All Cemeteries Aren’t Equal

All cemeteries in Montgomery County aren’t treated equally by Montgomery County government. For example, there’s the Aspin Hill Pet Cemetery. This place where pets are buried is a protected Montgomery County historic site that was designated historic under Chapter 24A of the Montgomery County Code. That means that the dogs, cats, and other pets buried there are protected from development in perpetuity.

The cemetery is located across the street from Gate of Heaven, a Catholic cemetery. Most cemeteries established in Montgomery County before c. 1980 were segregated. Formal and informal policies, church affiliation, and economics contributed to maintaining racial separation among the dead. Though the Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Washington asserts that Gate of Heaven always was integrated, oral traditions among some Montgomery County African Americans suggest that the history is more nuanced. The irony of cemeteries set aside for Montgomery County pets and cemeteries where African Americans couldn’t be buried wasn’t lost on the county’s black residents.

Former River Road resident Harvey Matthews recalls family members who wanted to be buried in Gate of Heaven. An employer tried to make that dream come true. “So Mr. Eisinger promised him when he was a younger man working that he was going to see to it that he didn’t get buried where the rest of the blacks was buried in Lincoln Park because he didn’t think that cemetery was worthy to be buried in, Mr. Eisinger used to say,” Harvey recalled.

“He said, ‘You know what I’m going to do? I don’t know when your time will end or whatever, but I’m going to try to make you the first Black to be buried in the Gates of Heaven cemetery.’ And he said, ‘And damn it, not over where them damn dogs and cats are; I’m talking on the other side. I’m talking about the big cemetery’,” said Harvey.

Perhaps this was Harvey’s most stinging rebuke of the unequal treatment African Americans, pets, and whites received in death in Montgomery County: “That used to be a big stink one time about that cemetery because when I was younger I used to say, ‘Damn, how in the hell that they’ve got the cemetery where the dogs and cats go is better than the cemetery they’ve got at Lincoln Park to bury the Blacks in. The ones they’ve got in Poolesville and Tobytown,’ you know, like that.”

Winky, Leo, Scruffy Muffin, and Grey Fleas rest in perpetual care and under the protection of Montgomery County’s historic preservation law. Their loving humans and the children and grandchildren of those humans get to visit Aspin Hill Memorial Park and visit in a parklike, therapeutic setting. Cora Botts, her kin, and nearly 500 others lie beneath a Bethesda parking lot, their bones crushed and scattered throughout property owned by Montgomery County’s Housing Opportunities Commission.

In early 2017, the Montgomery County Planning Department declined to fasttrack a review to provide interim protection for the Moses Cemetery by listing it in the Locational Atlas of Historic Sites while research is completed for full historic designation under Montgomery County law. This despite knowing as early as 2015 that the Moses Cemetery exists and recommending purchasing the site as a park.

Sources: Harvey Matthews interview, December 2017; Clare Lise Cavicchi, Places from the Past: The Tradition of Gardez Bien in Montgomery County, Maryland. Silver Spring, Md: The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, 2001. #BlackHistoryDay2018

Note: This post originally was published on the Save Bethesda African Cemetery Facebook page.

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