They came with a solemn matter on their minds: how to save Calvert County's historical cemeteries.

Armed with notebooks, pictures and questions about gravestone conservation, about 40 preservationists and history buffs gathered Thursday in the basement of Mount Olive United Methodist Church in Prince Frederick to discuss time's decaying effects on stone and memory.

"There's just an inherent emotional tie people have with cemeteries," said Howard Wellman of Owings, a professional conservator who spoke to the group about his experiences in restoring gravestones. "Everyone knows they'll end up in the cemetery eventually, and everyone knows someone already there."

The problem, he said, is that as generations come and go, cemeteries are abandoned or forgotten and fall into disrepair.

Graveyards are especially crucial to Calvert's historical record because two major fires in the 1800s destroyed many genealogical papers, said Kirsti Uunila, the county historic preservation planner who organized the meeting.

"The courthouse has burned twice, once by the British during the War of 1812 and then again by fires of lightning and possibly arson in 1882," Uunila said. "Gravestones are that tangible link between people and their heritage and ancestors. They are a very special kind of historical document."

In a lecture interspersed with graveyard humor, Wellman explained the intricacies of gravestone preservation. Each type of stone, he said, has weaknesses. Limestone is particularly susceptible to acidic rain, marble deforms under its weight, and sandstone can split over time and peel apart like an onion. Granite, a favorite, is the most durable but wasn't used widely until the 20th century because the technology did not exist to carve fine detail into the surface.

Wellman reviewed a preservationist's arsenal of weapons against the decay, including adhesives for broken pieces and cleaners to remove molds and mildews. He was stumped for a second, though, when someone asked how to remove stains from a hydraulic fluid spill.

"I have to admit I've never heard that one before," he said. "Um . . . try a solvent in a clay poultice."

Many in the crowd came to the meeting with specific projects in mind.

John Julius Jackson, 70, was drawn to the topic by mysterious stones he stumbled across five years ago.

The church he attended as a boy had closed its doors long ago, he said. But he visited its cemetery twice a month to spend time where three generations of his family lay in rest.

One day while he was cutting the cemetery's grass, he found the buried tombstone of his wife's great-great-grandfather.

"It was tilted, you see, and buried under all this dirt," said Jackson, of Huntingtown. "Now I want to go down there and straighten it out for her."

The Rev. Robert L. Conway, who hosted the meeting at his church, said he is worried about preserving his congregation's old cemetery now that the church has moved into a new building. The cemetery has graves that date to the early 1900s.

"You got to maintain your history," he said. "We think our loved ones deserve better than that. We can't just forget and abandon them."

"There's just an inherent emotional tie people have with cemeteries," said Howard Wellman, a professional conservator, shown examining a cement gravestone in Prince Frederick. A marble gravestone in the Mount Olive United Methodist Church cemetery, dated 1947, is already showing its age. Granite stones tend to age the best.