Cemeteries can be melancholy places on somber days. But not for a group of fourth graders who scampered through the oak leaves and crumbling headstones at Rockville's historic Baptist cemetery recently.

Notepads in hand, the 9-year-old historians from Brookhaven Elementary School in Rockville were trying to locate the oldest grave as part of a lesson in Maryland lore. The 19th century cemetery was just one stop on their tour of Rockville.

Despite the gray mist and falling leaves, the children -- many of whom had never been in a graveyard before -- found the experience more mystifying than morbid. They moved from headstone to headstone, trying to read the inscriptions in the ancient, moss-covered stones.

"Why, that's her head and that's her feet," mused curly-haired Lisa Wiltrout, bundled in a crocheted poncho. She carefully noted the name on the stone in her coil-bound notebook: "Mary Ricketts, died Dec. 10, 1882, at 24 years, 9 months and 26 days." Suddenly Lisa looked up.

"You're on her stomach. Don't stand on her stomach," she ordered one of her classmates.

Created in the early 1800s, the graveyard was once part of Rockville's first Baptist church. The church itself is long gone. Banks and law offices stand in its place. The present congregation worships at a modern edifice near Rte. I-270.

The Montgomery County Historical Society maintains the old cemetery. No longer attached to a church, the grizzled graves and lofty oaks keep silent sentry over the Rockville historic district as cars whiz out sleepy Jefferson Street to high-speed, modern highways.

At least one fact of life emerged for the children as they studied the century-old graves.

"People can die at any age," observed freckle-faced Andy Sheehy. "One guy died when he was 19. Babies died when they were 23 months old. They were little. We're old compared to them."

He peered solemnly at a small grave that had a carved headstone, blackened with age, at the head of the grave and a smaller stone at its feet.

"It looks kind of like a bed," he said.

A small knot of boys stood in awe around a broken headstone. The old stone had crumbled and fallen over in the soft earth. "Wow," whistled one boy. "He might have been buried alive and pushed the stone over trying to get out. Hey, come here, Michael. Look at this."

But Michael Westcott remained immobile. Huddled in his tan nylon parka, the sandy-haired child stared at the tombstone in front of him.

"Patterson," he repeated slowly. "My mother's name was Patterson. Maybe this is one of my ancestors. Hey, watch it. Don't step on my ancestor."

Although the children concurred that they would not want to linger in the graveyard after dark, they said they found the cemetery sad but not really spooky.

"No one puts any flowers on these graves," observed Frances Katsha.

The oldest grave the children found seemed to be a tiny one with a dark gray headstone shaped like a bishop's mitre. Therein was buried George Veirs, who died in the 1800s (the date was partially illegible), at the age of 23 months. The children diligently wrote this data in their notebooks.

Soon their teachers called. It was time for the tour to move on. The historic houses of Rockville as well as the county courthouse and office buildings lay ahead. Time to leave graves and tombstones behind.

"Bye-bye, ancestor," called Michael Westcott over his shoulder as he crossed the street with his classmates.