It’s not the first place one would expect to see a cemetery, located in a mostly residential neighborhood next to Smoketown Brewing Station. But it’s been there for hundreds of years.
Old Berlin Cemetery is the resting place of Civil War soldiers, railroad and C&O Canal workers and Brunswick townspeople. The half-acre plot is the earliest known cemetery in Brunswick, with burials taking place since at least 1799 and spanning to 1948. Most burials happened between 1870 and 1920.
Over the years, the cemetery fell into disrepair, but it’s looking better recently as a result of years of effort to restore dignity and respect to the once dilapidated area. Work is expected to be completed by the end of the year.
“It’s making a beautiful place that you want to come and visit,” said Karin Birch, a member of the Old Berlin Cemetery Restoration Committee. “It used to just be empty, and you’d just pass through, and you knew it was a graveyard because there’s a few stones, but it didn’t feel like a cared about place and now it does.”
Before the restoration, tombstones were falling over, broken or had been lost in the ground over the years. Weeds were growing everywhere, making the cemetery look like an abandoned lot.
“It just was not right,” said Diane Ellis, who got involved in the restoration process around 2013. “It was like we were dishonoring some of these people who were among the founders of this town and … there’s a certain morality to it, I think.”
She added, “I realized that they needed funding, and I helped to write the first grant that we got from Preservation Maryland, and once I got involved, I became very interested in the history of the cemetery.”
A Preservation Maryland grant was received in 2015, providing funds for a planning study and to hire professional cemetery stone conservator Howard Wellman, who inventoried existing gravestones and made recommendations, according to an email from Ellis.
During the work, Wellman was able to do stone repairs, upright headstones and transcribe names, reconnecting family members who were originally buried together.
The committee to restore the cemetery was created in 2016 by Mayor Jeffrey Snoots. It sought grants and worked with the city. The committee applied for a grant from the Maryland Heritage Area Authority Capital program twice and received it in 2019, getting an additional $17,500 in funding, which was matched by the city, according to Ellis.
This grant funded an Old Berlin Cemetery entrance stone, a stone to inform visitors about the history of the cemetery, granite benches, tombstone repairs, landscaping and the development of a website.
Birch said they knew from past history there were shrubs around the family plots in the cemetery that had been torn out years ago.
“I started with that, and that’s where the most formal boxwoods are to kind of honor that history,” she said. “We were having trouble with people driving their vehicles through the cemetery, so we definitely wanted to make it more protected, but not like security.”
In the open spaces, Birch said there are primarily native plants, shrubs and trees to make it softer and welcome wildlife.
“So that when you come and sit at a bench and meditate on these beautiful stones and all the things you would think about, you’re also listening to the birds and watching butterflies,” she said. “In an urban setting just having that nature, to me, is very inviting.”
“This is the history of Brunswick,” said Dr. Wayne Allgaier, a group member who’s interested in the lives of those buried in the cemetery. “That’s what I’m doing right now ... I take a name, and then I go through Census records and Ancestry.com and other things and learn about these people and their families. This is our history right here.”
A couple of months ago, Allgaier was in the cemetery, and four young girls asked why some tombstones were on the ground.
“I said, ‘What are you talking about? We put them all upright,’” he said. “Walked up here. Somebody, the night before, had brought four tombstones from who knows where that belonged in the cemetery because we got the names associated with the people buried here ... and just laid them down.”
A couple were able to be identified and are in a special area of the cemetery for orphan stones.
As for what people who visit the cemetery or are curious about it should know, Ellis said simply: Be respectful.
“Help us take care of it, because we won’t be here forever, and so future generations are going to have to take care of it,” she said.