The U.S. Congress was recently characterized on the TV program "Moneyline" as a prime example of the "arrogance of power." True indeed, though not a new thought: Shakespeare, in Hamlet's soliloquy, spoke of the "insolence of office."
Over the centuries, those in authority who are marching to a tune other than that upholding the public trust have manipulated and circumvented the clear purpose of established laws governing society. We have here in Ellicott City just such a situation with the unbelievable devastation taking place at St. Mary's Cemetery -- all so that two new houses can be built.
A group of small-minded public officials have, with their arrogance of power, thwarted Maryland law (Article 27, Sections 265 and 267) and permitted the bulldozing of the cemetery and the probable destruction of many unmarked graves, including those of slaves and later black free men and their families.
In so doing, both the spirit and the letter of the law have been violated. Moreover, the faith of the electorate in their elected officials has suffered yet another blow.
St. Mary's Cemetery takes its name from St. Mary's Chapel at Doughoregan Manor, home of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and John Lee Carroll, governor of Maryland from 1876 to 1880.
The 167 people, both black and white Marylanders, children as well as adults, who the Catholic Church documents as being buried in St. Mary's Cemetery throughout the 1800s and up until 1941, were the parishioners of St. Mary's Chapel.
But the historical significance of St. Mary's Cemetery is not the principal issue. What is important is that a graveyard, irrespective of its origin, regardless of whether many of its graves are marked with simple field stones
or not marked at all -- a graveyard has been raped and ravaged. How and why has this been allowed to happen?
The first dreadful act, particularly outrageous to Catholics, was the sale by the Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore of the 3.2-acre cemetery in 1986-1987 to developer Don Reuwer for $10,000. It is a tragic and puzzling fact that the German family, which has many members buried at St. Mary's, offered to buy the cemetery and take care of it; their offer was rejected.
Last week, the present developer of the cemetery, H. Allen Becker, indicated that because of the tempest that has been stirred up over the building of houses in the cemetery, he might be willing to stop work and sell out. The price tag is, of course, no longer $10,000. The reported cost to the relatives and the Friends of St. Mary's Cemetery, who still want to own and preserve the cemetery, is now much higher -- for a ravaged cemetery!
If the present state law were being enforced, or if an even tougher statute were on the books, it would be the developer who would be facing criminal penalties, with civil penalties assessed as well.
Another puzzling fact is why county officials have approved all necessary building permits, including a 30-foot easement for sewer and water in the cemetery. In the late 1980s, officials revoked the building permit of Richard Lebling on the exact same cemetery site that H. Allen Becker is today building on -- all with the blessing of Howard County officials. (Mr. Lebling had erroneously identified the cemetery on his site plan as "undeveloped land.") But if Howard County felt it was wrong and illegal to build on a cemetery in the 1980s, why is it OK now?
Why are the pleas of two organizations concerned with the protection of St. Mary's Cemetery being ignored? The Friends of St. Mary's Cemetery, organized in 1990, has been desperately fighting to save the cemetery from the fate it met with last week. They were, even as the bulldozers crashed onto the site, trying to raise funds for an archaeologist, using ground-penetrating radar to define the many unmarked gravesites in the cemetery. The Friends went one step further in their preservation efforts when they became a charter member in 1991 of the Coalition to Protect Maryland Burial Sites, a statewide organization, based in Ellicott City.
One of the principal objectives of the coalition is to revise and strengthen state law governing graveyards. It is the weakness of the present law, and the fact that it is rarely enforced, that has brought us to an appalling reality: Hundred of graves, particularly in old churchyards and family cemeteries of the 1800s, and even the 1700s, are being bulldozed in Howard County and across Maryland. Beautifully carved headstones are going to the dump, or finding their way into antique stores and flea markets.
Public officials, instead of upholding the law, are facilitating the pillage of burial sites which are sacred ground as well as priceless and irreplaceable outdoor museums of our history and culture. Even more important, these gravesites are the legally-owned property of the living heirs, particularly when there are protective covenants, duly recorded in the land records.
One of the major loopholes in the present law is the less stringent protection given to so-called "abandoned" cemeteries, although the term is never defined in the law. Case law has held that a cemetery is not abandoned until all human remains have been removed.
In Howard County, and throughout Maryland, because of the way in which our public officials choose to interpret the law, a cemetery is generally considered abandoned if it is overgrown with weeds and brambles. But while William Hymes, our state's attorney, may view St. Mary's Cemetery as "abandoned," it is far from abandoned in the minds and hearts of the Germans and the Hanigans and all the other families who still come to care for the gravesites and bring flowers.
And what about the unmarked graves?
The situation at St. Mary's highlights what the Native American community has been concerned about for a long time -- the protection of unmarked graves, that are physically unmarked, but documented in historical records and by the testimony of living descendants. Our state's attorney has said that the
bulldozing at St. Mary's will stop at the first discovery of a human bone, and that any human remains will be reinterred "respectfully." We are thus looking for unmarked graves with bulldozers instead of archaeologists.
Perhaps the absurdity of that position was realized even by our elected officials last week when they finally called in archaeologists to see if unmarked graves had been disturbed. But do we really expect the exacting and delicate work of the archaeologist to be successful when they are working under pressure and after the fact in an area of the cemetery which has been thoroughly plowed and replowed by the bulldozers?
Can we have confidence that data, which could substantiate illegal activity, will really see the light of day, particularly when the county is footing the bill for the archaeological work?
Before the struggle to protect our graveyards is won, the Coalition to Protect Maryland Burials Sites hopes to number among its members every person and organizations in this state who truly care about the plunder of cemeteries that is now taking place. In the meantime, anyone who wants to help those who are fighting, even now in the 11th hour, to save St. Mary's Cemetery, may send their donations to the Coalition (CPMBS), P.O. Box 1533, Ellicott City, 21041.
The desecration at St. Mary's will have widespread and long-term repercussions in Howard County and statewide. Hopefully, it will ignite public outrage at the moral bankruptcy of our elected officials, and the urgent need to change both the law governing burial sites and the officials as well, if they cannot uphold the statutes of our state.
Barbara Sieg is president of Coalition to Protect Maryland Burial Sites.