'Each Tombstone Is A Capsule Of History'

December 15, 1993|By Amy P. Ingram | Amy P. Ingram,Contributing Writer

Emily Holland Peake will never forget the day, at age 5, that her mother dragged her "kicking and screaming" to a cemetery in South County.

That was the day, she said, her fascination with graveyards began.

"Cemeteries are very interesting places," said the 66-year-old Annapolis woman. "Each tombstone is a capsule of history. And this is the history I want to learn."

Mrs. Peake has spent 25 years in Maryland graveyards trying to piece together her family history. Her studies of tombstones in more than 100 cemeteries has helped her locate deceased family members and put dates to names.

But she's not keeping her unusual hobby to herself. She's also sharing her love for genealogy and cemeteries with seniors at the South County Senior Center in Edgewater.

Last year, the center hired her as its first genealogy instructor. In a 10-week course, she teaches seniors how to trace their family history.

She suggests they consult the state library, Hall of Records and archives. She shows them them how to work through those sometimes confusing places.

But, she said, that can be time-consuming and most seniors don't want to do heavy research. That's why she suggests touring graveyards in the areas where the deceased once lived.

"It's fun to visit these places and see the unique architecture," she said. "And at the same time, you may come across a family member you never knew about."

Studying tombstones, she said, has helped her learn about the personality of her family.

Tombstones are reflections of family taste, she said. Tombstones that are elaborately decorated show great love and respect for the deceased, while plain tombstones usual say the family is private and quiet about death.

Most of her own family's tombstones were "nothing special," she said, although they always had a message of love or peace scrawled across the bottom.

"They had average human perceptions on death," she said of her family.

Through her graveyard studies, Mrs. Peake discovered a female ancestor of hers hid Confederate naval officer John Taylor Wood, "The Gray Ghost of the Confederate Navy," from union soldiers during the Civil War. Wood was former President Zachary Taylor's grandson.

But Mrs. Peake warns people researching their family history.

"There are skeletons in everyone's closets. If you don't want to find them, don't start looking," she said.

Mrs. Peake has created a slide show, "Angels and Other Forms," on the value of graveyard study. The slides will be shown Jan. 6 at the South County Senior Center.

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