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Original Issue

Did We Commit a Grave Error?

Surely, playing baseball in a cemetery wasn't sinful

When I was a kid I played baseball among the dead. The cemetery began at the border of my backyard, the temptation of its open lawn too near and vast for a 12-year-old to resist.

It all started when a bulldozer came to an unused section of the graveyard and hollowed out a large crater, a place in which to dump decaying wreaths and fading plastic flowers. I looked at it and saw a stadium. A friend and I cleared the wreaths and the flowers from the dump and christened it Allen's Crater in honor of Phillie third baseman Dick Allen, and the first pitch of the 1965 Wiffle ball season—a nasty slider, down and away, as I recall—was launched.

I grew a year older. The stadium began looking more like a dump. Why should a boy play ball in a dump, I began to wonder, when a few feet away there were acres of manicured grass? Tombstones? No problem. They made excellent bases. They were laid flat in the ground, flush with the grass, as if the cemetery's general manager had in mind the progress of, say, a double rolling to left center. And whenever a fastball sailed over the catcher's head, three colossal bronze saints, rising from the ground and staring sternly at centerfield, offered up their shins as the perfect backstop.

Soon everybody wanted into the action. The game became hardball, seven against seven. We weren't barbarians, though. If someone arrived to mourn a loved one, we called timeout and lowered our voices. There was just one problem. Every few days, between the fifth and ninth innings, a black car appeared. A man in a black suit would emerge from the black car, and everyone would scatter.

This didn't discourage us. The threat of his appearance added tension to the game, and we allowed for him in the rules. If your team had the lead when the black car came, the win was official. The next day, we would regather at the shins of the saints, hoping to squeeze in a full nine.

One day, the man in the black suit brought a man in a blue suit. I still don't know why—but we froze. We were taken to the cemetery office, 14 trembling kids waiting to see what the policeman would do. He told us that we had shown no respect for the dead and that if we played ball there again we would be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. I wasn't familiar with my town's penal code, but I knew all about my father's brown leather belt. I never played ball in the cemetery again.

Two decades passed. I was shocked one day to learn that my old man had just been busted in the cemetery too. My father, lord of discipline at the local high school for 25 years, and keeper of the brown leather belt.

Newly retired and not wanting his gut to show it, he had taken up power-walking through the cemetery—until a worker there informed him that it was forbidden. My father fired off a letter to the monsignor whose diocese owned the graveyard. "I dress appropriately," he protested. "I'm very respectful. Why can't someone walk in a cemetery?"

The monsignor telephoned him. "I've already bought graves in your cemetery," my dad said. "I'm into fitness so I won't have to put your diggers to work too soon."

"Well, I won't say you can," the monsignor hedged, "but I won't say you can't."

I began to wonder. What was the proper way to treat the dead? One morning while I was visiting my parents, I took a walk in the cemetery-past Allen's Crater, now filled in and manicured, past the old ball field and the statues. I stood in front of my parents' plots, where—who knew?—I might end up too. I tried to imagine how I would want it up here if I were down there. All I could think of was one afternoon a few years ago in the Andes Mountains, when I was living in Bolivia. It was the Day of the Dead, the Bolivian version of All Souls' Day. In a patch of rocks and weeds, men were drinking muddy moonshine made from corn. Women were dancing and laughing. Children were bashing cymbals and kicking soccer balls. I was standing in a cemetery. "Do you not have a day like this in your country?" a young man asked me.

"No," I said. "In the cemeteries there, people must remain quiet and still." He and his friends looked at one another and laughed, put a cup of corn whiskey in my hands and showed me how to sprinkle a little on the dirt for the dead, as they had.

I turned away from my parents' plot, and I knew what I wanted after I died—my children banging cymbals and line drives over my grave. And sprinkling on me a slightly better grade of whiskey.