Is this community morbid? They walk to the cemetery, jog there, meet there, take pictures there, sit there and even socialize there.
Not really, says the woman who has led efforts to save the Whipps Cemetery and Memorial Garden in Ellicott City and turn it into something of a community gathering place. They just like the fact that in a rapidly developing county, there's still something green around, with a connection to the past.
"Development has gone so haywire that the little bits of green we have left are precious," said Barbara Sieg, director of a community support group for the Civil War-era family burial ground. "With all the trees being cut and all the houses being built, something that was there 150 years ago, you want to hang on to."
This weekend, the public is invited to come for coffee and doughnuts and to help beautify the tiny cemetery, just south of the Frederick Road intersection on St. John's Lane. This fourth annual community work weekend at Whipps is sponsored by the Friends of the Whipps Cemetery and Memorial Gardens and the St. John's Community Association.
Since 1987, when Friends was formed to preserve the cemetery, Whipps has been attracting people for many reasons. Volunteers, including several garden clubs and Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops, have come to help plant, mulch, weed and clean the one-acre site, a hilly grove of locust trees sheltering about 40 headstones. They have installed benches, hung Christmas wreaths and planted impatiens, azaleas, day lilies and other flowers.
Whipps also has been a kind of neutral territory for two neighborhoods that have had their differences over the years. Dunloggin and Dorsey Hall have been at odds over the proposal to build Gray Rock Drive, but residents from the two areas work side by side at Whipps. "It's a rallying point," Sieg said, "a cohesive force."
People from outside the community have been drawn to Whipps as well. Judy Hess, of Columbia, has contributed money and time to Whipps to make a whimsical dream come true.
"I thought the perfect retirement job would be to be a caretaker of an old cemetery," said the 31-year-old Hess. "You'd get your housing free, you'd walk around with a weed whack -- it always sounded great."
There's also a more serious reason for her involvement, said Hess, who likes to visit old cemeteries in Europe and places such as Stonehenge and Avebury in England. "I do have respect for the dead," she said. "I hope someday, when I go to the Pearly Gates, I get to meet William Whipps and maybe he'll thank me."
Developers who were building on top of the graves had little respect for the dead, Sieg said, recalling the battle that first attracted community attention to Whipps. In the early 1980s, casket handles and other ghoulish artifacts were found in the yards of homes at the new Breckenridge Square development near Dunloggin. Apparently developers had intruded on a part of the cemetery, whose legal boundaries still have not been determined.
William Whipps, a blacksmith, buried the first of his six children in 1833 in a wooded area south of Featherbed Lane, now St. John's Lane. The family burial plot evolved into a public cemetery that operated until 1915. Afterward, the plot became grown over and the headstones were vandalized.
William Whipps's headstone has been repaired and reinstalled at the cemetery. His mother Anne's headstone is about to get its facelift and 15 others still need repairs, Sieg said. One continuing project is to determine the legal owners and boundary lines of the cemetery. William Whipps's will suggests that his heirs, some of whom remain in the area, now own the property.
The Friends organization also hopes the county will provide more protection and assistance for Whipps and the other abandoned cemeteries in the area threatened by development. They hope county officials will create a Cemetery Preservation Board to support groups like theirs and acquire cemeteries for use as parks.
Sieg said she hopes for a return of landscaped, flower-filled cemeteries such as Loudon Park and Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Mass. -- places that attract more than mourners.
"They were more like gardens," she said. "They were our very first parks."
Volunteers are invited to bring gardening tools, rakes, shears and the like between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. on Saturday or between 1 and 4 p.m. on Sunday.