Volunteers rally to save historic Maryland cemeteries

REISTERSTOWN, Md. - Two and a half centuries’ worth of Baltimore County history sits on less than an acre just off Reisterstown’s main drag.

Veterans of eight wars are buried in the Reisterstown Community Cemetery, created in 1764 by town founder John Reister. The oldest headstone, which marks Reister’s grandson’s grave, dates back to 1774. The newest is from 2006. 

Members of the Reisterstown Improvement Association have raised thousands of dollars in community donations to restore the cemetery, which fell into disrepair in the early 1990s after part of the wall surrounding the property crumbled and no one had the cash to fix it.

As the years passed, a pile of debris grew on top of the bricks, said Linda Percy, one of the cemetery’s five trustees.

Previous trustees tried to drum up interest in fixing up the cemetery, Percy said.

“But it just didn’t click,” said Percy, legal director for the Reisterstown Improvement Association.
That has changed.

With the community donations, plus a $10,000 grant from Baltimore County, the trustees will be able to buy new gates and fix the broken wall—though they say that’s only the beginning of what needs to be done.

Many of the 500 grave stones are so old the writing on them is completely worn off, though repairing those will take a lot more money and approval from county planners, Percy said. 

Historians estimate the Reisterstown Community Cemetery is one of hundreds of historic cemeteries in the state that are in a state of near-death unless someone steps in.

“It’s a huge problem because no one is taking care of them,” said Mark Letzer, director of development for the Maryland Historical Society. “It’s a real dilemma.”

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The state’s Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation has an Office of Cemetery Oversight, which regulates more than a thousand Maryland cemeteries, director Marilyn Harris-Davis said.

But many more cemeteries and burial grounds are exempt from those regulations, including cemeteries owned by churches, family-owned cemeteries and pet cemeteries, she said.

St. Paul’s Cemetery in downtown Baltimore is a good example, Letzer said. A number of historical figures are buried there, including Samuel Chase, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

“That cemetery is in danger,” he said. “It needs money, but the church doesn’t have any money. It’s benign neglect.”

Letzer applauded the efforts in Reisterstown.

“We all have to be more civically minded when it comes to these cemeteries,” Letzer said.

Sarah Rilley, a volunteer with the Historical Society of Baltimore County, estimated there are probably many more burial grounds hidden along the road side and in the woods that people don’t even see.

“Some are private. Some are on private land, and some may be as little as two or three graves, so you can’t even call them a cemetery,” Rilley said. 

If no one takes care of them, she said, weeds and overgrown plant s will eventually take over.

“It’s always a mark of respect to our families to keep cemeteries in good shape,” she said. “And it’s important for genealogy.”

All you need, she added, is a group of people who are committed to mowing the lawn and keeping up with other landscaping tasks regularly.

Like the Reisterstown Community Cemetery, St. Vincent Cemetery is the city is an aging cemetery that has been adopted by volunteers.

The 19th century cemetery in Clifton Park almost disappeared completely under mounds of soil until a group of descendants of the people buried there formed the Friends of St. Vincent Cemetery.

The group wants to develop the cemetery into a memorial park, and held a clean up day

last month. In 2012, Baltimore Heritage, Inc. gave the group its Historic Preservation Award for its efforts to preserve the cemetery.

Stephanie Town, the group’s president, said the cemetery began to deteriorate in the 1960s and 1970s. Vandalism became a problem.

By the early 1980s, “it was left to Mother Nature,” said Town, who has 26 descendants buried in the cemetery. Many of the gravestones were buried under the mess of weeds and invasive species, she said.

“It just seems like it would be a simple process for someone to come in and clean it up and help mow it,” Town said. “But no one had the means. That frustrates me. To just ignore the burial ground … in my opinion, it’s terrible.”

Town said the group is focused more on turning the cemetery into a memorial park, rather than restore it.

One volunteer has been gathering a log of burial records to catalog online. She has more than 3,000 so far, Town said.

“The burial records are the backbone of our organization,” she said. 

She said she’d like to see the state step in and help save some of the fading historic cemeteries.

“We have become such a disposable society,” Town said. “But you can’t just asphalt it over.” 

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