Dispute at St. Mary's Cemetery

July 22, 1992

Residents of Turf Valley Overlook in Howard County are delighted that a construction crew building two homes at the site of a nearby cemetery unearthed human remains this week. Now they can say, "I told you so," and insist with renewed vigor that the project be halted.

But the battle over St. Mary's Cemetery has never been over which side was right about the possibility that human remains would be uncovered. The county and state's attorneys office, which allowed the project to go forward, both dispatched archaeologists to the site assuming that such a possibility existed.

Now that human bones have been found, work will stop temporarily but will undoubtedly move ahead in accordance with Maryland law. That law offers limited protection for gravesites. Tombs and tombstones cannot be disturbed without possible penalty, nor can remains be upset. But when the cemetery is old and time and the elements have masked its exact location, the law becomes an insufficient tool for preservation.

Such are the limitations faced by Howard County State's Attorney William R. Hymes, who correctly asserts that even when human remains are found, there is no provision that requires that the project be halted.

But if that were to happen, attempts would have to be made to find a descendant of the deceased. That would be difficult in this instance. Many of those buried at St. Mary's were interred 100 or more years ago, often without markers. The next step would be to inter the remains elsewhere at the expense of the developer.

Tempers have been inflamed over this situation. So heated has the controversy become over this long-abandoned cemetery that when a Catholic priest told residents he was satisfied that every step was being taken to ensure no remains were disturbed, residents of Turf Valley Overlook responded by pelting him with obscenities.

Given such vitriol, we assume the time for compromise has long since passed.

Admittedly, the idea of building homes at the site of a cemetery appears dubious. Who would want to live in those homes is also a mystery, although at the right price, probably anything can sell. And plenty can be wondered about the Roman Catholic Church's decision to sell the property to a developer in the first place.

But local residents should not feel too gleeful over this latest discovery of bones. The fact is this is not the first time a cemetery has been trampled by the march of development. History is riddled with such instances. Given state law, St. Mary's Cemetery may become just another example.

At some point, the opponents of this project may simply have to let the matter rest in peace.

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