A Burial Ground's Chief Angel Takes Her Final Place There

November 28, 2009|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

Betty Coulson left no doubt where her remains were to be placed after her death last month. The Oakenshawe resident stipulated she wanted to be buried in a mid-19th-century cemetery in the middle of Druid Hill Park that had been an important part of her life.

Even during her last visit to the cemetery during the summer, her commitment to the ancient burial ground was obvious. The 85-year-old carried an oxygen tank and pushed her walker over the turf as she directed church volunteers yanking weeds and removing tree stumps. And on an October morning, when her casket was laid alongside the grave of her husband, Harvey, her wish was fulfilled. She was interred in the church-owned parcel near a tennis court and not far from the park's zoo and ball fields.

For years, Coulson was a force behind maintaining the formerly derelict burial ground, working to make sure it was fenced and kept tidy. Thanks to her efforts, a cadre of volunteers continues the work, assembling about once a month to clean up the historic memorial.

"My mother regarded the cemetery's upkeep her personal calling," said her son, John B. Coulson, as he stood in the park. "She found the place horribly overgrown and, as she grew older, she did whatever her body allowed it to do to maintain the place."

Coulson was no stranger to activism. Her son calls her "the mother of permit parking." In the 1970s, she lobbied City Hall and then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer to gain residents-only parking for her Oakenshawe neighborhood in North Baltimore. She won her case, and the parking stickers she espoused spread to other neighborhoods.

A real estate agent until she was 79, she remained an enthusiastic promoter of Baltimore, city living and its cultural attractions. Upon her death, she wanted memorial contributions to be made to her church or the Walters Art Museum.

"She was a remarkable woman, a free thinker," said the Rev. Elliott Robertson of Martini Lutheran Church, where Coulson was a member. "On more than one occasion, she would call me and argue the points of a sermon. You always knew where Betty stood. She was either a gracious opponent or a gracious persuader."

She used a bit of both in taking on the cemetery cleanup.

Three Lutheran congregations laid out the burial ground in 1854, five years before Baltimore acquired the land that would become Druid Hill Park. When the cemetery's charter was drawn up, it outlawed burials for "blatant blasphemers," "those living sinfully" and the "excommunicated."

Over the years, as Druid Hill Park became embellished with pavilions, recreational sites and even a fold for the sheep that trimmed the lawns, the graveyard filled up with about 1,700 burials, mainly members of German families. Among them was Coulson's grandfather, Dietrich Steffens, a pastor of Martini Lutheran.

At one time, the cemetery was owned by three Lutheran congregations - St. Paul's, Immanuel and Martini. A 1922 Baltimore Sun account of the cemetery described it as "old" back then, when the congregations that owned it considered selling the land and having the bodies moved. The plan fell through, although a small portion of the land did became a tennis court.

Eventually, two congregations withdrew their support from the cemetery, and Martini's members assumed responsibility.

"The upkeep was left to families who had members buried there 100 years ago," said Robertson. "They would pack a picnic and take the streetcar to the cemetery. While the children were playing, family [members] would pull weeds and keep their plot tidy."

In 1968, the cemetery's headstones and monuments were heavily vandalized. An advocacy group, the Friends of Druid Hill Park, worked to get a sturdier fence installed, but vandalism persisted. And the cemetery fell into disuse.

Then along came Coulson, who loved plants but wanted them maintained in an orderly fashion.

"Betty was a constant voice in favor of the cemetery," her pastor said. "She spoke out about it to those who did not want to be saddled with a lot of upkeep."

She organized cleanups. On one occasion, when a Lutheran youth group from a North Carolina congregation lent a hand, she had pizzas delivered on the spot. When her husband died in 2006, she oversaw his burial there - the first interment in 32 years. And she continued to work on improving the burial grounds until her death in October.

Tom Wenck, a Martini member and treasurer who heads the cemetery upkeep committee, said, "I showed a little bit of interest, and Betty appointed me its keeper."

Younger members of Martini Lutheran now devote about a weekend a month to correcting the neglect and vandalism of the past 75 years. These volunteers recently removed 23 rotting trees and paid to replace 160 feet of chain-link fence. The church now budgets more than $4,000 a year to pay for grass cutting, and it has retained the services of a funeral monument firm to right overturned headstones damaged in vandalism sprees.

Wenck said that his group succeeded over the summer in getting the place looking far better than it had looked in many years, although he acknowledged that there is much to be done.

Robertson recalled a conversation he once had with Coulson, when he broached the question of whether the cemetery should be opened to anyone who wanted to be buried in "beautiful Druid Hill Park," providing a possible source of church revenue.

"She thought about it but did not like the idea," the pastor said. "She felt as if a covenant had been made, and it was a covenant we should not change. It was a way of respecting the intent of those who rest there."

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