After years, a man's search for kin's grave is put to rest

Search for kin's grave is put to rest

September 17, 2005|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

For years, it gnawed at Bill Huber that he didn't know the final resting place of his father's sister, who died a toddler a century ago.

When he visits for holidays, the Shelbyville, Del., resident and self-described "cemetery person" makes it a point to go to the graves of other relatives in Maryland. But he could not pay respects to Catherine Louise Huber, who died in 1904 in South Baltimore at age 3. Nobody in the family knew where she had been buried, or what she died of.

"Some of us were told a story that someone came into the house on Halloween and they had on a rubber mask or some scary mask, and she jumped or ran and fell down the stairs into a coal bin," Huber, 65, said. "I also heard she was recovering from diphtheria."

Today, three years after Huber began an exhaustive journey through official documents, church ledgers and the recollections of relatives, he will finally pay his respects to his aunt. Before a reunion, Catherine Huber's extended family will gather at her grave just south of Baltimore for a memorial service and unveiling of a gravestone.

Her seven siblings are long gone, but some of their offspring are expected to attend. They include a first cousin from Mobile, Ala. -- he didn't know Catherine had existed until Huber told him three years ago -- and a nephew from Philadelphia who, as a retired Lutheran pastor, will lead the service with the minister of the church that succeeded the one the Huber family attended a century ago.

With this, Huber, a former Pasadena resident and one-time funeral director, said he can exhale a sigh of relief.

"I knew she was born. I knew she lived. And I knew she died. I didn't know anything about her," he said. "Now at least I know where she is resting. Everyone else in the family has a grave marker, and now she has, too."

Yesterday, as he gazed down at the simple gray stone, Huber said he would cover it for today's unveiling with a family heirloom to symbolically draw her close to her kin. The tablecloth he will use was embroidered by Catherine's sister, Elizabeth, who was 4 years old when Catherine died.

Interest in genealogy exploded after Alex Haley's Pulitzer Prize-winning book Roots was turned into a television miniseries in 1977. Now, Web sites and a tremendous amount of digitized information exist, in addition to the mainstay of paper records, said Michael McCormick, director of reference services for the Maryland State Archives.

The same pastime also lures people to cemeteries.

"We have many families that come in and do genealogy," said Betty Rose, a family service counselor at Cedar Hill Cemetery, where Catherine is buried. "But to step up to the plate and put a marker on a baby or someone who has been buried 100 years, that is the exception."

When Huber started his quest, he figured he'd be able to find information about Catherine's grave in records of the family's church, St. James Church in Baltimore. After a merger, it is now SS. Stephen and James Evangelical Lutheran Church.

"We were unable to find a burial in the church records," he said. "So we don't know that she ever really had a funeral."

But he had heard from his father and an aunt that Catherine was buried at Cedar Hill, along Ritchie Highway in Brooklyn Park, where his grandfather was buried. So he asked there. Nothing. (The record turned out to be misfiled.) He called funeral homes. Nothing.

Two years ago, stymied, he sought advice from a cousin on the other side of the family.

Audrey Bagby of Pasadena wrote the book on Cedar Hill, literally. She worked on two books published in the 1990s -- one compiling records on Cedar Hill's gravestones, the other internent ledgers.

Significantly more people are buried there than have grave markers, Bagby noted. At the nearly 70-acre Cedar Hill, the interment book, at 386 pages including the index, is 100 pages longer than the gravestone book.

When Huber called Bagby, she opened the interment tome.

"I went through the index and I said, `Bill, she is in GG-wherever it was at,'" Bagby said. "The child didn't have a stone."

Why the grave was unmarked and gone from family memory remains a question.

"A lot of children's graves were unmarked because the parents didn't have the money," Bagby said.

When Huber returned to the cemetery with the exact location, the records were found. He said Catherine was buried Nov. 2, 1904, a day after she died, and he wonders if the Halloween fall contributed to her death.

In the summer of 2003, Huber strode into the state archives in Annapolis and found Catherine's death certificate. It said she died of diphtheria, which was rampant in the early 1900s.

Over two years, he asked his kin to contribute for a marker for Catherine.

"I said the child was not known to us, but she was our aunt," Huber said. "I feel like the least we could do is see that she has a tombstone."

"Finally poor little Catherine will have a stone and a service," Huber said. "And I will be at peace."

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