A Gathering Place


First you see the memorial with its relief of a firefighter and a police officer rising like an altar on the green lawn. Then you notice flower vases marking the graves. Some blooms are fresh: pink, yellow, white, the cellophane still around them. Others are dry reedy stalks that whisper the connections between living and dead. As you look across the cemetery, the lawn seems to rise and fall ever so slightly like a feathered quilt. Geese fly toward the pond. There is new growth on the oak trees.

It is early evening. From your seat on the granite bench you can also lift your eyes to the distant sight of rush hour in Timonium: All those cars with tired, hungry and out-of-sorts drivers, all those people heading home to throw together dinner or complain about work, all those lucky, lucky people.

This view at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens is from the bench dedicated to the late Baltimore County police officer, Sgt. Bruce Prothero. It is a place to take a deep breath and renew your commitments. It is a place to sit together with friends, for however long it takes, before going back to your own home to try all over again.

This section of the cemetery is dedicated to fallen heroes and their spouses. Since it opened 25 years ago, 37 police officers and firefighters have been buried here. And today, as on each first Friday of May, the public they served will honor their sacrifices - as well as those of all Maryland public safety servants who have died protecting others.

Gordon Wheeler enjoyed going to Fallen Heroes Day when the weather permitted. Eighty-one years old, he had planned to go again last year, his widow says, but he died the Tuesday before the ceremony. The former firefighter was buried that Friday, just before all the people came, right next to the ground set aside for colleagues who had lost their lives in the line of duty.

The plot he chose bears witness to how deeply Wheeler honored his profession, a respect that is echoed over and over at the Fallen Heroes area by the regular visits of firefighters and police officers.

"It's the camaraderie [of the firefighting profession] that makes it all worthwhile," says Wheeler's friend Arthur Cayce, a retired firefighter who purchased a plot up the hill. "It's the excitement and the camaraderie. Once you leave it, you don't really forget it. You miss the guys you work with."

This cemetery, it turns out, is all about a feeling of community. The rolling 70-acre site reunites relatives, friends and colleagues. There is a place where many firefighters and their families are buried. There is a "field of honor" section for veterans and a gentle slope for infants. Catholics often choose the garden of the Holy Cross near the larger-than-life sculpture of Michelangelo's "Pieta." Korean families cluster near the top of a hill that faces due east. Many Italians are entombed in the walls of the mausoleum. A tour of the cemetery suggests that death, like life, is more rewarding if you spend it with the right companions.

There have been about 19,000 burials and entombments here since Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens opened, says owner John Armiger Jr. His father founded the cemetery in 1958. It was the Eisenhower era, a time that could not imagine the future preferences of the Korean community. Or the need for an area dedicated to service men and women killed by terrorists.

Or the day when so many new arrivals would merit motorcades and honor guards.

In 1976, John Armiger Sr. reserved 330 burial spaces for fallen heroes and their spouses. Ten years later, his son established the annual tradition of honoring them. And this afternoon, the Rev. Frank Reid, pastor of Baltimore's historic Bethel AME Church, will speak to citizens who, like Gordon Wheeler once did, have traveled to this sacred place.

Since last year's ceremony, nine police officers and two volunteer firefighters have died. There are now nine granite benches here, more than in any other section of the cemetery. They are the gifts of survivors. The latest arrived yesterday. It marks the 25th anniversary of the death of Baltimore city police officer Jimmy Halcomb.

The benches relate what survivors know: The need to bring someone with you, knees that can no longer take all the standing, the visits in winter. They are part of the painful understanding that binds this growing community - and sets it apart from all others.

The memorial service begins at 1 p.m. today at the Fallen Heroes Memorial inside Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens, 200 E. Padonia Road in Timonium. The opening procession will include more than 25 honor guards, mounted units, bagpipers and drummers. Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger are expected to take part.

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