Cemeteries need regulation Neglect intolerable: Mount Auburn resting place not the only one that warrants attention.

March 30, 1997

THE REGULARITY of Carolyn T. Jacobi's complaints about Mount Auburn Cemetery in Baltimore's Westport neighborhood have become almost as certain as death. For years she has lamented its weeds and overgrowth, broken tombstones, and protruding bones. In 1993, $26,000 was raised to make improvements at Mount Auburn, but two years later it was again in bad shape. Volunteers cleaned it up then. It proved a temporary fix.

Mount Auburn is not the only neglected cemetery in Maryland. Its story exemplifies others where the church that operates the graveyard can no longer afford the expense, or where population shifts have left fewer people who really care about the cemetery. Sharp Street Memorial United Methodist Church says not enough funerals occur at Mount Auburn to pay for that graveyard's upkeep.

Such situations suggest a need for better regulation of the cemetery business. There should be some guarantee of minimum perpetual care for families who chose a particular gravesite as a loved one's final resting place. Yet no agency has authority over Maryland cemeteries, not even the health department or Board of Morticians. It is the city Housing Department that has on occasion ordered trash picked up and weeds cut at Mount Auburn.

The history of that cemetery begs that it not be left in such disarray. Once called the "City of the Dead for Colored People," Mount Auburn was founded in 1872 as Maryland's first cemetery for African Americans. Runaway slaves who used the Underground Railroad to escape are buried there. So are Joe Gans, the first black lightweight boxing champion of the world; William Asbie Hawkins, the first black to run for the U.S. Senate, and hotel owner Thomas R. "Tom" Smith, who 80 years ago carried a lot of weight politically in the city.

Baltimore is planning another volunteer cleanup of Mount Auburn as part of its bicentennial celebration. But Ms. Jacobi says that's not enough, and she is right. A campaign should be conducted to raise funds to guarantee perpetual care at Mount Auburn. State legislators should favorably consider several bills before them that would regulate the industry so cemetery operators who allow graveyards to become bone yards are sanctioned.

Pub Date: 3/30/97

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