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Groups work to fix grave situation

March 25, 2007|by PEPPER BALLARD

WASHINGTON COUNTY - There is grave concern for the dead buried on "God's Acre."

At the downtown churchyard where Hagerstown's founding father is buried, centuries-old tombstones lean toward the grass, taller monuments shift under their own weight and bricks that once supported large, flat markers called ledgers crumble to the ground.

Parishioners at Zion Evangelical and Reformed United Church of Christ have, for years, tended the one-acre graveyard behind their North Potomac Street church, but Pastor Bob Royal said that the markers' age compounded by vandalism have forced the small congregation to work to raise about $40,000 needed to refurbish the cemetery.

"Our cemetery needs so much work ... In the short run, we're trying to recover these markers so that when people come, they can find their loved ones," Royal said.

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The Hagerstown church's woes are not uncommon in this historical area. Some pastors and cemetery officials interviewed for this story either already have addressed similar problems or are in the process of tackling such projects.

"It seems like, that in the last 10 years, more and more work is being done on (older markers)," said Rick Wilburn, manager of the Hagerstown office of Hammaker & Darner Monument and Bronze Co., which has been asked to fix nine markers for the Hagerstown church.

Beaver Creek Christian Church, which was established as a congregation in 1833, raised $3,000 needed to refurbish its 245-headstone churchyard in 2001.

The Fairview Cemetery of Keedysville, which is not affiliated with a church, plans to use donated money and apply for grants to repair damaged and aged markers - some that list birth dates in the 1740s - at its cemetery, said Barbara Reeder, treasurer of the cemetery board.

Western Maryland's largest cemetery and Washington County's first public cemetery, Rose Hill, which opened in Hagerstown's south end in 1866, uses perpetual funds to maintain the graves where about 45,000 dead are buried in the 110-acre lot, said Bill Divelbiss, executive vice president of the cemetery.

"What we do is, normally, we try to every year, fix up, straighten up monuments that have deteriorated," Divelbiss said.

Like Rose Hill, Rest Haven Cemetery, which is younger and smaller than Rose Hill, has a maintenance crew that tends the cemetery. Rest Haven opened in the 1920s and is the final resting place of between 15,000 and 16,000 dead, cemetery owner Charles Brown said.

Repairing the markers

Wilburn said Hammaker & Darner has refurbished antique markers for some area cemeteries. It also has refurbished individual markers at the request of relatives of the deceased.

Marble monoliths, which include some of the more damaged tombstones on "God's Acre," are some of the more difficult grave markers to repair, Wilburn said. At Zion, many of those markers lean dramatically. Others are split in half, the work of vandals, Royal said

"Marble is so porous," Wilburn said. "It wears just like sandstone does in a creek bed ... The tall ones, just over time, the material cracks and breaks down."

He said the older, marble monoliths often attract mold and algae.

"Most of the lettering is no longer legible because they are so old," Wilburn said. Fixing the lettering requires some sanding, he said.

Hammaker & Darner sometimes duplicates older markers. The company also has replaced older markers with markers made from granite or bronze, which have a longer life, Wilburn said.

Mark Curran, pastor of Beaver Creek Christian Church, said the decision to fix the markers at the congregation's churchyard was easy. The church had several markers in its cemetery that needed cleaning and realigning, he said.

"They (the markers) were pretty obviously in bad shape," Curran said.

Reeder said the Fairview Cemetery of Keedysville board has plans to refurbish some older markers at the cemetery in the spring.

The board is collecting bids to do the work and will pull from the cemetery's donations to fund it, Reeder said. She said the board also has applied for historical grants.

"Some of them that are broken that we know won't stand up, we're going to lay them down," she said.

Wilburn said Hammaker & Darner does suggest that remedy for markers that have slipped from their original positions.

Smaller cemeteries' plight

Brown, of Rest Haven, and Divelbiss, of Rose Hill, are sympathetic to the smaller cemeteries' dilemmas.

"As cemeteries get older and older, they're getting more and more expensive to maintain," Brown said, adding that Rest Haven is going "to be considered an old cemetery someday."

"We have graves in our cemetery that people paid $30 for back in the day," he said later in the conversation. "They are going to age and the ground is going to freeze every winter ... I look at some of these older cemeteries and wonder how they're going to be maintained."

Bob Barnhart, president of the consistory at Zion Evangelical and Reformed United Church of Christ, wonders the same thing himself.

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