Old cemetery now an oasis in traffic Annapolis graveyard: By the 1950s, the county had developed streets on all three sides, leaving only curbs between roadways and tombstones.

November 02, 1995|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN STAFF

Rachel E. Phibbons is buried by the No U-turn sign. Jennie Richardson Grimes rests near the Right Turn Only lane. John Franklin Pearson is remembered by the stoplight.

The Luther A. Palmer Memorial Cemetery is a traffic island. It sits where Riva Road meets West Street on the outskirts of Annapolis, a triangle of land squeezed by four-lane roads, left turn lanes and idling cars waiting for lights to change.

"You don't want to pay your respects during any kind of rush hour," said Virgil Carr Jr., 63, whose ancestors are buried at the busy intersection. "You can't hardly cross the street."

The cemetery used to belong to Edward's Chapel, a white clapboard United Methodist church founded in 1895 along a dirt road in farm country. It was named for Luther Palmer, a local businessman who sold the parcel to the church for $5 in 1897.

Shortly after World War II, Anne Arundel County began buying cemetery land to create new traffic lanes. By the 1950s, it had developed roads on all three sides of the cemetery to handle increasing congestion.

In 1980, when the Annapolis Mall opened nearby, the congregation began searching for a quieter locale. Three years later, the church sold its land to a motel chain, moved farther south on Riva Road and renamed itself St. Andrew's. By then, the cemetery had become a median strip.

These days, the cemetery has all the ambience of a roadside pit stop. Tombstones reading Tilghman, Reynolds and Palmer are bordered by markers for 50 East, 301 North and 450 East. Harriet S. Wood's tombstone, inscribed, "She hath done what she could," is illuminated at night by an Econo Lodge sign across Riva Road that promises a free "CONT BRKFST."

The graveyard was empty of visitors one recent lunchtime. But just beyond the curb, a policeman helped unsnarl a fender-bender, a woman honked her car horn near a light on West Street and a man walked his bicycle over the plots on his way to the mall.

And while some silk flowers rested on the graves, so did a baby's dirty diaper and an empty potato chip bag. Broken glass, cigarette butts and empty beer cans lay by the curb, this graveyard's only buffer from the roadway.

To visit the graves, many people circle the cemetery and peer at the tombstones from their cars while at red lights. Or they park at the Econo Lodge and run across three lanes of traffic. Graveside services are rare, although burials continue to take place there.

For people whose family names are on the tombstones, the cemetery exerts a powerful hold.

"My grandfather used to go there with hand tweezers and trim around the stones," said Arthur Bond Tayman, 61, of Davidsonville. "That's one of the last times I have any real memories of him. Keeping up this cemetery is like a moral obligation to me."

Mr. Tayman and a handful of others assumed ownership of the graveyard after the church moved. The group helped move 26 graves to a more private Annapolis cemetery but could not move the bulk of the burial plots, so it collects $1,200 a year to pay for upkeep.

The group once asked the Maryland Historical Trust to take over the graveyard and protect it, but the trust refused.

"It doesn't have great historical value," said Richard Hughes, who heads the trust's archaeology office. But he said the Luther Palmer Cemetery is better protected than thousands of other small family- and church-owned plots in Maryland because it is so public.

Indeed, no incident of vandalism has been reported in recent memory. "It's too visible," Mr. Hughes said.

For many, the graveyard, which has 77 burial plots, is a reminder of the country life that came before the five-lane roads and strip malls.

As late as the 1950s, the area was tobacco farms, dirt roads and a harness track. Roland Carr, who farmed 44 acres nearby, is buried near a cypress tree. He died in 1959 in a fall from his barn.

Roland Carr's grandparents also are buried at the cemetery, along with five other Carrs. His sister-in-law, Nettie Carr, 83, has her name inscribed on a tombstone in the family plot.

When Mrs. Carr visits her husband's grave, she can't hurry across Riva Road fast enough with her walker. So she usually looks at gravesites from the window of her sister's Oldsmobile. "You take your life in your hands if you stop and get out," she said.

Mrs. Carr, who lives in Florida, insists that eventually she will be buried next to her husband.

"I'll be shipped back up here when I go," she said. "I just think when you're gone, you're gone. You're buried. That's it. You go back to dust regardless."

For some Annapolis residents, the cemetery is anything but an island. Dorothy Smith, 77, keeps the obituaries of people buried at the graveyard in two cloth-covered books. She has spent her own money to cut the grass there.

But she worries that once she and other volunteer caretakers die, the cemetery will be forgotten.

"We think about that all the time," she said. "We wonder what will happen in the future."

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