Congressional Cemetery's Slow Resurrection
Friday, December 22, 2006; 2:00 PM
To call it a pet cemetery wouldn't exactly be a misnomer.
On any given day, the District's 199-year-old Congressional Cemetery -- the final resting place for the remains of nearly 55,000 people -- is likely to be teeming with Labradors, schnauzers and retrievers, all of whom are very much alive.
"People's first reaction is uncomfortable sometimes," said Patrick Crowley, vice chairman of the board that oversees the private non-profit graveyard. But he points out that in the early Victorian era a cemetery could be "a family picnic space. ... It was really intended to be a place where people gather and to be a part of families' lives."
Hundreds of families pay a yearly fee for the privilege of letting their dogs off the leash to roam amid the stone obelisks, crosses and religious sculptures that dot the 32-acre landscape just a few blocks from the D.C. jail and the old General Hospital. The fees are used to fund lawn-mowing expenses at the sometimes cash-strapped cemetery where many military leaders, senators, House members, cabinet officials and D.C. mayors lie.
Crowley -- who recalled first bringing his St. Bernard to the site 10 years ago -- said the dog walkers have played a key role in improving the cemetery through their volunteering and fundraising efforts.
"She was eating the muck in the gutters and it was making her sick," Crowley said of his pet. "I thought, 'Why don't they fix this and why don't they fix that? Why are they so incompetent?' And I realized there was no 'they.' If anything was going to happen, it was going to be us."
The National Trust for Historic Preservation listed Congressional as one of its 11 most-endangered historic sites in 1997. At that time, the cemetery -- which boasts longtime FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, U.S. Marine band conductor and march composer John Philip Sousa, and Declaration of Independence signer Elbridge Gerry among its denizens -- was "suffering from increasing neglect, vandalism and theft," according to the National Trust.
Since then volunteers have been activated, and Congress has created a $2 million endowment and allocated several million dollars for vault repairs, tree removal and road fixes, said Linda Harper, chairwoman of the cemetery's board. In the last 10 years, about a quarter of the vaults have been repaired, 300 new trees planted and more than 300 headstones restored, Harper said. While caretakers once had to worry about keeping visitors safe from "falling in a hole or having a monument falling on them," Harper said, now they can spend time studying how they can best tell its story.
But Congressional's condition is still far from perfect. In 2000, former cemetery supervisor John Hanley was charged with embezzling thousands of dollars. The roof of the 103-year-old chapel is damaged. Many tombstones jut from the ground at awkward angles, and others have been knocked flat. The roads are not fully paved yet, and the east edge of the grounds is cluttered with debris. The cemetery will likely have to curtail efforts in some areas just to afford mowing costs, which Crowley said will increase next year due to rising fuel prices.
This all occurs at a time when the cemetery is trying to channel resources toward events for its bicentennial next year.
"It's out of sight, out of mind and not a federal responsibility," said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), who has advocated for the cemetery. "Nobody has assumed responsibility for trying to be helpful." Because the cemetery is no local or federal agency's responsibility, funding continues to remain an issue of vital concern to those who run it.