When Mike Maloney discovered unmarked headstones outside Sacred Heart Cemetery in Bowie this year, he knew he had to make some calls.
One was to Elm Street Development, which has a contract to buy land surrounding Sacred Heart Church with an interest in rezoning and developing it. Maloney also contacted Jennifer Stabler, the archaeology planner and coordinator for the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, which oversees parks and planning in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties.
“Am I a preservationist? Yes, I would say so,” said Maloney, a 30-year Crofton resident. “My role is really to bring this issue to the attention of legislators, the media, preservationists.”
Although Elm Street’s archaeology consultant and Stabler independently concluded these headstones were not on the property for sale, the situation sheds light on an ongoing process to find, record and preserve burials in Anne Arundel and Prince George’s.
Stabler has been in charge of a cemetery survey in Prince George’s since 2006, but the job is far from over.
“We still have more that are out there that we don’t know exactly where they are,” Stabler said.
Maryland state law makes it illegal to disturb a burial site or remove human remains unless the state’s attorney’s office authorizes an exception, but county code addresses burials differently. Developers in Anne Arundel must preserve resources listed in the county inventory of historic properties, a list that includes some cemeteries.
Stabler said a similar process in Prince George’s involves reporting historic cemeteries to the Maryland inventory of historic properties, kept by the Maryland Historical Trust.
Jane Cox, chief of cultural resources for Anne Arundel’s Office of Planning and Zoning, calls this a second layer of protection for historic cemeteries.
“It’s working to balance the needs of what the code says and the respectful thing to do with the cemetery,” Cox said.
Cox has the help of Tina Simmons, the cemetery committee chair for the Anne Arundel Genealogical Society. The society is not part of county government, but Simmons and Cox often share findings.
Simmons initially joined the society to research her family history, but soon she was asked to take on a project: updating a record of all the cemeteries in the county. She has done this for more than 20 years.
Although she does not have a background in archaeology, Simmons calls herself a researcher by trade from her days doing administrative work in the field of medicine. Much of her cemetery searching comes from word-of-mouth across the county.
She says acquaintances have developed a new way of talking about her: “How long did you know Tina before she started asking you about cemeteries?”
“It’s my little civic duty,” Simmons said.
There are 237 recorded cemeteries in Prince George’s, and Stabler says the true total could be around 300. Simmons, meanwhile, has more than 500 on record in Anne Arundel. She thinks that the discrepancy between the counties is partly due to immigrants arriving by boat in the Anne Arundel region first, before moving west.
Cox said that Prince George’s experienced more suburban development during an earlier time when cemetery protection was less commonplace. She said that at least once a month, her office gets word of a cemetery not on record. Stabler gets similar reports once every few months. But if they confirm they don’t have a site recorded, they still face challenges.
Because many stones don’t survive for decades or centuries, “there’s often not a lot of aboveground information on where the graves themselves, or the extent of the cemetery, is located,” Cox said.
Sometimes subsurface testing is needed to confirm a burial’s location, but the presence of vegetation common to cemeteries, such as vinca and yucca, also can provide a hint. When trying to identify an unmarked grave, the women often find clues such as death certificates, funeral records and land records. Stabler even keeps a GIS (geographic information system) map of Prince George’s that she updates.
Stabler notes another challenge: families unwilling to share information about their private burials.
“I guess they figure we’re going to make them historic sites or something, and make them do something to maintain them or clean them up, which they perceive as an extra cost to them,” Stabler said.
Not every cemetery automatically qualifies as a historic site in either county.
Simmons, although she does not represent a government agency like Stabler, says she has a similar issue when people are “territorial” with records of their family cemeteries. Sometimes she knows a record exists and cannot access it.
“Some people say, ‘Well, they’re dead. Why worry about it?’ ” Simmons said.
These women worry about it because keeping track of burials is important not only when developers want to alter the land but also to preserve history. In recent years, local graves have been cause for headlines.
Descendants of slaves owned by the Jesuit order of Catholic priests gathered in Bowie this year and toured Sacred Heart Church and its cemetery, where many of their enslaved ancestors were buried. Local historian Janice Hayes-Williams has worked to learn about and commemorate those who were buried at Crownsville State Hospital, which was once the Hospital for the Negro Insane of Maryland.
And in 2012, archaeologists discovered a Native American burial site at Pig Point on the shore of the Patuxent River, with human bones that dated to as early as 230 B.C.
Simmons said the oldest known cemetery in Maryland lies in Anne Arundel — at St. James’s Parish in Lothian, where some headstones are from the mid-1600s.
However old or recent they are, protecting and honoring cemeteries “gives people an opportunity to better understand the founding families, the people who came before us,” Cox said.
“Everybody knows Anne Arundel County has an incredibly rich history,” she said, “but it’s a very visual way of feeling that heritage.”