Below the Beltway  

Rest in pees: A walking tour of Congressional Cemetery

Below the Beltway
(Eric Shansby)
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By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, October 10, 2010

This column originally was published in 2002.

I've just come back from the cemetery, where I spent hours contemplating the humbling mysteries of mortality because my editor warned me I couldn't just make fun of dead people's names.

Man, mortality sure is humbling, I found myself thinking out there as I strolled contemplatively past the graves of Tuesnelda Langley (1885-1967) and Zerobable Kellum (1808-1878). Why, what would ol' Lincoln Pitsnogle here tell me from the Other Side if he could look up from his grave?

Actually, he would most likely say, "Hey, mister, your dog is peeing on me."

That would be true. And not far away, a cocker spaniel named Juicy was anointing the eternal resting place of Pringle Slight (1790-1860). All around us dogs ran free -- dozens of slap-happy animals, joyfully relieving themselves on the thousands of hydrant-like objects that have been placed all over, as far as they can tell, for their convenience.

It's all approved and sanctioned, part of an only-in-Washington accommodation reached some years ago between a private graveyard strapped for groundskeeping cash and urban pet owners happy to pay a user's fee in return for about 35 acres of fenced greenery.

Congressional Cemetery has become my favorite place in Washington. It's not just the dogs: The whole place has an air of lunacy, beginning with the fact that some time ago its superintendent was convicted of stealing $175,000 in headstone fees for the purpose of, among other things, purchasing racehorses.

He was caught in part because some of the money he embezzled turned out to have been donated by the FBI for upkeep of the grave of J. Edgar Hoover, (1895-1972) which includes a bench so that agents can sit facing Hoover's headstone and solemnly contemplate his lingerie. I mean, his legacy. (A few dozen discreet feet away from the grave of the bulldog FBI director-for-life, who kept dossiers on "suspected homosexuals" so as to purge them from government service, lie the remains of Hoover's very, very, extremely close personal lifelong friend Clyde Tolson (1900-1975). His gravestone is pink.)

In a profound philosophical observation that has nothing whatsoever to do with funny names, I will point out that among the mighty and the meek, the rich and the poor, the malign and the saintly -- the dogs, like Death, do not discriminate. They march right up to John Philip Sousa (1854-1932), showing no greater compunction than they do for Horatio F. Aukward (1846-1911), Margaret Jelly (1879-1947), Alwine Ockert (1861-1949) or Only Patience Burger (1869-1885).

The dog owners are really good about cleanup, so the grounds are nearly pristine; still, this may be the only cemetery on Earth featuring, every hundred feet or so, like a solemn sentinel protecting the gates of Eternal Peace, an enormous garbage can filled to overflow with little knotted bags of poo.

Lately I've been thinking that Congressional Cemetery is where I would like to spend eternity. I would want my headstone to be in the shape of a fire hydrant.

Cemeteries stand as one of mankind's most eloquent statements of the power of love. Every so often at Congressional, there is a tombstone so moving that it stops you in your tracks. I am thinking of the sizable one in the south central quadrant that reads, in its entirety:

"In Memory, Margaret Helen McCrae. Dec. 31, 1912-Feb. 8, 1915. Erected by brother, James D. McCrae, Oct. 1979."

Not much to laugh at there, but a lot to admire, I thought, as I walked out with a farewell wave to Elmira Smoot (1836-1926).

E-mail Gene at weingarten@washpost.com.


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