Woman is an advocate for the deceased Carroll County genealogist tries to protect graveyards

August 25, 1992|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Staff Writer

Karen Dattilio devotes a good chunk of her daylight hours to the dead.

She tries to find and protect their overlooked graves -- out of appreciation for their historical and cultural significance and respect for the living heirs. A current member and past president of the Carroll County Genealogical Society, the Westminster resident is an advocate for the deceased.

"I work nights and save cemeteries by day," she said about her job as a medical lab technologist and her passion for researching, detecting and recording old graveyards.

And now she's found a cause that hits close to home -- her great-great-great-great-great grandfather Christian Geiman's home.

While researching a family history for a friend, the genealogy buff stumbled across what she believes is the small, obscure cemetery containing the remains of several relatives -- seven generations and nearly 200 years removed.

But, along with her discovery, Ms. Dattilio learned that the burial ground might be in the way of pending development -- the Danlyn subdivision northeast of Westminster -- that the Carroll County government approved in July 1991. Neither the land developer nor county officials have identified the cemetery on subdivision plans or documents, nor have they verified its existence.

Ms. Dattilio is determined to record the cemetery legally to preserve it and to reserve her right to visit it. Her efforts have been stymied so far.

"Somehow or other, [the ancestors] got forgotten," said Ms. NTC Dattilio. "Now that I know it, I won't let it be forgotten."

The issue of disturbing private cemeteries to make way for development drew attention last month when a backhoe unearthed bones from the old St. Mary's Cemetery in the Turf Valley Overlook neighborhood of Howard County. Nearby residents had been fighting for nearly a year to stop the new housing development and protect the racially segregated cemetery.

The year-old Coalition to Protect Maryland Burial Sites is working to increase public awareness and strengthen state laws to ensure that disturbances like the one at St. Mary's won't recur. The coalition has become involved in Ms. Dattilio's struggle, and has urged Carroll officials to ensure that the Christian Geiman cemetery should not be disturbed or desecrated.

"This is happening all over," said Ellicott City resident Barbara Sieg, the coalition's president. "St. Mary's was a disaster. The Geiman cemetery is much smaller, but we still don't want to see it happen" there.

The coalition is drafting statewide legislation to stiffen criminal and civil penalties for disturbing a burial site when "reasonable evidence" suggests that a marked or unmarked cemetery exists. The legislation also would create a Burial Sites Protection Commission in each Maryland jurisdiction to compile data on cemeteries, apprise court clerks of information and act as a watchdog.

"Many burial sites are never marked, or are marked with a wooden cross that has long since disintegrated," Ms. Sieg said. "What we don't see with the naked eye is not the whole picture. We have to be more careful with what we bulldoze, because it could be in the land records."

The General Assembly in 1991 enacted a law that requires Carroll property owners to record in Circuit Court the location of cemeteries. So far, the law has been ineffective because there are no penalties for noncompliance. And, those who don't own the property where a cemetery exists have no authority to record it legally.

Carroll County has between 150 and 180 small family and church cemeteries, many of which don't appear on property records, Ms. Dattilio estimates.

She discovered the burial ground of Christian Geiman, one of Carroll's settlers, by tracing it to property deeds that date to the mid-1800s.

The last reference to the cemetery was in a 1910 deed, she said. When the property was sold in 1943, and again in 1986, the deeds contained no references to a cemetery.

Carroll subdivision regulations require title search information on land agreements and divisions dating to 1963, when the regulations took effect.

Bureau of Development Review chief Franklin G. Schaeffer said neither the current land owner, Carol R. Bare of Westminster, who has plans to develop the property, nor the surveyor provided information about a cemetery.

And, Mr. Schaeffer said, the burial ground was not discovered during field inspections by county officials who reviewed Ms. Bare's plans.

"It might seem strange, but a lot of these cemeteries are not real obvious," Mr. Schaeffer said. "We're not experts at locating cemeteries."

If review officials know of a cemetery, they tell developers to exclude it from building lots, he added.

The Danlyn subdivision, planned for six houses on about 20 acres between Bachman Valley Road and Hoover Mill Road, has been approved and recorded. No lots have been sold yet, Ms. Bare said.

Ms. Bare said she has no knowledge of a Christian Geiman cemetery on the property.

"It there was one, it isn't there now," she said.

If she knew of a cemetery, she would take care not to disrupt it, she said.

Even Ms. Dattilio admits that the burial ground is "not an obvious cemetery." A corner of a wall and a cornerstone are the only remnants that might suggest a cemetery is there, she said.

A county development review official who accompanied her on a recent field inspection of the area said he saw "rocks piled," but couldn't identify it as a cemetery.

Since then, the county has asked Ms. Bare's surveyor to check again for the cemetery and to review old property deeds.

The area where the cemetery is suspected to be isn't included in the subdivision plan, but is recorded as an adjoining, separate parcel which could be built upon, Mr. Schaeffer said.

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