If you have an old cemetery plot on your property, the Howard County Genealogical Society might be knocking on your door. Volunteers are surveying the county's lost plots and tombstones to report their condition. (Megan Rufty/Baltimore Sun video)
When Jim Kuttler goes on a quest for a gravesite, he never knows what he might find. But it's best, he's discovered, to come prepared.
On a given day, Kuttler might encounter a small plot in a residential development, or he might have to clamber through weeds, fallen trees and overgrown brush to find his target. He's taken to wearing long-sleeved shirts, pants and tennis shoes so that he's ready to blaze forward, whatever the case may be.
This summer, Kuttler and other members of the Howard County Genealogical Society have been searching out and taking stock of cemeteries throughout the county as part of an effort to track the condition of Howard's private, often historic burial grounds.
The results haven't always been pretty. Many of the cemeteries have been neglected, vandalized or destroyed.
"This is not a feel-good story," Kuttler said Sept. 26, before heading out on another grave hunt. "This is somewhere between a tragedy and a horror story."
Established as a county in 1851, but active in milling, shipping and farming before then, Howard, like many communities along the eastern seaboard, has a long history and lots of former residents now six feet under.
A county inventory shows there are some 200 recorded burial sites here, 73 of which are owned by churches or private business. The rest — approximately 129 sites — are privately owned. They're the ones Kuttler and his team are hoping to find.
Though sleuthing work is mainly done by volunteers, the project is the brainchild of the Howard County Cemetery Preservation Advisory Board, a four-member panel dedicated to the upkeep and improvement of Howard's final resting places.
"The cemeteries provide a source of history," said Fred Dorsey, a board member and president of Preservation Howard County. With the survey, "we want to ... determine what are the conditions of the cemeteries, and as a result of that, take a look at what's the feasibility of providing information to the owners concerning the ways and means that a cemetery can be preserved — the do things and the don't do things."
This approach is a first for the county, according to Beth Burgess, chief of the resource conservation division at the county's Department of Planning and Zoning.
Though Howard has taken inventory of its graveyards in the past, "the board wanted to know the condition of many of our historic cemeteries and the Department of Planning and Zoning often gets inquiries from adjacent neighbors of cemeteries about who the owner is or how they can help improve a site, or sadly, to tell us something has been vandalized," Burgess said. "So this spurred a productive conversation about taking an inventory of each site."
On the hunt
The late September day was warm, but as they set out on the trail, Kuttler and fellow volunteers Dottie Aleshire and Mary Sanphilipo were dressed in protective sweaters and sweatshirts. Kuttler's head was covered with a red baseball cap.
"Mostly, it's not too bad," Kuttler said of the terrain he's crossed in the three or four outings he's done for the cemeteries inventory project. Typically, the worst "you have to deal with [is] sticker bushes and things like that." Still, it doesn't hurt to be prepared.
Kuttler's first interviewee didn't know anything about a cemetery, but across the street, another resident, a young man in plaid pajama pants, said he could help. Leading the team around the side of the house, he pointed out a gray stone pressed flat into the ground.
Kuttler ripped off a patch of grass shooting up from a crack in the tomb, and Sanphilipo brushed aside a stubborn clump of dirt. Underneath, a date was still faintly legible: 1761.
"This probably used to be a farm some 100 years ago," Kuttler mused, taking in the grave and jotting down a few notes.
"And now it's yours!" Sanphilipo piped up, turning to the young man. "Congratulations!"
Though it's a daunting task, Kuttler, Dorsey and the others hope their work can be used to educate Howard Countians, particularly those who have a cemetery plot on their property, about the importance of caring for gravesites.
"Usually the people whose property [the graves] are on have no relation to the people who are buried there. In fact, the people who are buried there may have died in the early 1800s and the family has died out and there are no living relatives around to care about the cemetery," Kuttler said. "So you're dependent upon the kindness of others, so to speak, to keep these cemeteries maintained. But they're all somebody's parents, grandparents, great grandparents, whatever. So you can't just bulldoze over them and build a housing development on top of them."
The way Dorsey sees it, "it's a matter of respect for the cemetery." He said the board is looking into setting up an Adopt-a-Cemetery program so that communities and groups can volunteer to take charge of a plot for a year at a time. They also hope to find the funds to reimburse volunteers for upkeep expenses.
County residents whose property includes an historic cemetery may already be eligible for some funds: the county has a 25 percent historic property tax credit, which helps pay for restoration work to eligible properties. For a cemetery plot, the credit might cover repairing or installing a fence or stone wall, according to Dorsey.
"That's a huge impact that we're hoping will motivate" people, Burgess said.
Nightmares, success stories and everything in between
Out in the field, the second stop for Kuttler and his crew was at a house off of Cedar Lane. They traveled up a long, winding driveway and parked in the back, next to the owner's collection of vintage cars.
This time, the cemetery was tucked away at the back of the property, shaded by a patch of trees and buried under piles of brush and vines. The volunteers counted a half dozen tombs, belonging to a family named Owings, before moving on.
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The third and final stop was a pleasant surprise. The Welling Cemetery, across the street from Clarksville Middle School, is well tended and fenced in, with a decorative sign at the entrance. Polished new stones listing the names of the family members buried on the plot sit at one end, as a reference point for the older gravestones that have become progressively less legible, eroded by a century or more under the elements.
Sitting on a bench, Kuttler surveyed the graveyard. He said he hoped more cemeteries would end up like the Welling plot. In his expeditions, he's seen some nightmare sites: a plot in Harper's Choice, for example, has been torn apart by vandals. Somewhere in the ground beneath, a Continental Congressman lies at rest, according to county records.
Elsewhere, at a Veterans of Foreign Wars outpost in Ellicott City, another plot sits overgrown, tall grass, poison ivy and wildflowers bursting out from the fence that once protected it. Aleshire said she had heard rumors of an exposed, child-sized coffin and abandoned car under the thick brush, but nothing was visible when the volunteers peered around that day.
Still, there have been some success stories. The Welling Cemetery is one, and on St. John's Lane, the Whipps Cemetery has been adopted by a local garden club, which has planted flowers and keeps the graveyard manicured.
Kuttler, Dorsey and the others hope that the project will bring more awareness to Howard County's abandoned cemeteries.
"The tombstones are hard history," Kuttler said. "They've got dates, they've got people on them. They should be taken care of, obviously. You don't want to see them just bulldozed and lose all that history."