Final accounting for eternal rest

Graves: An Ellicott City couple lead an attempt to catalog the final resting places of early Howard County residents.

May 30, 2002|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

Traffic on Route 175 zooms by the cemetery, a tiny unkempt patch of grass containing three small tombstones off a slope near the Columbia Restaurant Park.

Two of the tombstones are broken. Only one has a readable inscription - the initials SCL - which Charles and Carolyn Denton lifted from the stone using rubbing paper.

"This was probably a quiet, peaceful country place when they were buried here," Carolyn Denton said, against the roar of a steady stream of passing vehicles.

The Dentons, of Ellicott City, don't know who was buried here, but they speculate the site was a family plot. When they first recorded the location in 1996 as a project for the Howard County Genealogical Society, there were four grave markers, and they wonder what has happened to the missing stone.

For the past four years, the Dentons have been heading the genealogical society's effort to record and publish inscriptions on the county's old tombstones, trudging through overgrown weeds, brush and sometimes poison ivy to uncover the sites.

With the publication of a ninth volume of cemetery records last year, the genealogical society has compiled a record of what it believes to be nearly all of the accessible tombstones erected before 1920, located in more than 180 small cemeteries.

The research has helped preserve the last resting places of an army of Howard dead - an estimated 17,000 individual gravesites - by recording the locations (and names when available) in society records.

The project began more than 25 years ago, when the rural county was beginning to become suburban and the genealogical society feared old burial grounds would be destroyed through development, Charles Denton said.

Members researched county records and worked with churches and the Howard County Historical Society to try to find gravesites. When they came across a stone they couldn't read, they used rubbing paper in an attempt to lift the details.

"It's kind of a bit of detective work," Charles Denton said.

The information from the tombstones recorded by hand was typed up and bound into books. In 1979, the genealogical society published its first volume of cemeteries, containing 33 burial sites. The ninth volume has 32 sites listed with a map marking each location.

"We tried to identify the information that we knew was legible, we didn't try to interpret anything," Charles Denton said. "If we couldn't read it, that information was left blank in the text of the book."

The society provided copies to the Maryland Historical Society, the Library of Congress, the Howard County library and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, both locally and in Salt Lake City.

There isn't necessarily an order to the cemetery books, so the genealogical society is working on a name index to make it easier to find a person buried in the county.

Despite the group's attention to detail, it found that information on the tombstones was not always accurate. Death dates were sometimes not provided (Charles Denton guessed the family possibly couldn't afford that detail), and names were sometimes misspelled.

"Several years ago when people were farmers, education wasn't a priority," Charles Denton said. `The main thrust was on surviving and the family, and education was kind of secondary."

Charles Denton said the genealogical society wanted to record gravesites in the early 1900s because after 1920 cemeteries became more organized, with large gravesites maintained by churches or professional cemeteries that had records. The trend of burying a family in a field behind a farm had faded.

The Dentons have found gravesites in wooded areas, state parks and often on private property, where they would have to persuade the current owners to allow them on the land. Small family plots can range from one grave to more than 10.

Some of the family cemeteries have been maintained by the community or churches, but others have been neglected and overgrown with weeds, probably because the surviving family members have moved away, Carolyn Denton said.

"Places like this, nobody even knows they are here," she said, referring to the site by Route 175.

The genealogical society's project has made important contributions to Howard County Grave Sites Inventory, which was created in 1993 to document the locations of all known cemeteries in the county as a way to protect them, said George Beisser, a Department of Planning and Zoning official who oversees the inventory. State law prohibits disruption of graves.

"It's important to preserve the cemeteries and not act like they're stones that are in the way of a house," said Duane Smith, the genealogical society's vice president. "We consider them historic structures - they're as important as the home and the church because they're monuments."

The genealogical society's efforts have also helped residents expand their family tree research.

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