Woman monitoring cemetery discovers bones, casket protruding from earth Worker acknowledges site is unkempt, denies graves are recycled

March 26, 1997|By Cheryl L. Tan | Cheryl L. Tan,SUN STAFF

The scene was right out of a B-grade horror movie: an old cemetery choked with overgrown weeds and dead shrubs, mounds of recently dug-up earth with a human bone sticking out and a rusted casket protruding. But this wasn't the big screen.

The human bone and protruding casket were on the startling list of objects Carolyn T. Jacobi, a cemetery regulations advocate and self-appointed watchdog, found while walking around Mount Auburn Cemetery in Westport yesterday.

Jacobi, who has been monitoring Mount Auburn for two years, also found a mud-encased cloth that she believes is a shroud. She said Monday she found another mound of earth with human leg bones sticking out.

These objects, Jacobi said, made her suspicious that Mount Auburn management could be digging up old graves and reselling the plots, and she is lobbying city officials to investigate her charges.

"There is no other reason this casket would be mangled and sitting up like that," Jacobi said. "You think: Whose mother, whose father, whose sister, whose brother, whose children were in that casket?

"Would you want to bury your loved one here if you didn't know what was going to happen to them in five or 10 years?"

Virginia Clark, manager of the cemetery's office of records, denied Jacobi's allegations.

"She's lying," she said. "The grass needs cutting and some graves need filling in, but we don't recycle no graves. We know the cemetery is in bad shape. We're doing the best we can with what we have."

Based on the information Jacobi has provided, it is hard to determine whether Mount Auburn cemetery officials are recycling graves, said Sarah Rex, president of the Maryland Free State Cemetery and Funeral Association.

"Ms. Jacobi has some legitimate concerns about the quality of the cemetery, but to really prove the recycling of the graves, you'd need a court order to examine the records and do disinterments," said Rex.

The 33-acre cemetery, founded in 1872 and managed by Sharp Street Memorial United Methodist Church, is known among historians as "City of the Dead for Colored People." Many prominent African-Americans are buried there, including Joseph Gans, the first black lightweight boxing champion of the world. The cemetery, however, also has been known for its unkempt grounds. Two years ago, the cemetery management was forced to round up 200 volunteers to clean up the place under orders from the Baltimore Department of Housing and Community Development.

Jacobi said her recent findings require more than just another "superficial cleanup."

"I'm going to fight," she said. "The church cemetery needs to be regulated, and there needs to be a penalty or fine."

Reginald Scriber, a Department of Housing and Community Development executive director, said he will be looking into the issue. He said his department has been monitoring Mount Auburn management since the last big cleanup in 1995 and will be helping it with one scheduled for May 3.

"It's something we don't take lightly," he said.

Clinton R. Coleman, a spokesman for Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, said the cemetery cleanup will be a priority during a daylong volunteer effort involving several projects May 3 in commemoration of Baltimore's bicentennial. But Schmoke also would insist that the church "is going to have to turn it over to private management so that it doesn't deteriorate to its present condition again in the future," Coleman said.

Pub Date: 3/26/97

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