Monday, December 14, 2015

Cemeteries - A Walk Back Into The Past

I have a confession to make; I like hanging out in old cemeteries. It's not that I have a morbid fascination with death mind you, I just enjoy spending time there. When I was younger, cemeteries were an oasis for me, a place of escape from the insanity of summer in the city. As I have grown older, I now enjoy just walking through, looking at the stones and wondering about the people that now lie in the ground, but at one time lived and loved and cried and did all the things that people do. Growing up, I was surrounded by cemeteries. In my childhood home of Southwest Baltimore, the cemeteries are old, and existed long before the homes and neighborhoods came to be. One of the largest cemeteries in the area is Loudin Park Cemetery.
Loudin Park Cemetery was founded in 1853 and encompasses 350 acres of real estate in the Southwestern part of Baltimore City. It's the final resting place for such notables as H.L. Mencken; the famous sage, journalist, critic, writer, etc., from Baltimore. Mary Pickersgill; the flag maker for the banner that flew over Ft. McHenry, and the inspiration behind Francis Scott Key's 'Star Spangled Banner' is also buried there. Another notable is Charles Joseph Bonaparte; Presidential Cabinet Secretary and the youngest grandson of Jerome Bonaparte, who was the youngest brother of Napoleon Bonaparte. Loudin Park is also rich in Civil War history. It's the final resting place of 2,300 Union soldiers and about 600 Confederates consisting of officers as well as foot soldiers.
While it's interesting to take note of prominent people buried in my backyard, I'm equally fascinated by the stories that the headstones reveal about the common folk. For instance, I noticed on one of my walks that there seemed to be an inordinate amount of deaths among children in the time frame between 1918 and 1920. In numerous cases, I observed that several children from the same family had died within this time frame, and usually in the same year. Curious as to the reason for this, I checked and found that one of the great flu epidemics had occurred during the year 1918 that had killed about 675,000 people in the United States alone. This epidemic had been especially hard on the very young, and in many cases the entire family had been wiped out! Understanding the story behind the dates, one can only imagine what the families of those dying must have felt to watch those around them succumb to this disease.
Another interesting aspect of Loudin Park Cemetery is that back at the turn of the century remains were often transported to the cemetery by the nearby Pennsylvania railroad or by the Baltimore hearse trolley known as the 'Delores'. The trolley would deliver the remains to the gate where they would then be transported by horse and carriage to the grave site or by the cemetery's own trolley which ran from one end of the cemetery to the other. Even today, you can still see the remnants of tracks covered by brush and woods running through the middle of the cemetery. Loudin Park cemetery is also the only cemetery known to have operated its own trolley system. The trolley ran one mile, and transported visitors though its spacious grounds. It operated from 1905-1931, when it was replaced by the bus.
Loudin Park was also used by local residents as a park and picnic area during this time frame. City residents would hop on the trolley and spend the day at the cemetery, sitting under the big old trees or down by the lake. During the height of its popularity, 2,000 people a week would make the trip to the cemetery, with the majority visiting on the weekends.
For most of us, a trip to the cemetery is a somber occasion. It's a time to recall loved one's who have passed on, and we usually do this by placing a flower on the grave on holidays such as Easter and Christmas. For me however, it's a 'walk back into the past'. With my brother having recently completed an extensive family history, I have become aware of several ancestors that I never knew existed. One's like little William, a great, great, great, great uncle, who died of the flu when he was just two. Now when I visit their graves, they are not just a grave marker but a connection to my past. One day in the future, someone will take a walk back into the past, and get to know you and me. What will that story tell?

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