Timonium cemetery owner gives families a gift in time of tragedy When children die, burial is provided

February 04, 1997|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

John Armiger, the owner of Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens, watched as a procession of limousines wended its way through the green grounds on a misty January afternoon. Under a tree in the distance sat three caskets holding the bodies of three family members, each from a different generation, who would be buried side by side after a fatal fire.

"You can see, there was quite a large turnout," said Armiger, who shied away from introducing himself to the mourning relatives as the man who offered them free burials in his cemetery. "I don't want to intrude."

The day before, two young children who died by fire also were buried free of charge in Dulaney Valley, a rolling 70-acre landscape set off by a small lake with ducks and geese. Neither family was the first to find a modern-day Good Samaritan when their lives were touched by tragedy.

Since 1978, more than 80 Baltimore-area children -- and two dozen firefighters and police officers -- who lost their lives in fires, murders or accidents have been buried at the Timonium cemetery, compliments of Armiger. Whenever he hears of a child's death from fire or other tragedy he offers grieving families a place to put the child to rest.

"I can only imagine that's the hardest loss to take," said Armiger, a 52-year-old bachelor who grew up in Baltimore County. "It's not the natural order of things. It's terribly difficult to outlive your children."

In his gray double-breasted suit and tortoise-shell eyeglasses, he looks like he might teach history in a prep school, which is what the Yale-educated Armiger did at Gilman School before entering the family business in 1975.

Armiger's late father, John W. Armiger Sr., began the practice of free burials for public-safety officers in an area called the "Fallen Heroes" memorial grounds. Every May, a service is held to honor those who died in the line of duty.

In 1978, when he became president, Armiger applied the same concept to children who die tragic deaths. Deaths by fire are the most common, though he noted, "We have had kids over the years who have been shot

"It's a time when we can help," he said. "Generally, the offer is taken by people who don't have a great deal of funds. When you read about a fire because of a space heater or candles, you know their circumstances are not the greatest."

Counting the cost of donated cemetery spaces in hard dollars and cents would add up to thousands of dollars. "It was a blessing, because we didn't know what we were going to do," said Iris Arrington, who accepted Armiger's gift on behalf of her family last month. "Friends had offered to lend us money to help us handle the expenses."

"He's been a wonderful friend to us," said Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres, spokesman for the Baltimore Fire Department, who frequently has acted as a liaison between Armiger and families.

Part of what motivates Armiger is instilling a sense of community among his employees, whom he praises for readily giving their time to prepare the free burials.

"It's one of the few theories of management I have," said Armiger, "to give people a greater sense of pride in where they work."

Over the years, his generosity has touched many.

Letters saved in a folder portray him as a benefactor.

"This act will be with me as long as I live," wrote one relative, John Gray, who lost five of his family in a 1989 fire.

"Only God could have sent you to us during a time when our family was completely devastated," wrote Evelyn and William Curtis in 1986.

Finally, this: "In a world full of turmoil and misery, I'm very happy to have met a person like you," Dean Addison wrote in 1993.

Pub Date: 2/04/97

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