Out and About in Congressional Cemetery
by Elizabeth Eby
Congressional Cemetery is a busy place. Even so, I feel quiet and far away from everyday life when I go there. Dogs frolic in the grass while their owners chat, volunteer gardeners beautify graves, staffers ferry supplies around in golf carts and prepare graves, and visitors stroll the paths.
Congressional is an example of the Rural Cemetery movement which became popular in the mid-19th Century. Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown is another example. The key element of the movement was to make cemeteries park-like settings so people could use them for recreation and picnics when visiting a gravesite. The idea was popular in cities and helped drive recognition of the need for city parks and green spaces.
A group of local residents bought the land in 1807 and later donated it to Christ Church located on G Street, SE. Over the years, the cemetery fell into neglect and disrepair. All kinds of people wandered in and out, day and night. There were rumors of drug deals, FBI agents relieving themselves on J. Edgar Hoover’s grave, and Marion Barry making nighttime visits. Prisoners in the old jail banged on the windows, hooted and exposed themselves. Things began to change in the mid-1970s, according to church congregation member Marion Connolly. Christ Church was not able to both oversee the conduct of the parish and the cemetery. Connolly says that she and her husband Gerry were members of the Christ Church Vestry that made the decision to form the Association for the Preservation of Historic Congressional Cemetery and to lease the management of the Cemetery to the Association which now oversees the management and maintenance of the grounds.
Another positive development was the formation of the Congressional Cemetery K9 Corps in the late 1990s which helped both to activate the space and eliminate the drug trafficking. Members pay annual fees that now comprise 25% of the operating budget. The number of dogs is limited to prevent them from over taking the grounds. The waiting list is so long it is temporarily closed. However, dog walkers can buy one-day passes. People are always welcome and there is no entry fee. Guided tours and free maps are available.
The church donated a large number of gravesites for burial of Congressmen who died in DC, thus establishing the Congressional link to the name. They are memorialized by large square stones with conical tops called cenotaphs – markers for persons buried elsewhere. An exception is that of Chief Pushmatqha, a Choctaw, who died in DC while petitioning the Federal government against further cessions of Choctaw land. He is buried under his cenotaph. The cenotaph practice was discontinued in the 19th century but in 1975 a cenotaph was provided for House Majority Leader Hale Boggs and Representative Nick Begich who together disappeared in a flight over Alaska. Journalist Cokie Roberts – Boggs’ daughter – was recently buried near her father’s memorial.
Many notables are buried at Congressional but I think more people are aware that J. Edgar Hoover is buried here than know that John Phillip Sousa is. The Gay Corner attracts visitors; its location was inspired by Hoover’s grave.
Decorated gay activist Leonard Matlovich was discharged by the Air Force after he deliberately came out to fight the ban on gays in the military. A few years later, before he was diagnosed with AIDS, Matlovich visited Gertrude Stein, Alice Toklas, and Oscar Wilde’s graves in Europe. The experience gave him the idea that gay people in the US needed heroes.
After Hoover was interred, Matlovich bought a gravesite near Hoover’s and created a memorial for all gays. The memorial has a cherry tree, lantern and a bench. Matlovich died from AIDS on June 22, 1988. His tombstone at the Gay Corner nameless and reads “When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”
Check https://congressionalcemetery.org/ for tours and site prices and availability.
Out and About is an occasional photo feature by artist, photographer, gardener, and Capitol Hill resident Elizabeth Eby. She finds vignettes while out and about on or near Capitol Hill.
(Correction: An earlier version of this post neglected to mention the establishment of the Association for the Preservation of Historic Congressional Cemetery and its role in overseeing the cemetery.)