Neglected church cemeteries

July 31, 1995

Mount Auburn Cemetery in Westport has gotten a lot of negative publicity in recent years for its poor condition. But it's not the only church cemetery in such a sorry state. Similar complaints, for example, have been made about Mount Olivet Cemetery on Frederick Avenue. In such cases, the churches that own those properties have an obligation to see that the cemeteries do not become an additional source of pain to the bereaved.

As the owner of Mount Auburn Cemetery, Sharp Street Memorial United Methodist Church should provide for the cemetery's perpetual care. But Mount Auburn is not a typical case. As the first black cemetery founded in Maryland, it is the final resting place for some of the most prominent African-Americans to live in Baltimore. It is an important part of local and state history, which gives other churches and institutions a good reason to be involved.

The Rev. Bruce Haskins, pastor of Sharp Street, says the cemetery is no longer "income producing." But there is an occasional burial there. That may not generate enough to keep the 33-acre cemetery in good shape. But its degree of neglect indicates little money has gone toward even routine care.

Two years ago more than $26,000 was raised to improve the cemetery. But 6th District Councilman Melvin L. Stukes said it took all that money to keep it groomed that summer. Too bad some of the money was not used to start a perpetual care fund.

But it's not too late to begin a new drive with that goal. Certainly many families with loved ones buried in Mount Auburn will want to be involved, as will others who care about the historic significance of the cemetery as well as the city and state. But the leadership needs to come from Sharp Street, to make sure this project doesn't become another one-time shot in the arm.

No regulatory agency, either on the local or state level, has direct authority over cemeteries. Not the Health Department. Not the Board of Morticians. The city Department of Housing and Community Development did cite Mount Auburn for high weeds and grass, but only after complaints were made. Without the threat of inspection or sanction, other church cemeteries in Maryland -- which, unlike private cemeteries, aren't required to provide perpetual care -- are also in poor condition.

Something should be done about that. Often the only solace for the living is going back to the place where they last shared a moving experience with a deceased loved one. The neglected condition of burial grounds such as Mount Auburn mars such moments. The living and the dead deserve better.

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