Baltimore’s cities of the dead

Published on: July 25, 2022 at 6:00 am EDT

An angel statue at Woodlawn Cemetery

Haunting cemeteries (pun intended) is one of my favorite pastimes. Getting exercise and fresh air while admiring funerary sculpture and walking along looming trees among generations of Baltimoreans — what’s not to like? And there’s a unique air of peace and serenity in the cities of the dead, which is why many were once favorite picnicking spots for Baltimore families.

Luckily, Baltimore has an abundance of scenic and historic cemeteries, all freely accessible most days of the week. Here are my top four.

Bronze statue of Endymion at the grave of its sculptor, William Rinehart.

1501 Greenmount Ave., Baltimore

Green Mount is hands-down my absolute favorite area cemetery and Baltimore’s rival of the famed Père-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. Dedicated in 1839, it was one of the earliest garden-style cemeteries in the U.S. The natural beauty of the tree-lined, cobblestone walkways is only matched by the ornate architecture, including the stunning octagonal gothic chapel with its 102-foot spire and an Egyptian-style mausoleum.

Statuary from famous sculptors William Henry Rinehart and Hans Schuler grace the nearly 70 acres, and the resting places of many historical figures — Johns Hopkins, Enoch Pratt, Henry Walters and even notorious Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth — are found among the oak, maple, sycamore and walnut trees.

The cemetery has its quirks, too. I was shocked to stumble upon a Ouija board gravestone at the grave of Elijah Bond, who patented the ghostly “talking board.” And it’s home to a very rare species of rose, the Green Mount Red.

Plan to spend a full day if you visit so you can enjoy all the vistas, shady nooks and impressive art.

Broken gravestones at Old Saint Paul’s Cemetery in Baltimore City.

733 West Redwood St., Baltimore

You may have walked or driven past Old Saint Paul’s Cemetery and never noticed it. Abutting Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Redwood and Lombard streets — with the University of Maryland, Baltimore campus looming above — the 2.4-acre historic cemetery is hidden behind high brick walls. The cemetery was once considerably larger, but many of the graves were relocated inside its current walls when MLK Boulevard construction cut through the grounds before its completion in the early 1980s.

Although not nearly as scenic as Green Mount, Old Saint Paul’s is home to several storied Baltimoreans, including many who loaned their names to familiar streets — Declaration of Independence signer Samuel Chase, Revolutionary War hero John Eager Howard and Fort McHenry defender General George Armistead. Francis Scott Key was interred here, too, before being moved to Mount Olivet Cemetery in Frederick.

Among the vaults and graves a visitor can find “coffin bells” — aboveground bells attached by string to the deceased — designed to alert passersby to any premature burials (none were recorded, thankfully). Poe and other taphophobes would have surely appreciated such amenities.

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Visits are by appointment only.

Remnants of a wooden sign reading “Cemetery” at Mount Auburn Cemetery

2630 Waterview Ave., Baltimore

Mount Auburn is the city’s oldest Black cemetery (and one of the oldest in the U.S.), covering more than 30 acres of land near the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River in Westport. It is owned by Sharp Street Memorial United Methodist Church. The cemetery was founded in 1872 and became known as “The City of the Dead for Colored People.” Even in death, Black and white people were segregated.

Sadly, the cemetery fell into disrepair and neglect over the years, as weeds and brush grew over the gravestones and markers, and was also subject to periodic vandalism and littering. In 1944, The Afro-American exposed the wretched conditions, and volunteers began to clear the grounds, but without sufficient funding to provide regular maintenance, it was a losing battle.

In 2008, a partnership of city and private organizations — including Morgan State University and the Abell Foundation — began work to clear and renovate the historic cemetery, using state prisoners to clear the brush and debris and keep the grass mown.

A project known as Resurrecting Mount Auburn Cemetery is currently mapping the burials using publicly available records and an iPhone app. Over 55,000 burials have been identified so far, allowing many families to locate and honor their departed loved ones for the first time.

Notable Baltimoreans buried at Mount Auburn include Lillie Carroll Jackson, civil rights leader and former president of the Baltimore branch of the NAACP; John Henry Murphy, founder of The Afro-American newspaper; and Joseph “Tunnel Joe” Holmes, who escaped from the Maryland Penitentiary by digging a tunnel with a spoon.

Be sure to wear sturdy walking shoes when you visit, as the grounds are very rough.

Group of geese at Woodlawn Cemetery

2130 Woodlawn Drive, Gwynn Oak

The first thing a visitor sees when entering Woodlawn Cemetery are the raucous waterfowl, herons, kingfishers, cormorants, crows and seagulls drawn to the calm stretch of Gwynns Falls — an explosion of avian life in the realm of the dead that makes it a popular location for bird watchers. Canada geese strut and waddle through the rows of tombstones and ring-billed gulls fight for perches on the mausoleums. Higher up on the hill one can see hawks, woodpeckers — even the occasional bald eagle.

The cemetery was built in the early 19th century on the site of the Powhatan Cotton Factory, where duck cotton was manufactured for sailcloth, bags and tents. A small town grew around the mill, including a Methodist Episcopal church, but after the mill burned and shut down, the Woodlawn Cemetery Company bought the land, razed the buildings and turned it into a cemetery in 1903. They promoted the rural grounds as a respite from the city, where cemeteries like Green Mount were rapidly running out of room for new arrivals.

As one wanders up the hilly, tree-lined roadways, it’s hard to miss the “Greek Section” with its Cyrillic-engraved tombstones and monuments. Over 600 Orthodox Christians are buried there.

Among the notable burials are Dr. Howard Atwood Kelly, a pioneering gynecologist and one of the founders of Johns Hopkins Hospital; Tamara Dobson, an actress who portrayed Cleopatra Jones in the 1973 blaxploitation film of the same name; and Walter Scott “Steve” Brodie, a Baltimore Oriole who recited Shakespearean verse to entertain himself while playing center field.

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