already down the path and I turned away from the hill and followed her. As I walked quickly to catch up I noticed that my shoelaces had come undone. I called to Elinor to come back.

“Maybe Mary untied my shoes,” I said as I retied my laces, referring to one of the names that had stood out to us.

“Yes, it was Mary,” Elinor said, with the same cold factuality as before.

“But ghosts don’t have hands,” she continued, then tilted her head and tapped her chin with her index finger. “It must have been a skeleton. Or the head of a ghost with the body of a skeleton.”

Again, I couldn’t argue with her logic, but at least we were reaching something like an agreement and playing along. The trip suddenly seemed worthwhile.

“Maybe,” I said as we walked. We discussed skeleton-ghosts while the ripples trailed in the air behind us.