A Fine and Public Place: Congressional Cemetery

CongressionalGirl

I don’t know who this is. I just think she’s pretty.

For a person who loves a good boneyard as much as I do, it took a surprising amount of time for me to learn about, let alone visit, Congressional Cemetery. The site had to be grafted onto Pierre L’Enfant’s city plan for D.C., because 1) there were no designated burial grounds in it; and 2) the roads to existing cemeteries were pretty awful going.

By the time Congress held its first session in the new city of Washington in 1800, it was pretty clear that carting off their deceased colleagues to Holmead’s Burying Ground on the western edge of the city or to Rock Creek Parish Cemetery in the north over potholes, through thickets, and across the creeks, did not make for very dignified funeral processions. In 1807 a group of prominent burghers formed an association to establish a burial ground closer to the Capitol and purchased a 4.5 acre section of land in Southeast Washington, between E & G Streets.

Officially, this cemetery was part of Christ Church, Washington Parish, to which many members of the association belonged. Unofficially, the location was to serve as the go-to graveyard for members of Congress and the executive branch and would remain a national cemetery for the next 60 years. Congress authorized Benjamin Henry Latrobe (the guy who designed the U.S. Capitol) to design a special federal marker to be placed above all members interred there. Although the graveyard was a municipal, not a federal site, Latrobe’s cenotaphs were to be the only federal monuments of their kind for decades.

His design got mixed reviews. According to the Congressional Cemetery literature, the Latrobe Cenotaph’s use was discontinued in 1876 after a senator remarked that being buried under one would “add a new terror to death.” I’m not crazy about their general blockiness…

StevensCenotaph

Thaddeus Stevens

Blockhead

John C. Calhoun

…but they do make an impressive array:

A section of the Congressional Cenotaphs designed by Benjamin Latrobe. Some serve as gravestones for members buried beneath; others are markers for congressmen buried elsewhere; and others are not used at all.

There are 168 of Latrobe’s memorials throughout the cemetery: some arranged in neat rows, others in clusters, and others just showing up here and there. I know what you’re thinking: “168? Isn’t that the same number of hours in a week?” Yes, yes it is. But before we call Dan Brown, I think we can assume that that even in 1817 no one associated the notion of round-the-clock, “24/7” with Congress, secret Masonic mysteries notwithstanding.

In addition to famous congressmen and their families, a number of other notables are buried there, including Matthew Brady, John Philip Sousa, J. Edgar Hoover (with his companion, Clyde Tolson, tucked discreetly down the hill), and Adelaide Johnson. At its inception, the cemetery did not allow “infidels” or “coloreds” to be interred on the grounds, but those rules relaxed late in the 19th century. You don’t even have to be a member of Congress or a white person to be buried there anymore. As the excellent FAQs on the Congressional Cemetery website state, all you have to be is dead.

The Congressional Cemetery ceased to be the de facto national cemetery by 1876, the Civil War and better roads contributing to its diminished popularity. Eventually, only a handful of prominent Washington families chose to be buried there. As the city grew up around it and membership of the Christ Church congregation (and funding for maintenance) declined, the grounds and monuments descended into a colossal state of disrepair, falling victim of the same urban blight that afflicted many of the city’s parks in the 1970s.

In 1976, a tenacious group of local volunteers formed an association to preserve the spot as an historic city landmark. For the next twenty years they taxed themselves to mow the lawns and clean up the grounds, and created some very clever fundraising activities. Since 1997, the group has run the “K9 Corps,” which allows members, for an annual fee, to walk their dogs off-leash in the cemetery. Ingenious. Not only did it provide a much-needed space for local dog owners — and there are a lot of them — the K9 Corps helped chase out the drug dealers and prostitutes who had opened shop on the property during the leaner years.

Today, the Congressional Cemetery is well-cared for and beautifully maintained. If you, like me, are a graveyard aficionado, you can’t beat this weird little collection of styles and moods. Situated between the DC Central Detention and Correctional Treatment Facility to the north and the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail to the south (from which you can see the site of the Bonus Marchers camp), you’ll be treated to as much Washington history as you care to absorb.

Plus dogs.

Draped Urn Monument at Congressional Cemetery

What looks like a shrouded headless figure from the back turns out to be a draped urn from the front. Spooky.

Obelisks Congressional Cemetery

Obelisks are a popular motif in Congressional Cemetery, lest one forget where one is.

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About Beth Daniels

Beth has been an editor in the DC Metro area for twenty years and a lover of classic films since the beginning of time. If you want to read some movie stuff, visit www.mildredsfatburgers.com.
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