Drone work in Maryland discovers unmarked graves of veterans

Cristopher Centers

SALISBURY, Md. (AP) – Brent Zaprowski’s home happens to edge the grounds of Parsons Cemetery. The Salisbury University geography professor walks his dogs nearly every day down scenic, long-stretched rows of historic resting places, in peaceful quiet. But one of those days, about two years ago, he came across cemetery […]

SALISBURY, Md. (AP) – Brent Zaprowski’s home happens to edge the grounds of Parsons Cemetery. The Salisbury University geography professor walks his dogs nearly every day down scenic, long-stretched rows of historic resting places, in peaceful quiet.

But one of those days, about two years ago, he came across cemetery officials looking to mark veteran gravestones – aiming to take part in Wreaths Across America that December.

“And I said, ‘Well how do you know where they all are?’ ” Zaprowski recalled, having known some graves go back nearly 200 years. “They said, ‘We don’t really know how they’re all here, we just kind of go around looking for them and put out flags every year.’”

It was a time-consuming process on the cemetery’s 18 acres, where not every veteran stone is clearly marked.

“I figured there was a better way to start doing this – and that’s when I began the mapping project,” said the volunteer.

Zaprowski brought technology to the Lower Eastern Shore relic.

The Victorian-era cemetery, whose layers of memory stretch further than its 1873 establishment, has now been honored for that 21st-Century thinking. Preservation Maryland formally presented Parsons with its Community Choice Award Wednesday morning.

The oldest and largest preservation organization in the state presented the award as part of its Best of Maryland 2020, one of just four of its kind this year, according to Parsons. The awards go to “small projects with big impact,” Preservation Maryland said.

Zaprowski and Stuart Hamilton of the Geography and Geoscienses Department, as well as their Salisbury University students, used drones and GPS to discover hundreds of unmarked veterans graves – and tell their stories.

“I was able to not only map out where they are, but to actually know who the veterans are,” Zaprowski said. “Between databases online and the drone imagery, I was able to really do a good, thorough job of mapping out where all the veterans are.”

Parsons now knows roughly 1,254 veterans lay between its walls, some from as early as the War of 1812. The cemetery had previously identified about 650.

Throughout this process, Parsons used social media to share the discoveries and tell once-forgotten stories.

There are many other stories to tell within the Salisbury cemetery – the founders of Salisbury University, Peninsula Regional Medical Center, the first female postmaster in the U.S., a 19th Century Salisbury fire chief buried with his horse, as well as one Maryland governor with a large role in rebuilding Salisbury after its last great fire, are all buried there.

Parsons does not plan to rest its partnership with 21st Century technology.

Carol Smith of Parsons’ Advisory Committee said one of the strongest ways to grow its perpetual care fund is to remain relevant – which means growing with today’s technology.

From a website to Facebook, Parsons started sharing its history and developing walking tours. New software also maintains stronger records of those buried on the grounds.

“We have many other people – from rich, poor, politicians to humanitarians – who all made important contributions to Salisbury itself who rest here,” she said, under a chorus of cicadas on the cemetery grounds. “So, maintaining the cemetery is really a high priority.”

The cemetery hopes to expand walking tours, self-led using a smartphone, as well as pursue reenactments in videos or community events. The committee has started developing a plan for such “living history” of those buried on the grounds, according to Smith.

What was once a rural cemetery of sleeping history is now an urban green space – attracting joggers, families exploring a view of Johnson’s Pond and others looking for a quiet escape.

“At Parsons, everything old is new again,” reads a closing line of one committee press release.

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