Biddison Cementary is at the end of my block. It is HISTORIC
LANDMARK..I brought my home seven years ago and I have never seen ANYONE
COME OUT and up keep the grounds.if there are any FAMILY MEMBERS out
there Please show respect and contact the city to Help keep up the
grounds… Its a Eye sore.
I have never been afraid or unsettled in graveyards. In recent years,
I’ve loved them for the fact that they force me to be peaceful. During
the day, living people in a graveyard are washed-out and quieted.
Funeral voices are black-toned murmurs. Dog-walkers and joggers exercise
mutely. Visitors solemnly offer flowers to graves and bread to pond
ducks. And I, scatter-brained and the middle-child-of-six-kids kind of
talkative, can sink into that quiet with no acknowledgment. No demands
on my presence. I also love them for their history, and not just in
names of the deceased. The space of a cemetery itself carries a story.
That feels especially true in abandoned ones—cracked stone, fading
epitaphs, and the reasons why people leave graves to crumble.
This Google Maps review is one of only seven left for Biddison Family
Cemetery, a small, abandoned green space in northeast Baltimore,
Maryland. At the junction of Forrester Avenue and Oaklyn Avenue in the
Waltherson neighborhood, this little pocket hosts at least fifty-five
And the above reviewer is correct: it is an “Eye sore.” Many of the
graves are cracked or fully separated from their plinths, sprawled
against tree roots or the dirt. When I visited Biddison on July 14th,
2020, I’d expected to see that much. What I didn’t expect to see was a
pile of brown paper bags piled against the south side of the fence,
overflowing with recycling and flies. The words NATTY DADDY shouted from
a blue aluminum can at the top of one of the bags, and a fly plodded
idly along its rim. I later tried to find out if the intersection of
Biddison Lane and Forrester Avenue is a designated recycling drop point,
but nothing I found from Baltimore City Public Works indicates that it
On the outside of the northwest section of the fence, an intact white
sink bowl rested upside-down on the sweating cushions of a once-white,
now-forgotten couch. Grass encroached slowly around their bases. The
headboard of a bedframe leant over them both, resting against the face,
and from a distance its shape was not unlike that of a historical marker
sign. Less than ten feet from it all, tombstones touching one hundred
years old and more gathered moss. I framed pictures with the household
bits in the foreground, fence in the middle ground, graves at the back.
There isn’t a gate, merely an opening in the fence, and the bags were
piled in such a way that they didn’t block it at all. Access to Biddison
Family Cemetery is unfettered, though you wouldn’t know its name just by
being there—there’s no sign, no marker. You’d have to check Google
Maps on the site itself to get a name, or perhaps search one of the
names of the dead. On Maps, you can read all seven of the reviews, which
average 3.4 out of 5 stars. A couple of them say that the site was kept
up by neighbors twenty and more years ago, but complain that there’s
been no organized effort in recent years to keep the cemetery clean.
Douglas firs, red maples, and black walnuts grow in and outside the
cemetery, casting a welcome shade that stands in stark contrast to the
sunny neighborhood sidewalks. In the thick, humid carpet of Maryland air
on a summer morning, I was certain it was already in the upper eighties,
and I was glad of the cover. Swarms of gnats chased each other through
Before I started scribbling any notes, I texted my mother a screenshot
of my Google Maps location, explaining where I was—something I’d
neglected to do when I left the house in the wake of sunrise. The
unspoken message was: “in case something happens.” I knew roughly where
I was—Bel Air—and I didn’t expect anything from this quiet street.
But I grew up spoon-fed the notion that Baltimore is not safe, so I
texted my mother.
I knew why I was there: I wanted to write about cemeteries. Mostly
abandoned ones. I didn’t know what I wanted to say yet; I was there as a
journalist, documenting my own fascinations. Grass and branches crunched
underfoot as I wandered among the tombstones, and I stepped around a few
water bottles caked in dirt, plastic crunched into leaves. I snapped
careful pictures of every headstone, giving special care to the toppled
ones, the cracked ones, the ones so worn it would be a challenge to read
the words even with digital enhancements.
Other than the majority of Biddisons, there were Forresters, McCauleys,
Barbers, a knit set of white families marrying and descending down to
the most recent: Eva Biddison, buried in 1961. As far as I could read,
the oldest plot belonged to John L. Burgan, born in 1771 and deceased in
a year obscured by vines. I thought I read a “15” under the leaves, but
I didn’t want to tear the growth away. I didn’t want to disturb anything
in this still, pocketed breath of space. The decay simultaneously
saddened and fascinated me, and I saw myself as an observer—a kind of
journalist—there to document the strange wonder of graves left to
topple mere yards away from single-family homes built in 1930.
The fencing there seemed almost to have a life of its own—in many
places the iron twisted and bent in bulbous, wild shapes. At the north
end of the cemetery, the side facing Forrester Avenue, the fence broke
away from the northwest corner post and leaned out toward the road,
leaving a gap big enough to walk through. The buckled metal gestured
drunkenly toward the street, toward the homes, beckoning me to leave the
dead and get on with my day. I didn’t. Not immediately. I tread back
among the graves and took more notes, determined to find a story.
I respect this place a lot. It is a peaceful place to ride your bicycle
and enjoy the beautiful pond with deer which regularly can be seen here.
The graves are well maintained. There is older graves which goes back to
the early 1911’s which is the oldest i have seen. The only problem is
the roads which are very bumpy and need to be repaved.
In a different summer, before my senior year of undergrad, I fell
spiritually in love with graveyards—for the first and only time. On a
buggy Friday afternoon in late August 2018, a friend invited me to hang
out as a sort of last hurrah before my fall semester started the
following week. A self-identified night witch, he owned multiple tarot
decks and had hexed at least one of his exes. He wanted to show me “his”
cemetery: Parkwood Cemetery in Parkville, Maryland, a hilly expanse
holding, I’d guess, at least several thousand graves. The place doesn’t
have a website so I can’t even say its acreage, but it’s huge by the
standards of someone who’s lived in jammed-up suburbs all her life. This
was his safe place, he told me. He’d read the cards under the stars
We meandered through lanes named after trees. Some areas of the cemetery
were churned-up masses of pale brown earth littered with dirt and rock
piles, empty work machines left to rest until the next work week began.
Signs that people still worked there, that others were yet to buried.
Muddy tire tracks streaked across some of the paved walkways. But it was
easy, with all the hills and rolls of the landscape, to crest over a
rise and block the view of these eyesores.
We ended up sitting together under the boughs of a tree I wish I could
name. There were no plots on this patch of grass, and nearby there was a
semi-stagnant pond moved only by the spray of a single fountain at its
center. Charming, but still not otherworldly. I don’t know why we
elected not to sit in the white gazebo at the pond’s edge, with its
dulled white paint and black roof shingles.
We settled into the knotted roots, bark at our backs and hundreds of
graves rolling before us. We smoked marijuana out of an apple, his idea,
a feat I hadn’t known was possible. As he expertly dug a bowl into its
flesh with a pocket knife, I watched a man throwing a frisbee to his dog
the next field over, certain he’d see—what? Two white
twenty-somethings eating an apple under a tree? I picked at my cuticles
and waited to get high so that I wouldn’t fear anymore. I knew the
likelihood of a white man noticing two kids smoking, much less doing
anything about it, was slim to none. Still, I bit my nails.
With a couple of hits, I forgot about the man and the dog and left my
ragged nails alone. More aware of the wood knots pricking my skin, but
more grateful for them. The afternoon thickened around us and though I
don’t remember much of what we talked about, I’m certain it was all
dreamy, dusky conversation about Life. The kind where you’re certain
you’ve solved the world’s problems in the moment, only to find with
sobriety that you were just high and thinking of society as a sandbox
At the peak of my high, I pulled a small lined notebook and a pen from
my purse and doodled. Many months later, when I wanted the notebook for
more practical reasons, I ripped out that page and tossed it. I wish I
hadn’t. I wish I hadn’t destroyed the wide-eyed deer I drew, its antlers
mantled in vines and flowers, inspired by the woods behind us and the
almost godly feeling that made my fingers itch to create.
His cemetery, he said. I wanted to feel it was mine, too.
No more deep lines for the / Marble brow, / Do sorrow no bitter
awakening /Now, but the strife and pain / And grief will cease, / For
nought can disturb that / “Perfect peace.
Biddison Family Cemetery is in the Waltherson neighborhood of Baltimore,
consisting of some 2,500 homes with a reported population of 6,965
people, which astounds me. It’s about 0.657 square miles of Baltimore,
and when I look at a map of its streets it just doesn’t make sense that
so many people fit there. The houses I saw on those streets were mostly
smaller, three bed, two bath, and when I pulled up before 8:00, they
were mostly still blanketed in sleep. The Amazon truck and the woman who
greeted me were the only signs of waking life.
At the time I visited in July, only fourteen of the neighborhood’s homes
were listed on Zillow as foreclosed or in pre-foreclosure. The highest
listing price for any home was 270k, the lowest 130k. It’s a 67%
majority black area with a pretty even distribution of all age groups,
and apparently a lot of dog walkers. It’s a quintessential “nice, quiet
neighborhood” in a city, really—what real estate sites might call
“sparse suburban,” a phrase that makes me feel a bit twitchy. But jargon
aside, it was nice, and even if anyone had been awake to see me poking
through the Biddison Cemetery, I truly don’t think they would have
cared. I’d been taught to feel instinctively nervous in most parts of
Baltimore, but neither the dead nor the living there made me feel
afraid. I was discomfited by graves left to crumble in the middle of the
suburbs, but that discomfort was, at first, academic.
In sobriety, I don’t consider myself religious/spiritual. I feel totally
at peace among tombstones because I believe the dead are fully,
completely gone. I’m deeply skeptical of ghosts, don’t truck with
demons, and refuse to believe in an afterlife because the concept of
eternity terrifies me. I’m not really that afraid of death; I fear the
pain that may accompany dying, not the departure. I walk through a
graveyard and though I know each grave may come with its own story of
grief, I’m happy believing that the dead are free of that pain. I’m
happy knowing the living have a place to visit and process their losses.
Those hard lines started blurring for me in Biddison. It was harder to
tread clean lines around graves when at least half the stones had
cracked from their foundations and lay in the grass. It wasn’t fear or
superstition that pricked the back of my mind—it was not knowing where
grave boundaries were. Every spare inch of earth could have been a
resting place. Time had taken over and no one had stepped in. As I
studied names from the 19th century and tried to find a narrative, the
research corner of my mind kept asking—why had they been left
Graveyards can be exhumed because city planners approve construction
projects on sites with cemeteries, and the bodies must go. Or,
construction workers are laying foundations and discover human remains,
which calls up legal questions about how to handle unidentified,
unexpected bones. Flooding can churn up the earth and send coffins
floating down streets, and plots are moved to higher, drier ground. And
in some cases, historical cemeteries are moved and preserved because
they can be better maintained in a different location.
That last reason likely comes with a much higher bill than the others.
State laws on moving graves differ. For much older sites, or for ones
with possible historical significance, dig teams might be legally
required to bring in a team of archaeologists before anything can be
reinterred. They have to carefully disinter and catalogue each remain
and stone and submit a report of findings. All of these people get a
In the case of the Biddison Family cemetery, it would probably have
fallen to one of the family to foot that expense if they’d wanted to
take their ancestors elsewhere. Eva Biddison was the last to be buried
in the cemetery in 1963, and the last of the family estate was sold off
around that time. I can only assume the rest of the Biddisons had
already scattered. That would be no surprise—a lot of white people
left Baltimore in the 1960s and 70s, as industrial jobs collapsed and
families fled for true suburbia. As the city changed around the
cemetery, somebody would have had to step in to see it maintained over
the decades. There were apparently no Biddisons left to do it, no
McCauleys or Forresters, or if there were, they didn’t care to.
Human remains, by right, belong to next of kin. When the last of the
Biddison estate was sold off, the family had no property claims left in
Baltimore, but I wonder if they could have made claims for the bones or
for the headstones. I wonder if they would have wanted to foot that
bill, or if they couldn’t afford to.
I don’t know who actually owns Biddison Family Cemetery, but at first,
that didn’t bother me. I was fascinated that centuries of history could
fall apart, with only a badly warped fence and some bags of recycling as
a barrier between graves and Amazon delivery trucks. I wanted someone
else to appreciate the romance of old tombs with me.
I’m happy believing that graveyards are spaces for the living, spaces
that invite contemplation and a suspension of whatever business haunts
us outside. I still prefer to walk between graves rather than cut across
them. But that’s out of deference to how American society regards
graves, not out of my own superstition; as far as I’m concerned, the
dead are dust. Yet I still keenly felt the lack of care in each broken
headstone at Biddison, because that meant the living had given up on
Played in this cementary in the 60s.Love the old tomestones.Wish I knew
more history of the area.I grew up in Gardenville and remembet the old
mansion on Biddison Lane before it burned down.I heard from some of the
older residents that it was farms and the Biddisons and Foresters owned
alot of the land.I knew Mr.Buck Henninger whose wife had been born in
their housr on Belair & Biddison Ln.She remembered when Belair Rd was a
dirt road and a stream went thru it
At home in the safety of my computer chair, doing site research about
Biddison Family Cemetery, I ran into a problem.
There was nothing interesting to say about it. Not from a historical
There were a couple of factoids I thought I could spin into a narrative.
One of the oldest Maryland Biddisons, Abraham—born 1789, died
1834—owned the land between what we now know as Harford and Belair
Road. A piece titled “Men in the Street: The Biddisons” from the
February 5, 1950 edition of the Baltimore Sun alleges that Abraham
allowed Native Americans to pitch tents on his land and use the springs
as they passed through. It’s a nice thought.
Abraham’s son, John Shrim, was allegedly such a strong Confederate
sympathizer during the Civil War that he was locked in Fort McHenry in
Baltimore for its duration. He was described as an “unconstitutional
rebel” right up to the end of his life, in either 1895 or ‘96. John S.
Biddison, his grandson, was a Maryland State Senator.
But none of these items made the story I wanted, was convinced I’d find.
I let snippets and paragraphs gather dust after hours spent poking
through online archives of The Baltimore Sun, searching keyword
“Biddison” and begging for something amazing. I tried the essay again
from a different angle, writing about Baltimore City itself, and that
didn’t work either because I don’t entirely belong to it. I’ve lived
outside it all my life in the cushion of majority-white suburbs. My
childhood and teenage trips there were limited to art museums, concerts,
and the Inner Harbor. I love Baltimore, but that love isn’t colored by
enough personal conflict to make a point.
I wanted, I think, the mysticism I felt inside a tunnel of grave
markers—I wanted to convince myself of spirits and lost, transcendent
history. But if the trick to that is apple smoke and buying into
ideologies that aren’t mine, I can’t touch that place again.
The inhabitants of Waltherson, specifically on Forrester Avenue, may
enjoy the cemetery for the bit of green space it offers. Or, they may
consider it an eyesore. But its history isn’t their own. I may love the
trails of moss on weathered stone and grieve for cracked epitaphs, but
no one else has to. The white family that once owned all the land of the
neighborhood, centuries ago, pulled up their roots and left bones
behind. The people who live there aren’t obligated by any law or
emotions to take care of that green space.
Cemeteries are businesses. Groundskeepers, office workers, funeral
directors. There is a cash flow to keeping weeds away from grandparents’
graves, to renting the forklifts that lower caskets into the earth.
There is no money in maintaining Biddison for the people who live on
Forrester Avenue, there are no emotional ties. There are only two
reasons, I think, that anyone in Waltherson might begin to bother about
Biddison: general respect for the dead, and that it’s an eyesore.
Neither of those motivations seem to be strong enough—at least right
now. The more I dug and twisted into Biddison’s existence and
abandonment, the more I kept asking myself: why should they be?
Respect for the dead is for the benefit of the living, I think. Don’t
speak ill of the dead. Don’t walk over someone’s grave. It’s beautiful
to honor someone’s passing and to continue to honor their memories; that
is a very personal responsibility. But in public and privately owned
cemeteries, we’ve opted to share that responsibility; we’ve created
strange gardens that depend on employed personnel to function. Our
deceased have to go somewhere.
My dad was buried there 8 years ago. The forklift battery was not
charged the night before. My fathers casket swayed in the air until my
husband assisted to fix it.
My mother’s chapel ceremony was yesterday. We followed the office
personnel along with visitors for the burial, following a car which
advertised “chocolates and nail salons” down to the chapel. So
unprofessional. They did not even have a professional vehicle. We could
not drive to the sight, because the roads were so muddy. We had to walk
from the chapel to the burial area….
I will look into having both my mom and my dad removed from this
My comfort in graveyards, I now realize, depends largely on their sense
of order. I love the abandoned ones, but they set me vibrating with
curiosity and a desperate need to search old census records—less
peaceful, more manic. The peace of lines upon lines of headstones,
dotted with flags and flowers rustling in quiet breezes, depends upon a
clear line of ownership. A state, a church, or a private company owns
and maintains a graveyard, creates a deliberate atmosphere, cultivates a
place of rest and contemplation. Groundskeepers pull weeds, trim hedges,
keep nature at bay so that the names of the dead stay prominent.
And when they don’t, people complain. When I began my cemetery project,
it struck me as almost funny that you can review a cemetery in the same
way you do a restaurant, a store, or a doctor’s office. But of course,
death is a business. It makes sense.
On that evening in Parkwood Cemetery, I thought I touched something
transcendent. Sitting next to a self-identified witch, drugged thoughts
chasing my pen, I was special, gleaning insight from the dead. I was
scribbling their last names in my notebook in the hopes that later, I
could use those names in stories. I didn’t have cuticle skin in my teeth
anymore. Now, I don’t know if I actually understood what he meant when
he said Parkwood had a safe, welcoming energy to it—that the spirits
there were friendly—or if I was just riding his wave for a little
while. Either way, I was gloriously alive.
We eventually brushed the dirt from our legs and went walking as the sun
set. I scratched more names into my notebook as evening draped around
us, telling my friend that I was sure to write something with those
names soon. I never have. I tore out the list along with my doodles.
We wandered to the memorial wall for veterans and a tunnel that had
arches at either end. Their wrought iron gates were unlocked, the bars
threaded with bouquets of flowers, and we slipped through along with
shafts of gold-orange sunlight. The walls there are squared off with
dozens of names, each section with a small iron ring in the bottom right
corner that is tempting to yank even though the stone is all sealed. I
still don’t know if the sections hold ashes, coffins, or nothing.
My friend insisted that the energy in there felt wrong almost
immediately. He waited for me outside while I turned in circles and took
pictures. Then I agreed that I felt an unwelcome, clammy sense of
darkness where I stood—I conceded to a spiritual energy that didn’t
even make my hair stand on end, and I left. I still have those pictures.
There’s nothing sinister to me now in sunset light over the names of the
dead; I agreed because I was coasting down the tail end of my high and I
wanted to hold onto a mysticism I could already feel fading. In truth, I
could have stayed there until darkness and felt perfectly safe. But
then, I would have been the logical, easy skeptic, and I didn’t want
that. I wanted the magic.
I went to visit my grandparents today after not being on the state for
a few years. The graves are so overgrown and unkempt that I could barely
find them. Others have all but been taken back by the weeds and are
completely buried. It’s disgusting. I shouldn’t have to dig my
grandfather’s grave out from under weeds!
I’ve returned to Parkwood Cemetery several times since that high August
night. My college campus is less than fifteen minutes from the grounds,
and on a few days when I had many hours to kill between or before
classes, I went there to wander, read, and decompress on my own.
Though my friend called Parkwood “his,” it’s privately owned. On my
sporadic visits I see the evidence of that—the construction machines,
the lack of dead bouquets around graves. Whether it’s owned well is
another matter. Quite a few people are indignant about the treatment
they’ve gotten from the office staff, the way their deceased relatives
were handled, the way the grounds are maintained.
They have someone to complain to. Even if those complaints are never
resolved, there is a chain of command and ownership towards which the
bereaved can direct their anger.
Biddison lacks such a steward. People still complain about the place,
but to no one. The keepers of that cemetery are long gone, and with
that, they gave up taking care of their families’ graves, and the
stories that went with them. That responsibility, I guess, doesn’t just
pass on to the next people, the ones who happen to live nearby. I can
try to dig a story from the cracked stones left behind. I can grieve for
the neglect and wish others would care, but in the end, the romantic in
me concedes to the logical. There isn’t, I think, any inherent
spirituality in an abandoned grave or an intact one—Biddison just lost
the people who cared for it, and so the graves lost their importance. No
one to foot the bill for cleaning the graves or removing the bones.
The last time I went to Parkwood, it was on a brisk day in late February 2019.
Warm enough to be outside with a coat and gloves on, but nippy enough that my nose still turned red and got runny. I had a couple of
hours before my evening graduate class about the theory of creativity.
So, I bundled into the gazebo that my friend and I had scorned on that
night and I read the assigned essays for the night on my phone, but not
before drinking in all the names and jokes that had been scribbled and
carved all over the gazebo’s benches and beams. How many couples had
kissed here, giggled here, whispered in sunset light? Or how many strays
like me had wandered in and left a name just to prove they were there?
When I got too chilly to stay sitting, I creaked to my feet and began
the walk back to my car. At the top of one of the hills, I looked down
saw a fleet of cars parked on an empty stretch of grass, a white tent,
and a huddle of people in black. Under the gray sky, I watched. I felt
no grand sense of spiritual communion, no sense that my soul owned a
part of those grounds. The haunting strains of Taps lofted up to where I
stood, and I was rooted to the spot long after the last trumpet note
Clara Jeske, born and raised in Maryland, is an essayist with work forthcoming in Entropy and Free State Review. In her free time, she can be found baking, gardening, painting, or reading one of five books in progress. She can be @JeskeClara on Twitter and @clara.lynne.jeske on Instagram.
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