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A 'Dance of the Forest' at Arbutus Memorial Park


IN the play "A Dance of the Forest," written by Wole Soyinka of Sierra Leone, the living meet in the forest with their ancestors. The living see in their ancestors only themselves: the brave, the gentle, the flamboyant, the helpers, the hurters.

That is what happens each Memorial Day at Arbutus Memorial Park on Sulphur Spring Road in Arbutus, when family and friends of the dead gather with each other and their ancestors.

Surrounded by the tiny black community once known as Cowtown, "Arbutus," as it is called now, opened in 1936 to "coloreds" who wanted the finest in perpetual care for their loved ones but who couldn't be interred in "white" cemeteries. In the 1940s, a corporation of several stockholders, the Lloyd E. Mitchell Co., bought out the original owners of what had been the Francis estate.

Families who lost their men in World War II and their children to diphtheria and meningitis could now buy spaces on an installment plan and be reasonably assured that their final resting places would be side-by-side. Burials in space provided half a century ago are still occurring.

Arbutus, with its deep valleys and rolling hills, is as lovely a memorial park as any. By Memorial Day this year, tall oaks and beeches, weeping willow and red maple trees will be in full bloom. Shrubbery and flowers enhance Arbutus' "park" image. There are no unequally jutting tombstones to mar the beauty of the landscape. Bronze-on-granite markers are placed flush to the ground, at the heads of burial sites, where they glisten on a sunny day. More than 30,000 people are buried at Arbutus. Most of them are black, but a number of whites have seen the park's beauty and have decided to remain here, too.

Last Memorial Day brought a great influx of visitors to Arbutus for the "Dance of the Forest." Most were looking for a mother, a father, a child or some other departed loved one. Often, they found much more. Here's Lillie Carroll Jackson, the civil rights leader. There's Emerson Julian, the physician and politician. Here's Coach Talmadge Hill of Morgan State University. Here's Henry Parks of Parks Sausage, the Rev. Theodore Jackson from the old Gillis Memorial Church, and William "Box" Harris, the first black U.S. marshal.

Baltimore history came alive as they wandered about, looking at the graves of slaves (re-interred at Arbutus after their original burying place was torn up for a highway), criminals, accident victims, victims of crimes, babies. Here (in graves donated by the cemetery) are the six children of Tonya Lucas who were killed last year in an East Baltimore rowhouse fire she is accused of setting. (Her first trial ended in a hung jury.) There is the grave of 6-year-old Tiffany Smith, killed by a stray bullet while she was playing near her Baltimore home in 1991. The incident prompted her aunt, Marlene Foote-White, to compose a public statement about the separate shootings of three of her family members. All three rest at Arbutus Memorial Park.

The living who come to meet the dead next Monday will meet the living as well. They'll see friends and family from the old neighborhoods, the old jobs, the old schools and the old churches. This is Arbutus Memorial Park's Dance of the Forest, renewed each Memorial Day.

Naomi Henry Larrance is a counselor at Arbutus Memorial Park.

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