"The Line of Trees" (Arlington Cemetery, Drexel Hill, PA)

Learning to live in a graveyard

“Learning to live in a graveyard” in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

I grew up in a cemetery.

Apart from the house I grew up in, the cemetery just four doors down from that house is home to the fondest memories of my childhood, my adolescence, and the pseudo angst-ridden years of early adulthood. In an odd way, it was a second home.

Known to my friends and me simply as “the Cem,” Arlington Cemetery in Drexel Hill played the part of both neighborhood park and teenage hideout.

As a young boy, the cemetery was a place to explore life and what lay beyond it. Peering through the stained glass windows of huge stone mausoleums, straining to read the names and dates of the folks therein, I remember wondering if I would want to be put in a mausoleum when I died. The thought frightened and yet intrigued me, and the existence of ghosts suddenly seemed quite feasible.

But the cemetery wasn’t all headstones and haunting. Its deserted and hilly roads made it the perfect course for high speed bike rides and testing out newly constructed go-carts. Years later, and for the very same reasons, it was the perfect spot to learn how to drive. On summer nights, it was the ideal shortcut to Dairy Queen for a grape Mister Misty Float. And its stone wall offered the perfect spot to watch the passing fire engines and tanks during the Memorial Day parade.

Just beyond that stone wall, and directly down the street from my house, lay the cemetery’s most prized piece of land. The grassy field, bordered on one side by a line of spruce trees, had remained untouched by the dead, making it the ideal football field. The line of trees marked one sideline, a cedar tree marked the other, and giant yews and arborvitaes provided a natural backdrop to both end-zones. For years that field was our home. Just about every afternoon, we battled it out on the cemetery gridiron: teams divvied up, plays designed on a palm, and a Wilson Duke football in tow. There was beauty in the simplicity of the ritual. Amid tackles, touchdowns and the occasional torn shirt, friendships were formed.

Throughout those years, young boys became lifelong friends. Casually tossing a football back and forth or simply sitting on the curb with a Big Gulp, talk ensued. It was the sort of talk that is universal to the young American male. Simply stated, it was minimal. In the silence, though, and in the profanity-laden barbs, truth dwelled ever so quietly. Truth that spoke of growing up, of trying to fit in, of figuring out how to deal with the opposite sex. It was the quiet of boys struggling for truth – boys struggling together. In any man’s life, it is the friends who struggled alongside you in adolescence that become lifelong friends. Perhaps you drift apart. For the fortunate few, perhaps you never do. In either case, the friendship is eternal, and no amount of time or distance can break that bond.

Unknown to us at the time, we dealt with adolescence in the only way we knew how: we drank. This too the cemetery witnessed. The line of trees bordering the football field provided a perfect bunker wherein we could spot any patrolling police car long before they saw us. When the headlights or spotlights came our way, we simply ducked behind the nearest tombstone, bush, or tree. The cops didn’t have a chance. There we stood, friends and shadows, conversing by the moonlit night.

When we all became of bar age, I fought to hang onto the cemetery as our watering hole of choice, but without much luck. There was a life to be lived outside the cemetery walls, and we couldn’t hide behind the line of trees forever.

Today, however, I realize just how necessary it is to revisit the cemetery. With lives that are ever connected to the busyness of life, we never take time to reflect and dwell upon the business of life – that is, to just simply “be.” As ironic as it may seem, the cemetery allows us one of the few places where we can actually live in the moment. Too sacred a space from which to check-in on Facebook or send that next meeting request, it puts life (and our phones) in proper perspective.

With two of those childhood friends having passed on to another cemetery, and my own father resting in the ground a few feet from that football field, today I long for “the Cem.”

October’s spirits fill the air, calling us to revisit the cemeteries of our lives, so that we may remember what it is like to live.

Yeah, I grew up in a cemetery. I suppose I still am.

Click here to read an expanded, earlier version of this essay.


  1. Delightful reminiscense of growing up. If you ever get to Lawrence, Methuen, Andover up there in chilly Massachusetts, your little story will suddenly jerk back the heads of all men of the area, remembering the Tower Hill Reservoir in Lawrence, surrounded by St Mary and Immaculate Cemetaries. It is known affectionately as “The Rez”, a splendid phallic watertower made of red brick, the area where so many of us learned to ski, wrestled on the grass, played tennis, said “Show me yours Billy, I’ll show you mine”, explored the mysteries of kissing, perhaps even more. Today’s drug-filled culture may have put an end to such innocent things but The Rez still remains part of many many people’s memories.

    I sent your communication to Liam O’Doherty, Michael Hilden, Tom Dwyer. Keep up the good work Michael. Maurice J Mahoney

  2. Hi Michael. It is very possible that we grew up together. So many of us have such memories of Arlington Cemetery. We probably know the same people.

    Not much has changed over the years. The kids of Drexel Hill are doing pretty much the same as we did then.

    I now work for Arlington. It took my Mother’s illness to bring me back to Drexel Hill from Chicago. It took her pending death to bring me once again into the arms of the cemetery. One thing lead to another and a week after we interred my Mom, I began a whole new career here. That was seven years ago.

    One question, do you own cemetery property?

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