By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 13, 2007; A01
HOOPERSVILLE, Md. -- After Annie E. Wroten died in July 1903, she was laid in a red-brick vault in a little cemetery here among tomato farms and loblolly pines. Almost 104 years later, she's about to be buried at sea.
Her grave, once safely inland, is now a few inches from the Chesapeake Bay, the result of erosion that has eaten away tracts of Hoopers Island. Red bricks are protruding from the face of the crumbling bank on Maryland's Eastern Shore, more than two hours from Washington.
"This is ready to topple over, take the grave with it. Same with this grave," said Donny Willey, a local preservationist, walking along a row of headstones at the cemetery's unsteady edge. "One, two, three, four, five of them, getting ready to fall over the bank."
Around the Chesapeake, death is still forever, but graveyards increasingly are not. Rising water levels -- an old problem, apparently accelerated by climate change -- are threatening to erode away a number of historic burial sites. Some are already gone, leaving bones and coffin handles as ghoulish flotsam.
Eventually, experts say, rising seas could worsen flooding in the D.C. area and redraw maps of the Eastern Shore. But first, to the outrage of historians and surviving relatives, the water is evicting the dead.
"There's quite a bit of history being lost, almost as we speak, because of the waves," said Court Stevenson, a professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, who studies the bay's geography.
Worldwide, sea levels are expected to creep up from seven to 23 inches before 2100, according to a report issued Feb. 2 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The cause, scientists believe, is an excess of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, which trap heat in the atmosphere and contribute to global warming. As oceans warm, they expand, and the volume of water is also fed by melting ice.
In the mid-Atlantic region, scientists say, an old problem gives the new one greater impact: The land is sinking. It's a geologic hangover from the last ice age, the earth's crust slowly unkinking itself after being bent out of shape by the weight of huge glaciers.
Because of that subsidence, scientists say, sea levels in the region may seem to rise four to six inches more than the global average over the next century.
Already, rising water has profoundly altered the Chesapeake. The bay has swallowed once-inhabited islands that were home to a distinct culture built on farming, fishing and evangelical fervor. Today, only Smith and Tangier islands have residents hanging on.
Graveyards have proved especially vulnerable to the rising waters. Many of them were built close to the shore because that's where early settlers lived. Other cemeteries started out farther inland, in churchyards or farm plots, but erosion has eaten away the land and brought the waterfront to them.
An informal survey around the Chesapeake by a Washington Post reporter found at least 12 places where burial sites had been lost or were close to washing away.
In some cases, graves are destroyed from below. Rising, sometimes salty, groundwater destroys vaults and kills cemetery trees, which topple and expose graves. Arvel Johnson, who has rediscovered and cleaned up 10 African American cemeteries lost in the woods of the Eastern Shore, said he has seen that kind of damage.
"I looked at my great uncle a couple of times," said Johnson, a retired corrections officer. "There was a hole in the side of the vault, and he was floating on a casket piece."
But in most of the instances, the graveyards are threatened by the bay itself. As water rises, scientists say, waves and storms cause more shore erosion, exposing sites that were once solid ground.
"Sea level rise is the enabler, but storms are the action," said Bruce Douglas, a researcher at Florida International University.
Affected cemeteries can be found around the bay and along its tributaries. Near Kilmarnock, at the tip of Virginia's Northern Neck, about 140 miles from Washington, an "ossuary," or Indian burial pit, was uncovered in an eroding bluff. Then, in November, a pair of big storms passed, and it was gone.
In Jenkins Neck, Va., the York River has cut into a prized historical site that includes a 19th-century cemetery and Indian burials dating back more than 1,000 years. A grave believed to hold Joseph Smith, who died in the 1930s, is about two feet from the bank.
"Every high tide, it erodes, erodes," said John E. Owens, a neighbor who helps take care of the plot, a few miles north of Virginia's Hampton Roads area at the bay's southern end. "Within six more months of this year, it will be in the river."
The worst problems seem to be in Maryland's Dorchester County, a low-lying area where the Eastern Shore bulges out into the Chesapeake. A little more than halfway from Washington to Ocean City, a right turn at Cambridge, Md., takes visitors into an expanse of small towns and vast marshes.
In 1996, storms washed away a pair of small cemeteries in an area of Dorchester called Bishops Head. Now, when students visit the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's education center there, they go "progging" -- an old word that means searching the marsh -- and find dentures, bones and coffin parts.
"These are pallbearer's handles, all right," said Jessie Marsh, a foundation official, showing a collection of rusty handles, hinges and casket decorations found over the years. "Here" -- he picked up a handle with a bit of the rod still attached -- "you can see you've still got some of this wood."
In nearby Hoopersville, at Dorchester's remote southwestern edge, Willey is trying to save an abandoned community graveyard. He discovered the place by accident a few years ago, stubbing his toe on a headstone buried in underbrush.
Annie Wroten's grave and broken headstone are here, next to the now-empty grave of her husband, D.H. Wroten. The land under his concrete vault began to erode in December, so Willey plucked the whole thing up with a small crane. The vault now sits on the ground nearby, a strange sight in a cemetery full of them.
Willey, a retired Marine who is now a real estate agent, said he has spent $30,000 on the project but needs much more help from donors and volunteers. He wants contractors to place chunks of cement along a long stretch of the graveyard as a stopgap to erosion. A sign he puts out front says, "Please help save history."
"Every one of these people that's buried here, there's a story to be told about every single one of them," he said.
There are at least 100 people in the cemetery, he estimates, including whites whose tombstones date to 1805 and African Americans whose graves are often marked only by shallow depressions in the earth.
But fights such as Willey's are hard to win. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers doesn't generally protect cemeteries on private property, and little funding appears to be available from other parts of government. One exception could come this year in Virginia, where a state delegate has proposed allocating $25,000 for the Jenkins Neck cemetery.
There is no sign of relief. Over the next few decades, rising sea levels could make floods worse in places such as Alexandria and Annapolis. Within a century, scientists say, sizable chunks of the Eastern Shore could be submerged, including much of Dorchester. U.S. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), echoing some researchers, said he believes that Maryland is one of the states with the most to lose from sea level rise.
Still, efforts to save cemeteries go on. Historians worry that losing them would mean losing windows to the past -- how people lived, died and were buried. To others, the imperative is a moral one -- a belief that something is owed.
"It is the body, and the body does return to the earth," said Bertina T. Wilson of Heathsville, Va., about 130 miles from Washington at the mouth of the Potomac River. She is trying to raise $40,000 to put up a concrete wall to keep the Potomac out of a family cemetery that includes former slaves. "But, on the other hand, you need to be responsible for where you have laid them, and you don't want to lose that."