A brief stopover at Roby Cemetery

I got back from a camping trip to Green Ridge State Forest in western Maryland with my dad yesterday. The trip itself was very fun precisely because it was so different from my usual experiences. The quality of the ungraded dirt roads leading to the camp site was atrocious — we were the only sedan in a field of SUVs and pick-up trucks at the campgrounds. Our campsite was about 40 meters away from the Potomac River, in which we waded half-way across to West Virginia on Sunday. The river was really nice, and looking out over the bends in the river from a scenic overlook really was a treat (see it on Google Maps). We did hear people shooting shotguns at all hours of day and night over in West Virginia across the river, though, helping to remind us just what part of the country we were in. At least the Maryland side was a State Forest, and thus had no hunting.

As we were driving along the dirt roads, we passed a little plot of land that was enclosed in a simple wooden fence and labeled with a sign that reads “Roby Cemetery”. We drove by that cemetery thrice, but on our fourth pass, as we were leaving the campgrounds for good, we decided to stop and check it out. It helps to paint a mental picture of the cemetery itself, as well as the surrounding area.

All of the land in the whole region around the Potomac in Green Ridge State Forest is very hilly. The Potomac River winds through in grand loops, cutting fiercely into the hills and forging a wide, considerably tall river channel. The cemetery is located in a small clearing dominated by three pine trees on a pretty steep hillside a good ways up from the river. It’s totally isolated from all civilization save for that lone single lane ungraded dirt road. There are only a few surviving houses in the area, though we did see a large free-standing chimney as evidence of others. The C&O Canal runs along parallel to the river, though it is unceremoniously filled in at one section so the dirt road leading to the campgrounds at Bond’s Landing can cross. The canal hasn’t been filled to the top with water in nearly a hundred years; it’s basically a swamp now, with luscious sheets of green algae strangling the low pools of stagnant water gathered from rainfalls.

And amidst all of this, in an area that once housed many locals living off the wealth brought in by the Canal, but is now home mainly to vacationers on weekends, sits the Roby Cemetery, a curious relic from the past. The earliest gravestone in the cemetery lies right at the entrance. It is for a man who died in 1851. The oldest gravestone is much further in the back in the cemetery; it is for a man who died in 1948. We could find nothing newer. The cemetery charts the rise and fall of regular human habitation in the area.

Roby Cemetery contains a dozen marked gravestones, most with the curious predilection for listing the exact age of the deceased in years, months, and days. The majority of the people in the cemetery died at ages that we would nowadays consider far too young. The cemetery is also home for lots of other assorted stones that appear to be grave markers that were either inauspicious when first laid down or simply haven’t survived the weathering of time. One small roughly hewn stone is simply labeled with initials. Many other stones, clearly carved in rough rectangular shapes, are unmarked. It’s hard to tell whether they are independent grave markers or merely foot stones for other graves. If I had to guess, just judging by all of the unusual stones on the plot of land, I would say that about several dozen people are buried in the cemetery. Many are children, either labeled on their parents’ gravestones or buried with nothing but an interestingly shaped rock from the local land to mark them. Their stories are permanently lost.

Amidst all of this history we found evidence of recent humanity. Several of the gravestones have flowers laid before them. A few have teddy bears and other stuffed animals. Inspecting all of the graves closely, we discovered evidence of teddy bears from seasons past, severely deformed and rotten remains that nevertheless remained unmistakably teddylike. Jokingly, I wondered whether the gravestones were really for humans, or merely for some macabre ritual of dead stuffed animals “buried” above-ground and left to rot.

It got us to wondering — who was leaving these mementos at the graves? Some of the teddy bears were left for people who died at the age of 50 during the 1800’s. No one currently alive can possibly have ever met them. Only one grave that had mementos laid out upon it could even possibly contain a person still remembered by anyone currently living, though due to the ages involved, that would be unlikely.

Somewhere out there is a person who makes a habit of leaving mementos upon the graves of long-dead people. It may be a stranger, a regular tourist, or it may be some descendant of the Roby family. Either way, it’s comforting to know that, somewhere out there, someone is going through the motions of comforting the long-dead, for no tangible rewards; they are doing it simply because it makes them feel good and they think it is making others feel good. I wouldn’t be one to do that myself, but sentimentality, even meaningless sentimentality, is touching in a way that reason can’t seem to explain.

As we scrambled down that hillside cemetery and loaded up into our car to leave for good, I couldn’t help thinking about people, and not so much the dead who are long gone, but the living, who are still carefully maintaining that cemetery that hasn’t seen anyone laid to rest in it for decades. The mowed grass devoid of leafed intruders from the surrounding forest, the recently erected wooden fence protecting the cemetery grounds from the road, and the thoughtfully laid out flowers and stuffed animals — all of these busy undertakings of still-living people dedicated towards maintaining hallowed grounds of the long-deceased impacted me a lot more than pondering the lives of the long gone. Cemeteries do give me a strange feeling, but it has little to do with the presence of remains.

3 Responses to “A brief stopover at Roby Cemetery”

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