Howard, Elder descendants debate grave decision Old cemetery facing development threat

August 24, 1991|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Baltimore County Bureau of The Sun

An article in The Sun yesterday about the Howard and Elder families deciding what to do with the graves of their ancestors in a family ceme tery that soon will be surrounded by development incorrectly attributed to William V. Elder a statement made by James Howard. Mr. Howard said his generation and the next may feel the "family obligation" to maintain the burying ground. "But it does not look safe to me for the long term" to leave the graves where they are.

The Sun regrets the error.

The progenitors, God bless 'em! But what to do with them now?

That is the question descendants of two of Maryland's oldest Colonial families -- the Howards and the Elders -- debated yesterday beneath the three tall black walnut trees that shade the graves of 11 ancestors, including Joshua Howard, who brought the family name to America in 1687.

A condominium development is taking shape at Grey Rock, the old Howard family estate on Reisterstown Road just north of the Beltway where Revolutionary War hero John Eager Howard was born in 1752, and its small, stone-walled family cemetery soon will be surrounded by new housing.


Yesterday's debate focused on:

* Whether to leave the graves where they are, with the developer's agreement to repair a breach in the 4-foot fieldstone wall and the old wrought-iron gate, add a new fence and spruce up the plot.

* Or whether to spend at least $20,000 to move the graves to a 12- lot plot at St. Thomas' Episcopal Church at Garrison Forest, where most of the dead were members and which will celebrate its 250th anniversary next year.

Because only 16 family members attended yesterday's hastily called meeting, they decided to wait until a family committee can collate available options and notify other descendants who might wish to offer an opinion.

One outcome of the outdoor get-together was that many of those who attended met relatives for the first time. Others had never seen the cemetery, nor did they even know of its existence.

The original Howard home on the property was razed long ago. The present white-pillared Grey Rock mansion was built in 1858, according to a 1955 article in the Maryland Historical Magazine. It is now a catering hall.

William V. Elder, a curator at the Baltimore Museum of Art, proposed to his relatives that funds be collected in expectation of making a family contribution toward moving the graves or toward erecting a historical marker at the existing site and maintaining it.

James Howard, who led the meeting, was the most ardent advocate for moving the graves.

He opened with a short prayer asking, "May we treat their memory with honor . . . not only as progenitors but as settlers."

Because of the imminent development, the cemetery will almost certainly be "urbanized," he said, and asked: "So should it be fortified or should they go under the oaks at St. Thomas'?"

Depending on shifting family attitudes over the years, Mr. Howard said, the cemetery has gone through periods of maintenance and neglect.

Four of the oldest headstones, including that of Joshua Howard, were replaced in 1952 by family members. The engraving on most of the other thin marble slabs marking the graves of Elders, Howards and Shipleys is nearly illegible, and Mr. Elder said acid in the atmosphere has taken a severe toll in the past 25 years.

He said that his generation and the next may feel the "family obligation" to maintain the burying ground. He added, "But it does not look safe to me for the long term" to leave the graves where they are.

Katharine Washburne, whose lawyer son, Thomas D. Washburne Jr., is negotiating the agreement with developer John Dorment, said she has "agonized" over the possibility of vandalism but quoted a state historical preservation official as saying that abandoned graves are vandals' targets while those that are cared for are not.

Charles White said his Warfield ancestors have a similar "lovely" cemetery in Howard County.

"The example we set here will go a long way toward what our kids do," said Mr. White, who added that he was unaware of the Howard-Elder cemetery until yesterday.

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