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Answer Man: At Home in the Cemetery

By John Kelly
Monday, April 18, 2005; Page C11

For your many readers who commute up and down North Capitol Street: There's a very elaborate, redbrick crypt (mausoleum?) that was erected in Rock Creek Cemetery a while ago. This week a very large crane installed a copper roof and golden dome on the edifice, which is on the far north end of the cemetery. Could you find out who is -- or is going to be -- buried there? It really sticks out among the sedate granite and marble of the other markers.

-- Mary Dorsey, Washington

East meets Northwest at Rock Creek Cemetery. (John Kelly -- The Washington Post)

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What do the dead expect from the living? That's the question Answer Man asked himself one day last week as he walked in the morning chill at Rock Creek Cemetery.

All around were monuments to the formerly alive.

Rock Creek is the oldest cemetery in the city. It's part of St. Paul's Episcopal Church. Buried there are some of Washington's most illustrious names: Alexander "Boss" Shepherd, Henry and Clover Adams, Supreme Court Justices John Marshall Harlan and Willis Van Devanter.

Even the names on the less-heralded gravestones have a WASP-y, Episcopal ring to them: Butterworth, Wilson, Landon. And then you come to a sliver of cemetery that seems from another country. Headstones bear such names as Pavlovich, Milosavljevich, Vukovich, Troukhatchoff. . . .

And there's a smallish gold-domed, redbrick building that looks like it's just arrived from St. Petersburg.

This is not a crypt or a mausoleum. Nor is it a columbarium, a niche-filled structure for holding the inurned ashes of the deceased.

"It's a chapel where we will be holding services for the dead who are buried there," said the Rev. Victor Potapov, rector of the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of St. John the Baptist on 17th Street NW.

The chapel, dedicated to the icon of the Mother of God, is built in the classical Novgorod style of the 12th century. It was designed by St. John's parishioner Irene Zarechnak. It has a floor of Jerusalem limestone and features two mosaics on the exterior.

The central dome is topped by the characteristic three-barred cross of the Russian Orthodox church: one bar representing the sign on the crucifix that proclaimed Jesus king of the Jews, another representing the one to which Christ's arms were nailed, and one on the bottom that slants to the right, representing the footrest that Orthodox tradition says tilted towards the righteous thief who was crucified next to Jesus.

Still to come inside the chapel are a chandelier and ceramic icons. The congregation is hopeful that the building can be dedicated in June.

Father Victor said the local Orthodox community started burying its dead in this corner of Rock Creek Cemetery in the 1950s. Many were immigrants, first-generation Russians and Yugoslavians who had fled communism. Other Orthodox nationalities are also buried there.

This patch of the homeland "certainly indicates tolerance and understanding on the part of the Episcopalian community," Father Victor said. "We've had very good relations with them all these years." His church just bought 200 more plots.

The gravestones near the chapel hint at interesting lives. There's Dragoslav V. Milosavljevich, born in 1889, died in 1966; J.M. Leko, born 1892, died 1964; Pavle Pavlovich, born 1883, died 1969. Each of their inscriptions proudly announces that they were high-ranking officers in the Royal Yugoslav Army.

Looking through clips from The Post, we learn that Pavlovich spoke five languages and was an aide-de-camp to King Alexander. Milosavljevich worked for the Department of the Interior after emigrating, while Leko managed a Serbian newspaper.

All were prisoners of war at the hands of the Nazis during World War II. You can imagine them all together, praying that their country would one day be free, only to watch it slide into totalitarianism. Today there is no Royal Yugoslav Army, just as there is no Dragoslav V. Milosavljevich, J.M. Leko or Pavle Pavlovich.

So what can the dead expect from the living?

Said Father Victor: "The expectation is, number one, that the living will not forget to pray for them, and that by visiting a cemetery we are reminded of our own mortality."

Julie Feldmeier helped research this column. Send your questions to answerman@washpost.com. Or write John Kelly, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

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