Reading the Gravestones at Sandy Spring Friends Meeting Graveyard

The Sandy Spring Friends Meeting Graveyard


Research conducted by Anthony A. Taylor and Lorne K. Garrettson

If you walk through the Sandy Spring Friends Meeting Graveyard and read the stones, you will notice certain trends in the information. There aren’t many children buried there, but of those who are, most died in the 1800s, with far fewer child deaths in the 18 and 20th centuries.  Why the sudden increase in child deaths in the 1800s, and why did they suddenly seem to stop? We set out to solve this small mystery.

We used the electronic records of the Sandy Spring Friends Meeting graveyard.  In the cases of the children, cause of death isn’t recorded.  There are 104 records in total and 70 (67.3%) died under the age of five.  In the 1700s, only 6 (2.8%) children were buried here. In the 1800s, 72 (69.2%) children were buried here. In the 1900s, 21 (20%) died and 14 died before the year 1925. In the 2000s until now, only one child has been buried in this graveyeard.  We do not have good population figures for this period of time, so death rates of the general population cannot be calculated for comparison.  We assume that the population was increasing steadily throughout the period of study.

Child deaths were few and far between in the 1700s, but then instances of them spiked and became more frequent in the 1800s. This pattern continued into the early 1900s, but after 1925, they suddenly drop off. This child death rate decline in the mid-20th century strongly suggests that improvements in prevention and care were major contributors, as these improvements in medicine were occurring at a rapid rate during that time.

To further this analysis about the causes of these deaths, we pulled more detailed information to scrutinize the child mortalities occurring between 1900 and 2005.   We searched the Maryland State Archives for death certificates to determine the listed cause of death, but to no avail.  The use of death certificates did begin in Maryland in the late 19th century; but these records were not widely used in the early years after their introduction. However we did learn the causes of death for some of the children through these records.  Most of the rest were learned from other sources such as the Annals of Sandy Spring.  Of the 14 who died during this period, 9 have a known cause of death.  Of the nine with known causes, three, or one-third, were due to diphtheria. One third of a sample is quite a large amount when put into context, and beings as the diphtheria vaccine was starting to be circulated in 19201, around the same time the child deaths sharply declined, we inferred that the vaccine along with other advances in medical science was the cause for the sudden and drastic decrease in child mortality.

So the next time you feel like a stroll, take one through the Sandy Spring Graveyard. The gravestones have stories to tell.


1     Epidemiology and Prevention of Vaccine-Preventable Diseases.  15th Edition. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, GA  p 113