Clusters of headstones poke up through the water, some bearing the names of prominent families of historical Baltimore.
The recent storms that wreaked havoc in Ellicott City, Catonsville and along Frederick Road in Baltimore also left a section of Southwest Baltimore’s Loudon Park Cemetery underwater.
“Of course we don’t have no control over the weather,” said Derek Rivers, the cemetery’s head groundskeeper, sitting atop a lawnmower. “That’s God’s work.”
Staff in the cemetery’s office declined to comment on the flooding, referring questions about it to Amtrak, which they said is responsible for the area’s poor drainage and is now in the process of pumping out the stagnant water.
The raised rail bed of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor runs along the eastern edge of the cemetery, located between Frederick and Wilkens avenues where Route 1 turns south on Southwestern Boulevard.
An Amtrak spokeswoman confirmed that the railroad is cooperating with efforts to fix the problem.
But family members with loved ones buried at Loudon Park say this isn’t the first time the area has flooded — and they’re growing weary of the finger-pointing.
“I’ve been been complaining 15 years,” said John Bradds of Baltimore, about flooding in the cemetery.
Years ago, he said, the flooding was so severe that bodies were exposed. Although his family members are buried elsewhere in the cemetery, he’s concerned about the historic section because “it’s not right to treat somebody like that, even if they’re not living,” Bradds said.
“Something’s got to be done,” he said. “It’s a sorry looking sight out there.”
Flooding has been a recurring problem for cemeteries in Maryland and across the nation. Extensive rainfalls on saturated soil can cause air-filled caskets to pop up from the ground, as one did in a historic Annapolis cemetery in June 2015. Rain waters flowed into the Asbury Broadneck United Methodist Church cemetery, flooding graves and tombs.
After a 2011 tropical storm hit a rural cemetery in Rochester, Vt., “coffins and bodies were just popping out and landing in trees,” said Josh Slocum, executive director of the nonprofit Funeral Consumers Alliance. “It certainly looked awful.”
Slocum said floods may show that changing weather patterns “are going to affect cemeteries as well as the living.”
Loudon Park Cemetery, which opened in 1853, was long considered one of the city’s premier burial grounds. Somewhere among the lanes in its older area lies H.L. Mencken, the Evening Sun columnist known as the "Sage of Baltimore,” and Mary Pickersgill, who made the flag that inspired “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
The 104-acre cemetery covers so much land that it once maintained its own streetcar system to ferry lot holders around, in an era when families often picnicked and played on cemetery grounds.
The cemetery shares an address with Loudon Park Funeral Home and is owned by Loudon Park Memorial Association Inc. of North Potomac, according to state property records. The cemetery was acquired by the New Orleans-based funerary services company Stewart Enterprises in 1992 and Stewart was purchased by industry giant Service Corporation International in 2013, but SCI was required by federal regulators to sell off some cemeteries. SCI said Friday it does not own Loudon Park.
One recent day after the storms, the cemetery was littered with detritus and toppled tombstones left by draining water. Geese waddled into the ponding floodwaters, ignoring the rotting smell of stagnant water.
“That is definitely bodies,” Rivers said. “I don’t want to be disrespectful, but it’s a very distinct odor.”
He’d never smelled it before he began working at the cemetery, a job that he loves for the peace and quiet it provides. However, he said, he strips off his work clothes every night before he enters his house.
Rivers said the employees at Loudon Park work hard to keep the place in pristine shape, and it pains them to see the dead underwater like this.
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“Even though they’re deceased, they have rights, too,” he said.