Barbara Sieg stoops to pluck weeds off a 19th-century headstone, glances at the tenacious undergrowth she couldn't hope to attack that day and sees enough work to keep her busy the rest of her life.
"It's maintenance-intensive, this place is," she says, looking around Whipps Cemetery, the old Ellicott City graveyard she has tended for a decade and a half.
Sieg, 64, fights time and nature as the volunteer caretaker of the oasis among houses, which she and others rescued from undergrowth and trash in 1986. She organizes volunteers. She asks for donations. She spends her money - more than $3,000 this year alone - so the 1-acre home of the dead will live on.
She hopes Whipps' life will outlast hers. But when she had a stroke last year and couldn't compete with the weeds for several months, she began worrying that nature will take over after she is gone.
After years of activism on behalf of old family cemeteries in Maryland, which aren't kept up by the government, Sieg has seen what happens when people cease to care. Some sites are lost to development. Others simply disappear under weeds, scrub and trees.
The majority of Howard County's 190 known cemeteries are old family plots, according to a county inventory. At least some are in disrepair.
Whipps, which is open to the public, does have good protection against that fate: The land was turned over to a nonprofit organization by descendants of the Whipps, a family of blacksmiths who bought the site in 1833. Family members and Ellicott City residents sit on the cemetery's board of directors.
The rub, Sieg says, lies in whether this will be enough, whether people will care consistently through the years or let the cemetery slip away.
It's this uncertainty that makes her wish that government officials would keep up old cemeteries if volunteers don't.
"I tell you, I'm not getting any younger," Sieg said. "It gets harder and harder. I would love if Howard County would help just a little bit. ... People need peace, quiet and green space, and a place to say: `I'm going to stop the world and get off.'"
Stephen Bockmiller, the Department of Planning and Zoning's staff liaison to the Howard County Cemetery Preservation Advisory Board, agrees that these cemeteries are valuable.
The headstones alone, he said, are "historical documents."
But the county doesn't fund the upkeep of historic homes, either, he said.
However, people who repair old cemeteries can be eligible for property tax credits.
Ellen Oppenheimer, who lives in Ellicott City and, like Sieg, has tended to Whipps Cemetery for 14 years, thinks it is up to people living nearby to maintain the site. Even adopting one grave would help, she said.
"We're the only hope that it's taken care of," she said.
Whatever Whipps Cemetery's future, it is undeniably beautiful now, weeds and all.
Tall trees shelter the parcel from the sight of cars on busy St. John's Lane, and filter the light in a way that seems fitting for a place of both life and death. Mulched pathways surround islands of greenery and headstones. The air is cool.
The cemetery has about 50 marble gravestones, some broken by time and repaired by volunteers, many with blurred inscriptions.
Marble doesn't last; it "sugars," falling apart grain by grain.
Verses that can still be read speak of God's will, the afterlife and the importance of letting go. But the broken flowers carved on markers for those whose lives were cut short speak volumes about how their loved ones felt.
Sieg walks among the graves, ripping honeysuckle off a child's headstone and making mental notes of work that looms - from the weeding to the iron gate that needs painting again. It can be frustrating, she said.
But what visions she has for the place, which is a few blocks from her Ellicott City home.
"In my mind's eye, I can see how beautiful it could be with just a little more support," she said, glancing around. "I see it as a spot of beauty, of eternity, of tranquility, of immense possibility."
It is this dream that prompted her in 1991 to help form the Coalition to Protect Maryland Burial Sites, a group that has lobbied for stronger cemetery preservation laws and helps those who want to take care of graveyards.
Jean Keenan, an Ellicott City resident who for two years headed the coalition, said its efforts are important not just from a historical standpoint but an ethical one.
"The people who have gone before us are trusting us to take care of their graves," she said.
Sieg hopes her work at Whipps Cemetery will endure. But she's not leaving it at that. She's started writing two books, one about the cemetery and the other about the preservation coalition.