By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 18, 2008
The first time Maj. Gen. Alexander Macomb was buried in Washington's Congressional Cemetery, President John Tyler attended, along with former president John Quincy Adams.
The funeral was held on a summer morning in 1841 and, as the cemetery bell tolled, battalions of soldiers, Marines and cavalry escorted the war hero's body, along with members of Congress and the mayors of Washington, Georgetown and Alexandria.
Yesterday, Macomb was buried again, a month after his body was exhumed during a project to restore the monument atop his tomb. He had been mostly forgotten by posterity, except for a devoted group of descendants and a team of archeologists and anthropologists who engineered his brief resurrection after 167 years in the grave.
His second funeral occurred at the intersection of history, science and genealogy. At one point, Macomb's great-great-great-granddaughter gently placed his bones, and those of his first wife, in a new wooden coffin before they were returned to their tomb.
"It was incredible to be able to hold the remains of your great-great-great-grandparents," said Hartley Hobson Wensing, 41, of Alexandria. "To hold the skull, hold their femurs, hold their fingers, toes. Just incredible."
"It wasn't creepy at all," she said as she stood in the shade near her ancestors' grave. "It was very interesting and special and normal."
This time, unlike in 1841, there were no throngs attending the rites. Macomb was then a hero of the War of 1812, and when he died June 25, at 59, he was the commander of the U.S. Army.
But the Army did send Maj. Gen. William T. Grisoli, of the Corps of Engineers, who helped re-eulogize Macomb. The coffin was carried by four National Park Service employees, two of whom were dressed in the ornate military garb of 1812. And a bugler played taps, a tune that did not take its present form until years after Macomb's death.
As the coffin was borne to the 13-foot-tall, marble-and-granite monument that marks the grave, the cemetery bell tolled. It was the same one that tolled in 1841.
The events of yesterday began to take shape in November, when officials from the cemetery, the Park Service and the Department of Veterans Affairs began work to fix the elaborate Macomb monument, which was leaning six to eight inches, said Moss Rudley, an exhibits specialist with the Park Service.
Workers discovered that the Macombs were buried in a partially collapsed brick vault underneath the monument. Using a remote camera, they peered inside and saw the remains -- Macomb's still in the remnants of a lead-lined coffin.
Archeologists and anthropologists from the Park Service and the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History removed the remains last month and took them to the museum for study.
Examination revealed that Catherine Macomb, who died in 1822, suffered from severe osteoporosis, the result of bearing 10 children, said Laurie Burgess, museum anthropologist. The general had some false teeth.
Descendants were invited to help put the remains of Macomb and his wife in the new coffin. Yesterday, as perspiring officials and family members sat on creaking pews in the cemetery chapel, Wensing said during the eulogy that she is pregnant. She said she hopes her child will inherit Macomb qualities.
"Family matters," she said. "History tells us who we are and how we fit in life."