Carolyn Jacobi's broad-brimmed hat and cape stood out bright red against a gray afternoon recently at Rosa Bonheur Memorial Park in Elkridge, a combined pet and human cemetery, the latest stop in her 18-year national crusade for the buried dead and their loved ones.
In a voice ringing with a preacher's passion, she told some three dozen people protesting possible development that she would fight to protect cemeteries "as long as God puts breath in my body, as long as I have a brain."
At 74 years old, she told them, this is her life: visiting cemeteries, taking on another battle.
"I have no social life, I have no personal life," said Jacobi, founder of Eternal Justice Inc., a one-woman national consumer advocacy campaign she runs from her Prince George's County home. "This is my social life. Going into cemeteries. … My life revolves around cemeteries."
A self-described "tough old broad" with a presence exceeding her 5-foot-1 frame, Jacobi travels the country responding to reports of neglected burial grounds and improper business practices. She has probed grave sites with a metal pole to make sure coffins are where they should be. At legislative hearings in Annapolis years ago, she presented the crushed remnants of a metal casket and human bones found lying around at a Maryland cemetery and helped to change state law.
Jacobi came to Rosa Bonheur at the request of cemetery advocates who fear the nearly 8-acre grounds are threatened by development. The developer says there's nothing to worry about, that he plans to leave the graves alone while encompassing the cemetery in a project of more than 21 acres that includes stores and homes.
His reassurances have not put to rest the anxieties of people whose loved ones — both animal and human — are buried there.
That includes Jacobi, whose two Lhasa apsos are among thousands of animals buried at the cemetery. The list of notable interments includes the canine mascots of the old Washington Bullets basketball team, the late Gov. William Donald Schaefer's dog and the first elephant at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore.
The remains of at least 28 people are buried at the park, which was founded as a pet cemetery in 1935 and closed to all burials in 2003, according to the Rosa Bonheur Society. In 1979, the place made national news when the owner decided to allow humans to be buried alongside their pets.
Jacobi has been in the news herself since 1995, when she launched Eternal Justice as a watchdog at the cemetery gate. She runs it out of the portion of a single-family home that she rents in Fort Washington, where she keeps files of newspaper clippings from around the country, commendation letters and plaques from public officials recognizing her efforts.
On the wall behind her office chair hang framed proclamations from the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors and the state of Wisconsin for the work she did there to help expose improper cemetery practices, including bodies buried in the wrong graves.
She's got a key to the city of Birmingham, Ala. — for work improving an overgrown cemetery littered with broken headstones and human bones — and a framed proclamation from the Maryland State Senate declaring Nov. 2, 2003, as Eternal Justice and Carolyn Jacobi Day.
A photograph of Jacobi with then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening marks the day in 1997 he signed into law a bill she championed establishing the Maryland Office of Cemetery Oversight.
"Carolyn has played and continues to play an invaluable role in advocating on behalf of consumers in their interactions with the death care industry in our state and across the country," said fellow advocate Brian Ditzler, vice president of the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Maryland and Environs, a local chapter of a national group.
To understand why this former preschool teacher and cemetery sales executive says she turned consumer advocate you have to look at a side wall in her office. A small black-and-white photograph shows a slim, handsome man in a fedora, dark suit and dark shirt looking into the camera.
It's James Williams, Jacobi's father. He died in 1970, when, Jacobi said, he was shot in a street robbery in West Baltimore's Sandtown.
After he left the family when she was little, she was estranged from him for decades, until he got back in touch a few years before he was killed. He told her he knew he hadn't been a proper father, but he loved her.
"He said, 'You will always be somebody because you've always had a mouth,'" recalled Jacobi, making the point with the emphatic diction of an elocution instructor, a vestige of youthful training to overcome a stutter.
She went to her father's funeral but not the burial at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Baltimore. Nearly 25 years later in early 1995, she visited the grave with a cousin. What she found set the course for the rest of her life.
The headstone lay scattered in pieces and the soil in the grave had been "turned over," she said. Angered, she dug into the soil with her hands, finding a fragment of a human skull. Presumably it was a part of her father's remains, the only portion ever found.
She called a television station to cover the story and demanded the cemetery improve conditions. Months later she established Eternal Justice.
Since then, she has pursued complaints about cemetery maintenance, excessive fees, double-selling plots, bodies buried in the wrong place and desecrated graves. She has played many roles: mediator and rabble rouser, graveyard investigator and family funeral consultant.
Hari P. Close, a Baltimore funeral director and member of the Maryland Board of Morticians and Funeral Directors, a state regulatory agency, said Jacobi's forceful personality tends to stir strong reactions.
"Either you like her or you don't," Close said.
His dealings with Jacobi did not begin well years ago when he was head of a national trade association and the two "hit heads" over her complaints about funeral directors who did not remain at gravesides to see the bodies buried.
He said he's since come to understand her perspective.
"People like Carolyn have brought more integrity back to this industry," he said. "It's not always an easy pill to swallow."
Robert Silkworth, owner of Standiford Memorials in Brooklyn Park, also got off to a rocky start with Jacobi. When she was a saleswoman with the Maryland National Memorial Park, a private cemetery in Laurel, she told him he could not install monuments there, because customers had to buy them from the cemetery.
Once she became a consumer advocate, though, he said, they found "we were on the same page about a lot of things," especially customer choice in buying memorials.
The consumer choice ethic is emphasized by the Monument Builders of North America, a trade association that in 1997 hired Carolyn Jacobi as consumer advocate, a $43,000-a-year position she still holds. She typically intervenes on behalf of consumers and dealers who are being charged fees for placing or maintaining monuments.
Jacobi said her work for the association and Eternal Justice do not conflict.
Close agreed, adding that if he saw an ethical issue he would speak up.
"She holds us all to a higher standard, no matter what," he said.
Jacobi said she usually gets along well with people in the business, which helps resolve disputes. Sometimes, the consumer is right, and "sometimes the cemetery is right," she said. "It doesn't happen often."
Roger Volland, executive director of Fort Lincoln Cemetery and Funeral Home in Brentwood, said he's always found Jacobi cooperative in resolving complaints.
"I have a lot of respect for her," said Volland, whose cemetery is owned by Stewart Enterprises Inc., the nation's second-largest cemetery operator. "She really believes in what she's doing."
Stewart Enterprises thought enough of her to give her a "very fair price" on a granite sarcophagus for her at Fort Lincoln that would normally cost nearly $40,000, Volland said, calling it a tribute to her work. Sitting on one of the highest points in Prince George's County, the monument bears a four-paragraph inscription, a hybrid resume/epitaph mentioning her work as a consumer advocate, five states where she influenced legislation, the Office of Cemetery Oversight, even her appearance on "The Phil Donahue Show."
Neither Jacobi nor Volland would say what she paid for the monument, which weighs about five tons, but Jacobi was adamant on one point: "I cannot be bought, do you understand that? I'm emphatic about that."
As she is about many things, including the failure of some of her efforts. She said she was "sleeping" when state law was amended to allow cemeteries to bill for "perpetual memorial care," the continuing care of a monument. In her view, consumers should not be charged for damage to monuments or material flaws, because the cemetery, monument dealer or installer should be held responsible.
She kicks herself for doing nothing about Maryland's lack of regulation on pet cemeteries, such as the Rosa Bonheur Memorial Park, but she's on that case now. If she can shepherd new legislation through the Maryland General Assembly, her sarcophagus monument inscription might have to be updated.
"If I do one more big thing before I go, it's that," she said. "I think the time is right."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun