Baltimore's dead have an eloquent advocate

JACQUES KELLY

November 21, 1991|By Jacques Kelly

Jane Bromley Wilson's new book literally leaves no headstone unturned.

Her "The Very Quiet Baltimoreans" is the definitive history of the city's 68 known cemeteries, crypts and burial places, from the one-priest grave on Harford Road to the 200,000 graves at Loudon Park in southwest Baltimore.

"There's been no spokesman here for the dead," she said of her labor-of-love volume of research and writing.

Its title, by the way, was inspired by "The Amiable Baltimoreans," Evening Sun writer Francis Beirne's 1951 work.

Wilson, 57, who lives on tiny Otterbein Street in the Barre Circle neighborhood of southwest Baltimore, was diagnosed with cancer several years ago.

Ill health forced her retirement, but it did nothing to undermine a determination to complete a project she'd envisioned years before.

But why cemeteries? And from an Anne Arundel County librarian who was born in Ontario? "I'm a student of the Victorian era. It was a period when people felt they could accomplish anything. It was a time of enthusiasms. It was also a time of melancholy," she said.

And, while she herself can identify with the Victorian sense of direction and purpose, she also has experienced troubling melancholia during her illness. "Some of the drugs were experimental and made me suicidal," she said.

Many years behind the desk of an Anne Arundel County Glen Burnie branch library made her aware of the questions people have. "The information about cemeteries is so fragmented, so here and there, I decided it needed to be pulled together," she explained. She did the painstaking research, but also infused her work with a sense of place. She clearly walked the paths of Mount Olivet, New Cathedral, Green Mount, Mount Auburn and Hebrew Friendship, to name a few of the spots she documents with photographs, addresses, maps and lively commentary.

Art, architecture, history, religion and landscape design receive their day, too. She notes fine funerary monuments that almost never get mentioned in surveys of local statuary. She chuckles at the ego and pomposity of certain overblown monuments, which must have left their salesmen smiling, too.

Final resting places, she soon discovered, are not necessarily permanent addresses. Many early cemeteries, especially those of the 18th- and 19th-century church-yard variety, often were trampled by neglect, progress and greed. Respect for the sleeping dead often is a joke. Graves had to be moved two or three times as the city exploded. There was nothing sacred about "God's Acre" or the old kirkyard.

"The conquering of death by taking out the sting was accomplished by making rural cemeteries peaceful, romantic and welcoming," she writes in "Quiet Baltimoreans." Baltimore's first large, non-sectarian cemetery was Green Mount, whose first burial was in 1839. It set a standard that was soon emulated by other large tracts that functioned similarly to parks, before the city created public greenswards.

Green Mount Cemetery's most visited grave, by the way, is that of Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth. The Booth family marker is depicted on the book's cover.

Baltimore's Victorian cemeteries abound in the white limestone marble grave markers quarried near Cockeysville. There are angels, gates of heaven, lilies, oak leaves, urns, inverted torches, broken columns, fingers pointing upward, drapes, wheat sheaves, grape clusters, broken chairs, lambs, open Bibles, doves and weeping willow trees, she notes in her excellent introduction.

But Wilson also notes graves of cast iron and artistic bronze statues, many created by Maryland Institute College of Art sculptors, including Hans Shuler and William Henry Rinehart.

This is a book to settle arguments about the locations of obscure family burial plots that dot the city from Dickeyville to Gardenville. There are chapters on Westminster Burying Ground, Old St. Paul's, Baltimore and Loudon Park cemeteries, as well as national (U.S. government), Roman Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and African-American cemeteries, family burial sites, crypts, vanished cemeteries and the burial of strangers and the destitute.

Wilson also serves the cause of neighborhood history well. Just visit the Jerusalem Evangelical Lutheran Church's church yard in the 4600 block of Belair Road to find the families known today as street names -- Berger, Radecke and Markley.

"The Very Quiet Baltimoreans, a Guide to the Historic Cemeteries and Burial Sites of Baltimore," is $30, 130 pages with index, and published by White Mane Publishing Co in Shippensburg, Pa. The book is available at local book stores.

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