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'It Shows a Disrespect for the Dead'

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By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 28, 2008

Holy Rood Cemetery sits along Wisconsin Avenue, just up the street from upscale restaurants, stylish dress shops and stores that sell antiques.

But the 176-year-old cemetery, owned by Georgetown University, doesn't match the elegance of its surroundings.

Headstones lie shattered on the ground. Tall grass and weed trees obscure some of the burial plots. Dead brush is piled on top of graves. An asphalt path is broken and weed-choked.

For neighborhood residents and relatives of those interred there, the cemetery is a deeply upsetting sight. Bill O'Keefe, whose parents' graves are at Holy Rood, has visited twice in the past 10 months, and his reaction was the same both times.

"I was simply appalled that a university like Georgetown didn't care enough to do moderate or reasonable maintenance," said O'Keefe, a retired association executive. "It's supposed to be holy ground. . . . I just think it shows a disrespect for the dead."

The university says that although it performs regular maintenance -- cutting the grass and removing trees -- and recently rebuilt the retaining wall along Wisconsin Avenue, it is aware of the broader problems.

"We're in the process of evaluating options and additional restoration and repair," university spokeswoman Julie Green Bataille said. "We know that work needs to be done, and we're trying to develop what next steps may be appropriate."

A predominantly Irish and German Catholic cemetery, the 6.5-acre burial ground in Glover Park had its peak from 1832, when it opened as the third graveyard of Holy Trinity Church in Georgetown, until the 1930s. It still has an occasional burial, making it the oldest active Catholic cemetery in the District.

When Holy Trinity, which was founded by the Jesuits of then-Georgetown College, was transferred to the Archdiocese of Washington in 1942, Holy Rood remained in the care of Georgetown University.

It has not been a happy combination, according to research by local historian Carlton Fletcher.

Over the years, the university has appeared at times to be a reluctant cemetery owner, skimping on maintenance, fighting with owners of burial plots and, at one point, seeking to remove the graves so that the land could be developed.

Georgetown proposed in the 1970s that the Archdiocese of Washington take over the 7,000 graves, and the archdiocese proposed to charge the university $2 million. The deal eventually fell apart.

Correspondence unearthed by Fletcher quotes Georgetown University President Timothy Healy saying in 1984: "The University takes the position that someday, somehow, the University must be allowed to convert this property from cemetery property to some other use."

Although that plan seems to have been dropped -- spokeswoman Bataille said the university has no plans to develop the property -- the school's relations with relatives of those buried there and the owners of burial contracts have been contentious for decades.

In the early 1980s, Georgetown notified holders of burial rights that the cemetery would not accept more burials. But the holders sued, obtaining a consent decree in 1984 that forced the university to keep the cemetery open and honor all contracts.

Relatives of the dead have complained for years about the property's condition. After receiving a number of complaints, the Archdiocese of Washington, which runs five major cemeteries and numerous parish burial grounds, approached Georgetown in 1992 and offered assistance caring for Holy Rood, archdiocese spokeswoman Susan Gibbs said. Georgetown turned down the offer, she said.

The property, which sits on a rise of land off busy Wisconsin, borders Whitehaven Park on the south. Burial records are in Georgetown University's libraries, so researchers have delved deeply into the life stories of the dead. As many as 1,000 free Catholic blacks and slaves are believed to be buried there, although many are in unmarked graves or were buried with wooden markers that rotted away.

Other graves hold Catholic hoteliers, butchers, laborers, maids, war veterans, mothers who died in childbirth, victims of the 1918 influenza epidemic and many others.

"There may be people of both races in and around Washington who are only dimly aware that they have a relative buried here," Fletcher said as he led a recent tour of the cemetery.

Neighbors say homeless people sometimes sleep there, and blame patrons of nearby bars for vandalism in the cemetery. On a recent visit, a pair of women's underpants lay crumpled between two gravestones.

David O'Connor, a retired government worker who has 20 relatives buried at Holy Rood, has been visiting the cemetery and researching its inhabitants for 30 years. He said that upkeep of the grounds has improved slightly in recent years -- foliage has been pruned and the grass cut more frequently -- but that lawn mowers show "little respect" for the gravestones. He said he has seen them run into headstones with their equipment. Many headstones have scratches and gouges.

Vandalism has increased sharply in recent years, he said. One of his family's headstones has been knocked over, he said.

"It saddens me," O'Connor said. "You can look over the sweep of the cemetery and there is so much missing and so much knocked down. . . . Every time I go there, it is worse."

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