Congressional Cemetery

October 4, 2012

Cenotaphs were once de rigueur when a congressman died in office.

This is neither a scary place nor a sad one. Dogs frolic. Sun shines. All tour options — self-guided, cellphone and docent-led — introduce death-defying personalities: madam Mary Hall, Declaration of Independence-signer Elbridge Gerry, Civil War photographer Mathew Brady, a random woman who wanted her tomb to look like a china cabinet, etc.

The blocky sandstone memorials with the pointed tops were designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe to honor congressmen who died in office. Though they are referred to as cenotaphs — the word means empty tomb — about 80 of the 165 mark actual graves.

Many powerful women are interred here; obtain the self-guided tour brochures “Educators, Agitators & Lawyers” and “Women of Arts and Letters.” “March King” John Philip Sousa’s tomb incorporates a cozy bench, making for cute family photos.

A few headstones await living persons who reserved their spots in style. One such marker is a stone rendition of a Library of Congress catalog card. The call number is that of the future occupant’s book, a guide to conducting library research.

Congressional Cemetery, 1801 E St. SE; open daily during daylight hours, free; 202-543-0539. (Potomac Avenue)

Did You Know?

›› Colonial symbolism — winged skulls, death’s heads — was out of style by 1807, when the cemetery was founded. Expect hourglasses with wings (meaning “time flies”), broken pillars, contemplative angels, decorative urns and many obelisks.

›› Several gay-rights activists are buried near Vietnam vet Leonard Matlovich, who fought against the military’s ban on gays. His epitaph: “When I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”

›› The practice of regularly honoring deceased congressmen with cenotaphs ended in 1876, when Rep. George Frisbie Hoar turned his fellows against an appropriation to build more, saying they added “new terrors to death.”

Learn More! Explore D.C., a free iPhone app from The Washington Post, is a guide to the city’s attractions, big and small. Download it today from the App Store.

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Shauna Miller | October 4, 2012