Respecting sacred sites

Peace: Jean W. Keenan of Ellicott City says she wants others to remember their forebears by caring for their final resting places.

November 01, 1999|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

Jean W. Keenan wishes that people would think about graveyards year-round, not just on Halloween.

If only they paid more attention, she says, no Maryland grave would be forgotten, vandalized, desecrated, or bulldozed to make way for development.

If only they cared, she, as president of the Ellicott City-based Coalition to Protect Maryland Burial Sites, wouldn't have to work quite so hard all the time, or worry quite so much about it.

But Keenan hears about gravesite problems, of one kind or another, all the time. Though she's hardly the rabble-rousing type -- she's a soft-spoken grandmother of 10 -- she spends most of her time in the middle of it all, persuading here, giving a speech there, traveling to the State House in Annapolis to call for stronger laws.

"I have a great respect for my ancestors, all ancestors," Keenan said. "They certainly had a lot to do with the building of this country and different communities, and I would hope that someday, somebody would do the same for me."

When Keenan, 72, retired from teaching 15 years ago, she expected to read, travel, indulge her love for genealogy, maybe write a family history. Instead, she says, she has spent most of the time volunteering.

Since she became president of the coalition two years ago, the dead have all but taken over her life.

Keenan has bushwhacked through abandoned graveyards, pored over property records, given countless talks before school and community groups. She has spent hours in front of her computer, putting out a quarterly newsletter, "The Coalition Courier." She handles a steady stream of phone calls from people seeking advice about burial sites and has been involved in four major disputes involving graveyard desecration.

Her calendar has so many scribbles it's hard to find any white space, and her car has a bumper sticker that says it all: "I brake for old graveyards."

Keenan is also a longtime member of the Howard County Cemetery Advisory Board, which works with the county Department of Planning and Zoning to identify and protect the county's nearly 200 known cemeteries.

Stephen R. Bockmiller, a planner in the department, said if it weren't for Keenan and volunteers like her, the state's cemeteries would not have nearly the protection they have now.

"The dead sometimes need someone to speak for them," he said.

Speaking for the dead can be a thankless job.

On a recent morning, Keenan drove from her Ellicott City home across the river to Oella to look at a graveyard where many former Oella Mill workers are buried. She had heard a complaint about the graveyard being neglected and thought she could be of help.

But when she got there, it looked in good shape and she found out somebody had already volunteered to clean it up.

"Why did they call me then?" she asked, sounding more baffled than annoyed.

After that, Keenan drove back to Ellicott City to look at an abandoned graveyard off Old Frederick Road. She wanted to find out who owns the land, now a vast tangle of weeds, and get somebody -- perhaps Boy Scouts -- to clean it up. But no sooner had she gotten out of her car than a neighbor came to tell her that he didn't appreciate what she was doing. He said he'd rather look at weeds than graves.

Keenan was kind but firm. She would continue with her work.

A long, hard job

After that, Keenan got back into her car and headed to a surveyor's office to see if she could find out who owned the land. It took her a while to find the office, and then it took the surveyors a while to find the maps.

Three hours later, her work wasn't done. She would have to make phone calls, determine ownership, see if she could find relatives who cared whether the cemetery was cleaned.

When a graveyard is tidy, Keenan doesn't expect anybody to thank her for it. She doesn't do it for the compliments. She does it because she has a strong sense of history and a deep respect for the dead.

Keenan's ancestry in Maryland dates to the 1600s and she is a descendant of the Snowdens and the Warfields, two prominent early families. She regularly goes to visit four of her family graveyards in Western Howard County, and is a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution and the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

Keenan has been involved in countless small graveyard disputes and at least four big ones, all involving developers on the Eastern Shore. Her biggest project has been helping to create a statewide database of burial sites that will make it easier for developers to locate gravesites on property they buy.

Legal recourse

Last spring, the Maryland legislature defeated two bills that would have strengthened graveyard laws; Keenan blames the defeats on the strong development lobby, and plans to try again this year.

"Not all developers are evil," said Barbara Sieg, a good friend of Keenan's and founder of the coalition that Keenan now heads.

"No," agreed Keenan, "but some try to get away with more than they should."

Keenan admits she sometimes worries about the future of the 100-or-so member group. These days, she said, people are so busy that few can find the time to volunteer, even for a good cause. Because fewer people live in one place for long, she said, they are less likely to visit their families' cemeteries or take an active role in their preservation.

"A lot of people don't care," she said. "They figure, once you're dead, you're dead."

Keenan worries especially, she says, because she plans to step down as president in April.

"I'd love to continue on," she said with a touch of weariness, "but I just can't." After 15 years of procrastinating, she said, she's ready to get started on that family history.

As to who will take her place, Keenan said she doesn't know. The coalition's board already has several openings.

"It's like any other organization," she said. "It's hard to get people to commit."

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