Saving those who cannot speak

Teacher seeks to preserve Harford's abandoned, forgotten cemeteries

October 28, 2007|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,special to the sun

Amid thorns and brush, two headstones belonging to Civil War veterans jut up from an abandoned cemetery near Havre de Grace.

Just off Route 155 near Elizabeth Street, the cemetery sits atop a hill surrounded by woods, hidden from passers-by.

Known as Cedar Hill, the cemetery is one of many abandoned burial grounds in Harford County. While the cemeteries are swallowed slowly by nature, marred by vandals and buried by development, a growing effort is being made to preserve gravesites and the history they represent.

That's what drew Gary Wasielewski, a teacher at Havre de Grace High School, to Cedar Hill. A student showed Wasielewski the cemetery a few years ago.

"I wanted to learn more about it and find out why it had faded away," said Wasielewski, 32, who teaches archaeology, a class being piloted at the school this year.

Wasielewski thought the cemetery provided an ideal opportunity for his students. Established about 1832, Cedar Hill was sold to Havre de Grace in the 1830s and was later abandoned.

After 1945, the site no longer appeared on city maps, Wasielewski said.

"It was a paupers' plot," he said. "It was a burial place for people who didn't have money or family to claim them and pay for a burial."

Despite the modest nature of its occupants, the cemetery is rich in history, he said. According to newspaper accounts, Civil War veteran Casper Smith, who is buried in the cemetery, was a captain on the schooner Shelldrake, which he took to Baltimore. When Smith didn't return to Havre de Grace at the scheduled time, the ship owner went to Baltimore and found that he had been murdered by his first mate, who was sentenced to 18 years in prison for the crime.

A former member of the City Council, Wasielewski urged the city to designate money to help restore the property.

While land and history surveys are completed, the students are researching the cemetery and putting together a preservation plan, he said.

"This project is about keeping history alive," he said. "It's about making sure that people will remember the people buried there."

There are about 238 known cemeteries in the county, said Jon "Harlan" Livezey, an Aberdeen resident who has spent about 40 years recording information on headstones in every known cemetery in Harford.

On visits to cemeteries, Livezey has seen broken, cracked and missing headstones, graves covered with tree roots, headstones that were half-buried and overgrown with vegetation, he said. And many of the repairs couldn't be done by volunteers, he said.

In recent years companies that specialize in cemetery preservation have become more prevalent. But cemetery preservation can be too costly for nonprofits, churches and individuals looking to restore a small cemetery, said Robert Mosko, the owner of Mosko Cemetery Monument Services, based in Hanover, Pa.

Obtaining an estimate can take a week to six months, he said. A general headstone cleaning costs $115 to $1,000, and straightening a tilting stone can cost $80 to $5,000, he said.

The decline of a cemetery begins when the stream of visitors tails off, Livezey said.

"The last family member dies, or the land is sold, and a farmer plows the cemetery under," Livezey said. "In most cases there aren't any official, formal, legal records of these abandoned cemeteries. So the cemetery is lost forever."

Abandoned cemeteries also are easy targets for vandals, resulting in damaged or even stolen headstones, he said.

"There have been times when I have been in a cemetery documenting the information on the stones and I come across headstones that are in the wrong cemetery," he said. "People steal the headstone and then throw it out on the side of the road. Someone finds it and takes it back to the closest cemetery."

Recordkeeping problems also exist with old cemeteries. Getting them documented and listed on tax maps so developers and landowners are aware of them is a common issue, said Gary Kraske, president of the Coalition to Protect Maryland Burial Sites, a nonprofit formed in 1991.

"Covenants in land records are ignored or overlooked, and burial sites are being disturbed or destroyed during development," said Kraske, 69, a Columbia resident.

Grave markers also are being damaged, destroyed or removed, and cemeteries are being covered up or relocated without the knowledge or approval of the family of the deceased, he said. And in many cases, no official inventory or register of burial sites exists, he said.

The Historical Society of Harford County is working on a computerized database of cemeteries and who is buried in them. Without permanent documentation, more cemeteries will be lost, Livezey said.

"When they built the Edgewood Arsenal airstrip, they built it over a cemetery," said Livezey, an attorney. "In Cecil County, they built a trailer park over a cemetery. You could actually see the headstones under the trailers. And farmers just plow right over the cemeteries on their property. Often there isn't any documentation of who was in the cemetery."

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