This column in Attraction by Amelia Blades Steward visits the faces of those who have benefited from the generous and tireless work of the nonprofits on the Mid Shore or are one of the organizations giving back in unique ways to better our world. She has been a freelance writer in our community for over 20 years and offers a glimpse into the lives of residents on the Mid Shore who she has met along the way.
I recently started thinking about cemeteries and their proximities to area waterways as we have experienced more frequent rising tides and flooding on the Shore this year. I decided to learn more, so I reached out to a prominent expert in the field, Eddie Dean of Salisbury, who is working tirelessly on preserving and protecting historic cemeteries on the Eastern Shore, both personally and through his local nonprofit organization, the Lower Shore Cemetery Preservation Organization. The organization, which serves Dorchester, Wicomico, Somerset and Worcester counties, is the first local nonprofit to do cemetery preservation with all volunteers.
Eddie has had tremendous success in engaging the community in several important historic cemetery projects. In 2021, he was awarded the Periwinkle Award by The Coalition to Protect Maryland Burial Sites (CPMBS) for his dedicated service and advocacy for cemeteries throughout Maryland’s Eastern Shore. His work has included cleaning up 16 cemeteries and accumulating more than 1,200 volunteer hours with a total of 16 different projects.
Most recently, Eddie is helping East New Market with its Friendship Hall Cemetery. Some other projects in Dorchester County include repairing a cemetery at the New Revival Methodist Church in Smithville, and at the Joppa United Methodist Church in Madison. At each of these locations, Eddie conducted workshops engaging more than 75 people at each site who wanted to learn more about cemetery preservation. These workshops also attracted local and state officials who wanted to learn more about this important issue.
Eddie’s own passion for cemeteries came from researching his family’s cemeteries in Dorchester County, where his family arrived in the 1650s. The family later received a land patent in 1689.
“We are living in a little Jamestown. I don’t think people realize that these counties have such historical significance. The founding fathers of our country came from this land,” he comments. “Working in these cemeteries has really sparked my interest in genealogy and my own family’s roots. I began to realize that some of these cemeteries were washing away without ever being recorded. It prompted me to look at other things, like why are cemeteries near the water. I later learned because it was where the houses were built for convenience to transportation at the time,” he adds.
Working on these projects has also been personally rewarding to Eddie. To date, he has used his own funds from his business, Right Hand Man Services, LLC, to help support the projects he undertakes. He would like to see the community step forward to help underwrite some of the projects as well.
“It’s important to gain community involvement in order to build commitment to sustain the work that we do. These cemeteries will need continual care in the years ahead and having community support for that is imperative,” he adds.
There is also the fun part of working in historical research and preservation. While working on a family cemetery near Spocott Windmill in Dorchester County, Eddie was able to share with family members the important historical significance of a bugeye mast on the property that belonged to the bugeye Richard Smith, built by his great grandfather, George Smith Dean, in 1881. The mast can still be seen at Spocott Windmill.
Currently, Eddie is working with the City of Salisbury on the Potter’s Field Cemetery project, which includes many unmarked graves which were moved in 1959 when Route 50 was extended through Salisbury.
“No one wants to do this work today. Our organization is hoping to bring awareness to the issues around cemeteries and to educate the public about their importance and motivate others to act before some of these resources disappear,” Eddie comments.
Eddie shares that people need to determine ownership of the cemetery first and understand the easements on the property before proceeding to get access. Determining the historical significance is equally important – considering whether the family members were veterans or held prominent roles in history. Finding out if a cemetery has been documented is also important before beginning any preservation activities. Eddie was moved by his own family’s cemetery which was washing away in Bishop’s Head, which motivated him to want to get involved.
Today, cemeteries face many challenges related to climate and people moving away from family roots. According to The Coalition to Protect Maryland Burial Sites (CPMBS), whose mission is to promote the preservation and protection of the Maryland burial sites, cemeteries, and graveyards, most of us imagine a burial as a respectful and dignified laying to rest of a person who touched our lives and contributed to our culture. Over time, however, burial sites in Maryland have too often been neglected, not maintained, unprotected, and the victims of expediency and exploitation by persons seeking a short-term economic or personal goal. Members of the organization appreciate the importance of burial sites as hallowed grounds, irreplaceable cultural resources, and sources of valuable genealogical data often found nowhere else.
Tina Simmons of Severna Park, a Board Member at Large of The Coalition to Protect Maryland Burial Sites and a volunteer who has worked for over 30 years documenting cemeteries, climate change, states, “Families moving away from their roots, and a lack of interest, has left many family cemeteries at risk for being lost. In addition, cemeteries don’t fall under disaster plans, so as climate change continues to impact these cemeteries, recovery becomes more difficult. Authorizing family members to be moved to a new location as cemeteries fall underwater can be challenging.”
According to Tina, however, researching whether a cemetery has ever been documented is easier today than it ever was. Tina suggests several resources in addition to the CPMBS site, which lists resources by county. She suggests starting with genealogical societies, county Planning and Zoning Offices, or utilizing such online resources as findagrave.com or billiongraves.com that can help you search for a person by name and includes photographs of tombstones. The CPMBS is working on a long-term mapping project of all known cemeteries in Maryland.
While the number of cemeteries being inventoried, transcribed, protected by historic designation, and being cared for is increasing, Marylanders still have much work to do. The Coalition’s “Guide to Burial Site Stewardship,” is available online and provides information to assist individuals or groups on how to proceed when faced with a burial ground that is inadequately maintained, neglected, abandoned, or harmed by vandals. The chapters include getting started; reading local/state laws governing burial sites before attempting access; access to burial sites on private property; types of cemeteries and their development; documentation and recordation; what are the next steps; cemetery CPR and maintenance; miscellaneous topics, including symbolism; gravestone rubbings; mapping; and foil impressions; a glossary; appendices; and an index.
Another resource is to contact a cemetery conservator like Mosko Cemetery Monument Services (cemeteryrepair.com), which specializes in preserving, conserving, restoring, and rehabilitating historical cemeteries and monuments. Founder Robert Mosko has worked in more than 56 cemeteries and has restored, repaired, preserved, and conserved more than 4,000 gravestones and monuments, including several on the Eastern Shore with Eddie Dean. Eddie appreciates the knowledge Robert, as a conservator, has brought to the many projects they have worked on together.
“I look at my role with these cemeteries as preserving the past for future generations. I am hopeful that the generations just coming of age will take an interest in these cemeteries. I have a number of kids who enjoy participating in the projects and commit volunteer hours. Hopefully, we are planting seeds for the future preservationists out there,” concludes Eddie.
For further information or to donate to the Lower Shore Cemetery Preservation Organization, visit them on Facebook or contact Eddie Dean at 410-713-1357 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
My family wasn’t a frequent visitor of cemeteries. I remember when the seasons changed, my mother and grandmother would change the wreaths on close family gravestones, sometimes visiting the cemeteries to reflect and honor loved ones who had passed away. I must admit, the ritual of visiting cemeteries hasn’t been an activity I have made a regular part of my life. That is until my father passed away in 2016 and I found myself in charge of a private family cemetery in Wittman.
My father, Robert Blades, and his sister, Barbara Dryden, got interested in the Harrison Cemetery when they both retired. They sent letters to family members to start a fund for the maintenance of the cemetery and for several years were able to keep somewhat ahead of the poison ivy and chiggers which left family members not wanting to go back to the remote location in a farm field in Talbot County to visit loved ones. After his death, my cousins got together occasionally trying to create a long-term plan for the upkeep of the cemetery, which was now owned by a new property owner. When COVID-19 arrived, we all got busy caring for our elderly family members and haven’t been able to regain momentum on our project. I hope by reaching out to Eddie Dean and others, that we can reignite my family’s passion for its historic cemetery.