You'll be relieved to know, should you enjoy walking through old cemeteries and forgotten graveyards, that you are not alone.
Old burial grounds are popular with the living. That pleasantly melancholy feeling is the perfect antidote to stress--these places being our material connection to the past and our link to our own inevitable fate. Prospecting amid the names, dates and epitaphs of the long-ago dead--"Friend as Ye Pass By/ See the place where now I lie/ As you are now, so once was I/As I am now, so you must Be/ Prepare for Death and follow me"--is also a pastime that cuts across all social boundaries. The living wander everywhere among the markers of the dead, whether in search of forgotten ancestors, or of JFK at Arlington, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald in Rockville, even Tallulah Bankhead, buried incongruously among the old-moneyed of St. Paul's, near Rock Hall on Maryland's Eastern Shore.
Others come for such oddities as the catacombs beneath Westminster in Baltimore, where the church was erected over part of an old graveyard. (Edgar Allan Poe rests here, possibly in two places.) The draped and mournful figure of Grief marking the grave of Clover Adams in Rock Creek is a tourist attraction. Lifesize angels, pleurants (grieving statues) and carved marble gingerbread mausoleums marking the mortal remains of the rich and important have their own fascination, if only to make one ponder the idea that you can take it with you--at least at such posh digs as Oak Hill and Congressional.
In the real world, though, the past is always being swallowed up by the present. Tiny, long-forgotten family plots are no more than high spots in lonely fields, overgrown in cedar and greenbrier, with the only living things nearby being snakes and whippoorwills. If they are known at all, it may be only to God and determined genealogists; Eastern Shore farmers, tired of plowing around the stones, used to drag them to the bay and throw them in, while developers cheerfully pave them over. Looted headstones and funeral statuary still turn up in flea markets, illegal as that might be.
I grew up on a farm, within a stone's throw of just such a tiny, forgotten burial ground, and spent a lot of sweet solitude in that shady thicket, looking for a quiet place to read and daydream. It's a love shared by many. The farm has long ago passed out of my family, and that cemetery, like many others on private property, is hard, if not impossible, to access. But there is a fine and private place you may visit. Only a few miles from the beach traffic of Route 50, in the village of Church Creek, Md., an old burying ground offers a small haven of tranquillity for the traveler who is weary of this world--not quite ready for the next, but interested just the same.
Old Trinity is a little jewel of a church, a lovingly restored red brick box dating back to the 1600s. But it's the graveyard that encircles it that draws one down Route 16. Shaded by huge old-growth maples, sycamores and cedars, the ancient dead sleep the big sleep, and their peace becomes, in some gentle way, your peace, as you stroll among the cool ivory, weather-beaten stones. Even on the hottest days this place is breezy and shaded.
To me, if you're going to be dead, this is the place to be dead in. Well away from the road, it's quiet back here. The distant mutter of a tractor taking up hay drifts in and out against the rustle of leaves and the call of birds, the lap of a tide against the banks of Church Creek, the Little Choptank River tributary named for this church.
In the old days, people came to services here by water; some still do, and there is a dock where they can moor their boats. A bench at the end of the dock allows for contemplation of the water and the church.
But it's the plaintive artistry of the stones that beckons. The cenotaph with its carved doves and roses commemorating "Our Eugie," who died when she was 15, has always struck me as being incalculably sad, perhaps because I first saw it when I was very young myself. Against the west side of the church, another plot is marked at head and foot only with grindstones. It is known as "The Miller's Grave," the miller's name unknown.
Another stone announces that Susannah Meekins was born in 1854 and died in 1836. In the stone here you'll find those weeping willows, draped urns, fading roses and all the other old-fashioned symbols of death as deeply incised as the beliefs of those who erected them. The oldest stones are so worn down by weather and pollution that they are no longer readable, unknown souls memorialized in lichen and grave moss.
The sprinkling of old Eastern Shore names carved into these stones may not ring any bells for you, but the serene shade and the verdant quietness will. Here, all passions have been spent, all debts have been paid and the future has lost its power to terrify. In the shadows of age, you have entered another world. Time seems suspended. This is a magical place.
And, eventually, it is a place where a trio of fat, sassy mallards wanders in among the stones, looking for bugs and other good thing to eat, as self-important as a trio of genealogists on the trail of an illustrious ancestor.
Helen Chappell is the author of "The Chesapeake Book of the Dead: Tombstones, Epitaphs, Histories, Reflections and Oddments of the Region," which also features the photos of Starke Jett V.
The closest thing to an old-fashioned swimming hole? Reader Carol Denny recommends the Milford Mill Park Swim Club (410-655-4818), just off the Baltimore Beltway:
"We've been there twice this summer. The quarry is the main attraction--18 feet deep, fed by natural springs. At the indoor pool (there are two others outdoors in addition to the quarry), you must pass a swimming test: swim 100 yards and tread water for two minutes. Once you pass, you can choose from one of three 15-foot platforms: a zip line with handles to grab and swoop down into the water, a single rope swing, and, for the truly Tarzan-like, a series of five rope swings. Definitely not for little kids, but great fun for those in their teens, 20s and 30s, plus brave Boomers.
"The pool adjoining the quarry has a nice sandy beach, two water slides and such kid-friendly amenities as a 'sprinkler' umbrella to splash under. The rock walls of the quarry and plenty of trees make for a beautiful natural setting, and the slightly faded nature of the place gives it a great '50s feeling."
Open daily through Labor Day. Entry fees, based on age and arrival time, range from $2 for ages 2 and younger weekday mornings to $11 for ages 12 and older on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. Take Exit 18-B (Randallstown) off I-695 to the first right onto Washington Avenue and less than a mile to the club.
WAYS & MEANS
GETTING THERE: Tiny Church Creek, Md., on the way to the Maryland beaches, is about 2.5 hours from the Beltway. Take U.S. 50 east across the Bay Bridge. At Cambridge, turn right on Route 16. Old Trinity is 6.5 miles down on the right, about a mile and a half south of the village of Church Creek. Follow the signs up the driveway to the church and park in the lot, and behave the way you'd want visitors to act if you were eternally resting here. Public cemetery hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily (closed Tuesdays and Thursdays) from May through October. The church itself is open for Sunday services, but it is advisable to call for a schedule. (Call 410-228-3129, 410-221-0961 or 410-228-3583 for information.)
WHERE TO EAT: Although U.S. 50 is lined with fast-food restaurants, following Route 335 the 17 miles to Hooper's Island, one of the last working watermen's communities, is well worth the trip to see what the real Eastern Shore is all about. I highly recommend Old Salty's (410-397-3752, open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday only), which occupies the island's former schoolhouse. Everything is good, but I always go for the soft crab sandwich ($4.25), the crabcake platter ($9.50) or the oyster puff platter ($9.50). The mashed potatoes are homemade, and you won't want to leave without sampling the homemade yeast rolls and pies.
Oh, and by the way--don't miss the giant mosquito sculpture, atop the Wire Belt Plant sign as you drive through Church Creek. It's a larger-than-life (some say life-size) replica of the Eastern Shore state bird.