Grave Beliefs

Edwin Torres, the foreman of Grove Street Cemetery, believes in spirits. More specifically, he believes there are spirits in Grove Street Cemetery. He knows how that might appear, and that you might not share in his conviction, but he knows what he’s seen.

Edwin tends to the 18-acre grounds and oversees the other workers. Most days, he’s seen making his rounds in a truck, and in his truck patrolling Maple Avenue is where I find him. I had to go to the cemetery to request an interview because he doesn’t give out his phone number, out of fear that his wife would get jealous. I struggle to locate him at first, but a man blowing leaves confirms he’s somewhere on the grounds. I then see his truck lurching down the road. He acquiesces to my interview request through a rolled-down window, parks the truck in between two slanting rows of gravestones, then steps out, squinting at the sunlight, his hands shoved in his pockets. He smells faintly of cigarette smoke.

He is dressed in faded jeans and a New York Yankees cap. It is 9:30 a.m. on a Wednesday, the birds are chirping noisily, and the wind is brisk. In the summer, much of his work consists of cutting grass, he tells me. But right now, it’s leaf season. We crunch our way through mounds of browning leaves to a sliver of paved road. Pale gravestones, jutting from the earth, flank us. Directly before us is a marble sphinxlike woman, clad with wings and a diadem, watchfully postured over a tomb.

Edwin responds to my questions matter-of-factly. There isn’t a romantic backstory to his career choice of foreman: “I needed a job,” he says. “It’s a job. If I don’t do it, someone else is gonna do it.” He is equally curt about his Yankees hat. “Are you a Yankees fan?” I ask. “Yes,” he replies, and does not elaborate. He does share that he enjoys watching, in his free time, Spanish-language equivalents of the hit soap opera General Hospital.

Shortly after he answered introductory questions — he’s 50 this year, he was born in New York City, his first job in the cemetery involved picking up the leaves — he tells me how he believes in evil and good. His voice lowers conspiratorially. “I’ve been working here for a long time. I’ve seen a lot of stuff.” One time, he was sitting on a bench — right over there, he gestures to the one in question — and heard a voice. Then he felt a cold hand grab him. He jumped up and started looking around, thinking a colleague was playing a prank. No one was there.

“You ever heard of witchcraft, of voodoo?” He asks. He says some people do black magic in the cemetery by throwing miscellaneous objects onto the grounds. “I don’t go near them or touch them. It’s really scary. You grab it, it won’t do anything to you. Down the line, it’ll do something to you.”

He’s learned his lesson from the time he picked up a plastic bag he’d spotted by a grave. Inside the bag was a chicken with its head cut off. He decided to throw it into the dumpster. Then he started bleeding through his nose, through his mouth — he gestures to each body part carefully for emphasis — and he thought he was going to die. His coworkers took him to the hospital. When he got to the hospital, the doctor couldn’t figure out what was wrong with him. They said they didn’t know where he was bleeding from. “That’s why I tell you there’s a lot of stuff here,” he says to me soberly, “It’s hard to explain a lot of things.”

He clarifies that he believes in the existence of both benevolent and malevolent spirits. But the problem, he says, is that you often can’t tell which is which, because you can’t see the spirits in front of you.

“The New Haven Ghost Walk” is frequently advertised on campus during the Halloween season. It’s a tour that winds through the cemetery, stopping at the graves of Yale’s founders, studded with spectacular stories of brazen fools and skulls and ghost ships. I typically eat that stuff up. But there’s something completely different about learning about spirits outside the controlled context of Halloween, outside of a commercialized tour, and hearing about it from a man sporting blue jeans and a baseball cap.

I stand there, my feet rooted, transcribing Edwin’s recountings of spirits and voices and cold hands in my notebook. I pass by Grove Street Cemetery every other day on my way to math class. The cemetery is a fixture on the walk from Stiles to Hillhouse: the Egyptian Revival gate with its pillars, inscribed with “THE DEAD SHALL BE RAISED” — a biblical message that is either optimistic or ominous, depending on your viewpoint—and the trees unloading crumpled leaves over the wrought-iron gate are all familiar sights as I sprint-jog to class in Leet Oliver Memorial Hall. I consider changing my afternoon route to MATH 107: Mathematics in the Real World.

I also consider whether I believe him. I decide that I do.

Edwin knows the cemetery like the back of his hand, and it seems to me that if anyone should know whether spirits lurk in the shadowy avenues of Grove Street Cemetery, it’s him. He likes his job. He says, “I gave my whole heart and life to this place. When I go home, I’m still thinking about this place — is everything alright, this and that. I wake up early to go to work. I’m up early putting my boots on, drinking coffee, eating my breakfast. I’m always on point, you know.”

I ask him whether he believes in an afterlife. He tells me he’s a Christian, and that he goes to Spanish mass every Sunday at a church in North Haven. He says he believes that “if you do good things, good things will come to you. If you do bad things, bad things will come to you. The way you treat people, that’s the way life’s gonna treat you.”

Since his work forces him to reconcile with death and grief and spirits, does he think about his mortality at all? He replies, “I don’t know how my death is gonna be. God decides how I’m gonna pass away. It could be in here, it could be out there. I know where I was born, but I don’t know where I’m gonna die, you know? The important thing is when I die, I wanna go with God. My soul goes with Him.”

He continues, “You see these people here, they’re buried…I walk around all day, I see them underground here all day, in the same spot. The bodies are still there, but the [souls are] gone. People are like, ‘They’re still down there,’ but [they’re] not. [They’re] gone.”

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