Workshop covers past and present of resting places

Cemetery buffs learn about preservation, gravestone trends

July 30, 2000|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

Historic cemetery buffs are a tough bunch to sell on the beauty of Mack trucks engraved in headstones.

But Dennis Montagna gave it his best shot yesterday as he addressed a standing-room-only crowd at a cemetery preservation workshop in Annapolis. After decades of markers designed with easy mowing and uniformity in mind, he said, the "death-care" industry is pushing personalization.

"Trucks are big," said Montagna, who directs monument research and preservation for the National Park Service, as he clicked through slides of shiny new headstones for dearly departed truck drivers.

Most of the 60 people in attendance at the workshop - sponsored by the Maryland Commission for Celebration 2000, the Maryland Historical Trust and Preservation Maryland - had come to learn how to take care of old markers.

There were plenty of tips on what to do - or mostly, what not to do - for crumbling sandstone or splintering slate. There were tutorials on cataloging a cemetery's contents and hints on making the most of scarce preservation funds. The group walked through St. Anne's Cemetery in Annapolis to admire headstones dating from 1793 and mourn the damage done by time and Hurricane Floyd.

Yet Montagna also made a pitch for appreciating the cultural value of modern-day cemetery trends.

His audience groaned at a picture of a marker decorated with a Shell Oil truck, but Montagna said this, too, will have historic value someday.

"I think these will look very interesting 100 years from now, when we don't remember what these trucks look like anymore," he said.

Technology has made it possible to sandblast a range of pictures - even photographs - into stones, and a lot of graveyards "just don't know how to deal with this," Montagna said.

Some Catholic cemeteries have started limiting headstone engravings to flowers or religious images, he said. So people are camouflaging the likes of cabin cruisers behind flowers also carved into the stones - just as early Christians surreptitiously incorporated religious symbols in their sculptures, he said.

Montagna also showed slides of modern graves decorated with plastic daisy pinwheels and dolls. Another picture showed Mount Auburn Cemetery in Baltimore, where, according to African-American and Caribbean tradition, relatives place fruit and water bottles around the graves and in nearby trees. The idea, Montagna said, is to provide sustenance in the afterlife.

Montagna urged the group to take pictures of such trinkets and offerings, creating a record that will tell future generations as much about our culture as fading inscriptions on old stones inform us about days gone by.

"This is very ephemeral," he said.

History is slipping away at older cemeteries, too, and that seemed to be the chief concern of those who paid $25 for the seven-hour workshop at the Louis L. Goldstein Treasury Building.

Interest in the program was so strong that organizers had to turn several people away because the meeting room could not hold any more.

The workshop was offered through Save Maryland's Treasures, a program to draw attention to the state's historic sites. The program, which does not provide cemetery preservation funds, is part of Maryland 2000, a yearlong celebration of Maryland's heritage and future.

Michael Trinkley, a preservationist from Columbia, S.C., warned the group against trying to make historic cemeteries "like new." Bleaching and other harsh chemical cleaners can do more damage than good, he said.

Mary Poyner of Edgewood said the workshop convinced her that some dead limbs need to be trimmed from trees in the 150-year-old cemetery at her church, Calvary United Methodist in Churchville.

Dorothy Brault of Rockville, a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, said she got some good tips, too. But Brault wasn't won over by those newfangled headstones - even though the marker on her great-great-great-great-great-grandfather's western Massachusetts grave identifies what he did for a living.

Elihu Wright's stone memorialized him as a doctor. But plastering a truck on a headstone is something else entirely, she said.

"Well," Brault said, "I'm a traditionalist."

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