Mapping Project Aims to Protect and Improve Maintenance of Cemeteries

Community Planning Historic Preservation

An elderly neighbor’s story, ground-penetrating radar, and the impending development of fallow land just before the recession uncovered yet another unmarked slave cemetery in Prince George’s County.

“We have a lot of slave cemeteries, but we don’t know where a lot of them are,” said Jennifer Stabler, staff archeologist for the Prince George’s County Planning Department. Stabler recalled finding the cemetery on Chew Road.

A developer had planned to subdivide a lot near the end of the road. As workers were milling about the site, a woman in her 80s asked about the old slave cemetery on the property. She estimated where it was, and Historic Preservation staff researched the property and compared it to 1938 aerial maps, which showed a clump of trees around a field that was likely a cemetery.

The team used ground-penetrating radar to confirm multiple disturbances in the soil, in a pattern typical of horizontal graves. The cemetery was recorded into the Planning Department’s cemetery database, but the subdivision development halted because of the downturn on the economy.

The Prince George’s County Planning Department’s internal database of the cemetery locations, not yet available to the public, helps staff identify cemeteries as plans for development begin, and helps developers mitigate issues with preserving, protecting, and providing access to cemeteries.

The Prince George’s County Historic Preservation team began locating, documenting, and mapping cemeteries on public and private lands as development in Prince George’s County exploded in the late 90s and early 2000s.

“The project is to protect cemeteries from future development and encourage people who have them on their property to maintain them,” Stabler said.

When developers form plans to subdivide a lot, they are required to provide a conditions report and inventory of any cemeteries on the property. The report should include pictures of any fencing, stones, or markers. The owner of the land is required to upkeep the cemetery.

Often, within an HOA, the developer will leave the cemetery on HOA-owned land so community dues can cover the upkeep. However, as Stabler said, they recently had a community call to complain about the deterioration of a cemetery in their neighborhood. One of the neighbors owns the land where the cemetery lies.

When staff approached the landowner about managing the upkeep on the cemetery, she was confused. She had assumed, that despite knowing it was her land, that some organization—perhaps the government—was required to take care of it.

That is not the case. And, even if the cemetery is on private property, state law requires the owner to provide access to it. Landowners can be fined for failing to maintain cemeteries that are designated historic sites, but typically M-NCPPC tries to work with the owner first to improve the conditions.

Although the Planning Department’s main goal is to identify and map the location of cemeteries, the Historic Preservation interns have been working to research the old landowners and try to identify who might be in those graves.

“Sometimes with older cemeteries not everyone has a marker.”

Want to visit old cemeteries?

Stabler warns that, although by law the public has a right to access all cemeteries, many property owners with cemeteries on their private land might be unaware of that law. She suggests contacting any property owner before attempting to access a site that is not on public land.

Keep an eye out for daffodils and periwinkles. Stabler said they were common in the nineteenth century as ground coverings for cemeteries.

If you have a burial ground on your property, or know of an abandoned cemetery, please contact Jennifer Stabler at 301-952-5595 or Jennifer.Stabler@ppd.mncppc.org.

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