Visiting the Forgotten Dead - Tale of an Abandoned Cemetery

The following is a creative non-fiction piece, only because the names are changed. While going through family records in an old box, I came upon an old cemetery deed belonging to my great grandfather. When we went to investigate the cemetery, I was in for a shock. Perpetual care is just another meaningless phrase.

Old Grave Stone

(photo by Dolores Monet)
(photo by Dolores Monet)

The Forgotten Dead


      I’ve never been to Ireland but this is the Ireland of my dreams; the soft rolling hills, the gnarled trees, rock daffodils and clouds scuttling overhead. A graveyard, of course, because it’s all about the past, dead relatives and crumbling stables, the horses long gone. We’re looking for my great grandfather’s tombstone in these derelict hills with a view of the city. We’re in the city but it looks so far away.


     We came once last summer, my sons and I. But it was a jungle then, an impermeable thicket of sumacs and briar, a dense wall of trash plants and heat set in the middle of a golf course. The golfers putted around in their carts and gave us dirty looks, suspicious of hikers and oblivious to the most neglected cemetery in Baltimore. It was not like when I was a child and we ran wild at Mt. Pleasant out in the county, golfers chasing us waving nine irons like irate peasants in pastel pants. They had a right to chase us. We were wild brats running the hills with youthful anarchy, hoping to be chased, really. It was fun.


     Last summer I approached a staring golfer, a young businessman with symmetrical features and broad shoulders, nearly half my age. And how successful was he, golfing in a place like this where the greens spread wide in a faltering neighborhood near an abandoned shopping center with boarded up windows and drifts of litter. His buddies looked at me like I was crazy when I explained our mission. But the guy I spoke to, black Irish with dark, wavy hair, caught a glimmer of interest in his pale blue eyes.


     “I remember we played out here when I was a kid.” He looked at the raggedy thicket as if he’d forgotten about it, as if it had become invisible to him but now, suddenly, reappeared in a sweep of memory.


     “We used to run around in there. I remember stumbling over gravestones back in the trees. It was weird.”

     “So it’s been like this for a while?”


     “Twenty years at least. And you think you’ve got someone in there?” He seemed amused and baffled.


     I held up a photocopy of the deed.


     “Well, good luck with that,” he snorted.


     After the golfers, we found a clutch of old white men sitting on benches in that poor black neighborhood. They sat on the hilltop and watched people play golf. One remembered the cemetery.


     “All Irish in there,” he said, smoothing an out-of-date moustache. “Didn’t they move them?”
Another spoke up, shifting his oxygen tank. “Yeah. Like they said they moved the black cemetery over there when they built Two Guys.”


     Two Guys was a long defunct predecessor to Wall Mart, now the empty trash strewn shopping center to the east. I remembered the story and how no one believed that all the corpses were actually moved, but that they were all asphalted over and my parents would never shop there because of that.


     A mild argument broke out among the old men over the disposition of dead bodies. Factions formed along lines of trust and who believed developers, newspapers, or the government.


     “You really think they cared about dead black people?” the oxygen tank man said and called his pals a bunch of hypnotized chickens. He then inquired after my dead relatives. But he became dismissive when the last names rang no bells (“Oh, right, they’re Irish.”), and fell back to argue pleasantly with his buddies.

Irish in America

(photo by Dolores Monet)
(photo by Dolores Monet)


      So we come back the next spring, a chill in the air, a suggestion of leaves on the trees and we wonder what happened to the jungle. Cypress trees mourn the dead. Dry grass humps in soft mounds and the city shines white in the distance like a city in a fairy tale.


A big, old stable that once belonged to Johns Hopkins stands at the western edge, crumbling cement and rotten wood with a stone foundation. A bulging stone wall looms over a pile of mulch that steams in the meager sunlight. My youngest son stands on top of the wall. His long, curly red hair poking out from under a bowler hat and his big black boots remind me of the Ireland of my dreams. When he jumps off the wall, his sage green coat opens like wings.
“Conner!” I scream as he becomes airborne, as if my voice can stop him. The wall must be fifteen feet high.
But he lands on the mulch pile and rolls down, the bowler hat still firmly on his head. Where did he get that thing?
      The older one, Thomas, comes around the side of the wall carrying a bicycle wheel and a walking stick. He informs me with a gleam in his eye that a wonderful dump full of birdcages, coffeepots and broken mirrors lies at the bottom of a nearby hill. But we are on a mission.

     Someone has moved the tombstones from their usual military line. Impressive monuments of the dead rich poke graceful towers against a distant backdrop of brick rowhouses. Circling these, simpler gravestones lay flat on the lumpy ground. Giant stone flowers with the monuments as stamens and the lesser ones as petals leave the actual graves unmarked. This is not the work of hooligans but some sort of ordered vandalism, the work of someone with heavy machinery.

A Search for Great Grandfather

Last summer, I called the church affiliated with the cemetery, St. Vincent’s in the city with a liberal, educated congregation. The woman who answered the phone spoke in echoes.
“I’m trying to find the grave of my great grandfather, Thomas Columbus Boyle, who is buried in your cemetery.”

“Cemetery?”

“An old one.”

“A cemetery? There’s a parking lot outside the church and a little park. But we have no cemetery.

“It’s in the middle of Lake Clifton Golf Course out along Goodwell Road.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am, but we have no cemetery.”

“Well, you do. You just don’t know it. Check your records.”

Homeless men hang around that charitable church full of educated liberals. The congregation gives them army blankets and baloney sandwiches. She was used to dealing with nuts.

“I’m sorry but I can’t help you.”

I wanted to scream at her, accuse her as a representative of the church of callously neglecting dead parishioners. Oh, it was fine to take their hard-earned money and didn’t I have the deed in my hand, a hundred years old, that looked like it had been soaked in tea.
“What have you done with my great grandfather?” I wanted to yell, reach through the invisible magic of electronic communication and grab her skinny educated, liberal neck. But I did not.


Search for a Lost Tombstone

Fallen Head Stone in Abandoned Cemetery

My great grandfather died in 1909. Obituaries informed me that he built the base of the Wells McComas Monument on Gay Street then became a police officer and arrested the ‘notorious penny forge.’

I have a fuzzy picture of him copied from microfilm with his big moustache and old timey policeman’s helmet like British Bobbies wear. I took a photo of his old house in a neighborhood that looks like a war zone with disintegrating curbs and people wandering the street like zombies. But my great grandfather’s house still stands neatly intact with smooth formstone and the address in stained glass on a transom like it was in 1909.

We fan out in different directions to read each and every tombstone; all Irish immigrants, their beautiful names shadowed with dirt and moss: Shanahan, O’Niel, Gallagher and Ryan. Native of County Cork, Galway and Kildaire. Immigrants all, they crossed the daunting ocean, worked their way toward a life where they could afford fine marble tombstones now tossed in piles, their final resting places forgotten.

I pointed out dates to Conner; people born in the1820’s come over, perhaps, during the Potato Famine. The family savings handed over to save the best and the brightest while their countryside lay littered with starved children dead in ditches, their little mouths stained green from eating grass.

“And the Presbyterians offering watery soup and stale bread to mothers who’d renounce their religion while the beef they raised was sent over to England.” My voice catches with the story told long ago in somebody’s basement kitchen where the old folks drank beer out of juice glasses.

Connor steps back. His hat blows off and rolls away bouncing in the breeze and his shocking hair roils up like fire.

“What’s a Presbyterian?” he asks.

I don’t know what came over me; sorry for shooting my mouth off like that and the sweet, sad face in front of me, the boy who loves horrible stuff as long as it’s fiction, blanching in the face of such sudden poison.

“Just people,” I say. “Anyway, the Irish came over in droves back then. That would have been Thomas Columbus Boyle’s father.”

Conner wanders off to find a pile of broken bricks and other rubble. Taking his best pitching stance, he hurls bricks at the stable wall.

Diligent Thomas works his way across the cemetery, taking forever, reading every stone caught in brief loyalty and according the poor dishonored dead that small respect. He holds the bike wheel on one shoulder. The sun catches his straight, red hair and glints off the metal bicycle spokes like a postmodern halo.

We prowl the stones, occasionally losing sight of each other among the undulating hills of dried golden grass and brown stalks of last years Black-Eyed-Susans. The cemetery is bigger than it looked at first. Sun sliding toward late afternoon, I think we won’t find it. I try to remember Thomas Columbus’s children: Howard, Robert, Catherine, Albert, Blanche and Angora plus the dead children whose names I’ve never heard.

My father used to take me visiting the old relatives in their narrow row houses, shades pulled down in the summer, and the rooms dim and cool; a Blessed Mother statue in a shadowy corner smiling down on a glassful of wilting roses. I still remember their low voices and the soft titter of their laughter; soft-spoken gentlemen with lumpy hands and gray wool sweaters and the old ladies with their thin-skinned soft white arms. The smell of newspapers and soup, folded linens in an old icebox and cups of sugary tea.

Sometimes they served RC Cola and I used to think that the initials stood for Roman Catholic. People would stop in, relatives all, and Auntie explaining how we were related and who lived with whom during the Depression. She told me about the Baltimore Fire in 1904, how she stood on the wide, broad steps of St. Vincent’s and felt the church steps tremble when the paint factory blew. She was just a girl, she said. But in later years, when I looked at her funeral prayer card, I saw she had been twenty-six in 1904 born in 1878 as she was.And what happened to Howard they never said, something awful, poor Howard long gone when I was a kid and they still had a coal bin in the back of the basement. But Daddy never brought me here.

We’re ready to give up. Connor found his hat and has rejoined us, sticks and leaves in his hair, mulch stuck to his pants like fur and he is thirsty and bored and wants to go home.
“We’ve read every tombstone,” I say. “Well, we tried.”

There are no paths here, no carriage roads for the long ago bereaved, no trace of their movements, only their tears.

But there at the southern edge, beneath a thick trunked cedar twisted with thorny vines that sprout pink buds lies more fallen gravestones. We use our walking sticks to clear the briars and prop them up by wedging the sticks in the gnarled branches of the cedar tree. Thomas sees the name Boyle, barely makes it out, covered as it is in crumbled brown leaves and dirt. My heart jerks as he points it out.

But it’s not Thomas Columbus. We never find that one. It’s TC’s father, Edward, native of County Galway, Ireland who came so far to have his beautiful old gravestone thrown in a heap like so much rubbish. As my heart lurches and my eyes burn with tears, I wonder how long it’s been since someone wept for Edward.

I would have liked to come here with my father.

A group has formed to research and restore the St. Vincent's Cemetery in Baltimore, Maryland. Below, find a link with information, and photographs on how a dedicated group has banded together to save this old cemetery and honor the forgotten dead.

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Comments 24 comments

Hawkesdream profile image

Hawkesdream 7 years ago from Cornwall

A heart wrenching story, I was there with you willing the stone to appear, so many of our cemeterys are 'vandalized' in the name of progress..It's such a shame


G-Ma Johnson profile image

G-Ma Johnson 7 years ago from NW in the land of the Free

It is just so sad...and so hard for me to read right now...maybe again later...Thanks G-Ma :O) Hugs


JamaGenee profile image

JamaGenee 7 years ago from Central Oklahoma

That the woman at St. Vincent's had no knowledge of this cemetery is very disturbing. Surely it falls under the jurisdiction of some county or state agency. Perhaps you should contact descendants of others buried there and form a group to clean it up and restore the stones to their rightful places (as much as possible). Old cemeteries should not be allowed to become rubbish heaps!


Olive P 7 years ago

Bravo Dolores! It brought tears to my eyes. How can a church lose tract of its own cemetery? Keep up the excellent writing!!


Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 7 years ago from East Coast, United States Author

hawksdream, thank you, i cried my eyes out overcome with it all


Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 7 years ago from East Coast, United States Author

thanks, gma, so sweet of you to drop by

jamagenee - you're right, i should follow up with the church, perhaps, and they'll say, okay, dolores, go right ahead and build yourself a committee of one. the graves are all over 100 years old, so hard to locate decenends...thought of getting in touch with the paper, but i don't think the cemetery is exactly a secret. actually, there was something beautiful about the place, i really felt like i was somewhere far away...but it is disturbing. some folks say that the bodies were moved some time ago, but i don't think so . old cemeteries are wonderful places, when we visit the dead relatives, we often visit stranger's graves as well, the older cemeteries had so much character.

olive - i am glad i made you cry. it sounds ridiculous but as the great guitarist dick dale said (relating to art) i want to make you feel what i feel


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa

Beautiful Hub - I was very moved. Neglect and vandalisation of graveyards is rife all over the world. The "forgotten dead" are so much with us. In Africa the ancestors are always present and the site of graves is very important to the people.

Thanks for sharing this poiignant story.

Love and peace

Tony


Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 6 years ago from East Coast, United States Author

Thank you, Tony. The cemetery was vandalized, not by roving teenaged thugs, but by someone in an official capacity. No teenagers could have moved some of those grave markers. They were made of stone and marble and some were 10 feet high.

And peace to you, Tony.


Enlydia Listener profile image

Enlydia Listener 6 years ago from trailer in the country

I enjoyed reading that...you have a lyrical way of writing. I could hear the Irish lilt in your voice.


Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 6 years ago from East Coast, United States Author

Enlydia, glad you enjoyed the hub. It's a true story, only the names have been changed. Makes me wonder about the whole business of cemeteries. The amount of money people shell out to the whole industry when, after a couple of generations, the whole place is allowed to go to wrack and ruin. It is sad.


bladesofgrass profile image

bladesofgrass 6 years ago from The Fields of Iowa

A very detailed and moving story. You are a great writer and I am truly sorry that your trip was filled with grievance and frustration. Look forward to reading more of your Hubs. :)


Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 6 years ago from East Coast, United States Author

bladesofgrass - actually, though sad, it was beautiful in a way...to find that old stone in the weeds. The visit had a mystical quality.


Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 6 years ago from East Coast, United States Author

bladesofgrass - actually, though sad, it was beautiful in a way...to find that old stone in the weeds. The visit had a mystical quality.


bladesofgrass profile image

bladesofgrass 6 years ago from The Fields of Iowa

I totally agree with you on that...sorry left that part out ;)


Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 6 years ago from East Coast, United States Author

blades - sorry? Don't be sorry. I appreciate your interest!


Rakeleafs 6 years ago

Your story is very emotional. My great grandparents and many extended relatives are buried in St. Vincent Cemetery. As I began researching my family tree, I was bitterly saddened to learn of the condition of their final resting place. This story does not end here.

I am on a mission to return dignity to St. Vincent Cemetery, the final resting place of my ancestors. My goal is to develop a memorial park with a low maintenance landscape plan. St. Vincent Cemetery deserves to be incorporated into the Master Site Plan for Clifton Park.

There is something horribly wrong with a society that has a perfectly manicured golf course completely surrounding a sacred cemetery that is completely destroyed and consumed with overgrown invasive weeds and covered with trash, golf balls and human excrement disgarded by oblivious golfers. What is wrong with this picture?


Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 6 years ago from East Coast, United States Author

Rake - I am looking for the St. Vincent Cemetery Yahoo Group but seem to have some trouble (as so often I do on here in general). It's wonderful to hear that people are doing something about this, the resting place of our ancestors. If you are Joanne, thank you very much for contacting me.


Ausseye 5 years ago

A moving story filled with respect. A great family journey that has some elements of restoring the soul. A worthwhile journey for all who read this descriptive and passionate account. For me a cremation and scatter the ashes over the sea, no neglect no burden on future generations to fain undying respect, and the freedom of a Viking to boot. Cheers Ausseye.


Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 5 years ago from East Coast, United States Author

Ausseye - thank you for your lovely comment. I'm with you on the cremation. So many of our old cemeteries have fallen into ruin. And the amount that you have to spend is way too much. But I do love to visit the older ones, with all the lovely monuments. I should write one about older cemeteries and include some of the beautiful old photos I've taken of angels and muses.


50 Caliber profile image

50 Caliber 4 years ago from Arizona

Hi Dolores, I'm always interested in cemeteries they have some great designs, I used to fly into Pennsylvania on business trips and when circling the airport out over the city waiting I guess for our turn to land I noticed all the Cemeteries and the way they were set up with all the huge stones and mausoleums and the number that were down there was quite astonishing. This triggered a memory that spanned off topic hub sized answer that I'm often driven to write in a response, in the past few days I've written the base of 100 words or better and have been withdrawing them and pushing them into a word document and saving them to flesh out for a hub.

Back to topic, I flew into Pennsylvania on a Friday red-eye for a two day seminar for my truck dealership, Iveco Trucks USA and got them to foot the bill for the 2.5 days extra. I rented a car and a map of the area and grave yards and spent a couple days with 2 ft by 2 foot sheets of paper and did many charcoal rubbing of the magnificent cemeteries head stones and some sad remarks all the way to the hilarious ones dating from the 1800s to the newer 1980s. I find them awesome. I spent a couple days in Salt Lake City in Utah that has a Mormon grave yard that was quite large and elaborate in the stones. but I digress as my favorites are of the 1840's forward in the west. Some are Boot Hill and the Yuma Prison. There exist many old un kept grave yards around in the gold miner areas, some are legible some not. I got a few cans of Krylon Satin Black spray paint and a flat sand paper holder to spray them and in 20 minutes return to the first sprayed and block sanded them into partial and clearly marked with names and dates. I straighten the stones and reset toe marker stones. There may be only 4 stones in the area, but after the cleaning and standing fallen and even broken off stones, mixing the fast dry liquid steel and putting them back together when the mender begins it's drying process a putty knife to run across the front ans side cleaning it off makes them whole again. I think they are sandstone and wonder how the cut the inscription. I use my sand blaster to cut the Marble for the occupants of my grave yard, so far one horse and 3 Rottweilers and a birth date and name of some guy whose going to be added later if the one to add the details doesn't last longer than the one to be added then another will fill the shoes. I have 3 on the list.

I found a grave yard the edges are railed by treated poles, it has an awesome detail in it. It is Marble slate type and larger than the rest and about an inch deep 6 inch tall oval cut into it that has an 1800s date, but this oval has a picture of a Lady in it with a glass bezel that is concave from the picture side and convex from outside? I think, but at it's age it is placed so the summer sun from rise to fall doesn't shine on it directly I stayed for an afternoon and did some squirrel watching and the stone as well to see if my thought was right, I think it is even through the sun change of winter, It would be a good ride for john and the dogs and me as well to go out and watch the critters in the winter trees by Globe Az. at the oak, pinion, and another my mind can't get to tell me Ah the cotton wood, that surround the area in a place Called "Oak flats" and finish this roll of film and send you some pictures,

Great hub, Thanks,

Dustin


Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 4 years ago from East Coast, United States Author

Hi Dustin - another comment that would make a great hub. I love the old cemeteries too, the beautiful old Victorian ones are my favorite, with the weeping muses, and huge angels. We visit one occasionally on the other side of town. Some of my relatives are there. But this one is totally abandoned. I understand that there is a group attempting to clean it up and really should get more information as I have some paperwork they might be interested in. Thank you for dropping by!


mamalila profile image

mamalila 4 years ago from Washington, DC

Wow, Dolores! What a journey!! What a mission!!! This has left me with tears of some complex emotion. Thank you so much for sharing this. And its so lovely written. many blessings to you.


Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 4 years ago from East Coast, United States Author

mamalila - thank you. Actually cried myself while writing this. I wish that I would have found my great grandfather's tombstone, but the one we found was his uncle's. There is a group that is attempting to organize the stones and gather information on those who are buried there. (And blessings right back at you!)


AnnaCia profile image

AnnaCia 4 years ago

Dolores: I love your story. Thank you so much for sharing such an emotional mission.

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