In Victorian days, there was a brief craze for picnicking in graveyards. The pastime went with the sentimental, somewhat macabre ethos of the era. But for all the reasons the Victorians liked to hang out in boneyards -- the serene settings, sense of history, lovely landscapes -- cemeteries still make a peaceful backdrop to an afternoon outdoors.
The Washington area is home to dozens of historical and picturesque resting grounds. Of these, Arlington National Cemetery is by far the best known, but there many others -- from tiny lots to sprawling acres -- that hold Washingtonians great and unknown. Most are privately owned but welcome guests during daylight hours. Here are six worth a visit:
ALEXANDRIA NATIONAL CEMETERY
While it isn't as large or as famous as its Arlington cousin, this lush patch near Old Town is also devoted to soldiers' graves and includes some fascinating history. Surrounded by several other burial grounds, some of which are neglected, it boasts trim green turf and neat rows of grave markers. Four men who died in 1865 tracking down Abraham Lincoln's assassin, five "Buffalo Soldiers" -- black soldiers who fought Indians in the American West -- and many Civil War veterans are among the residents.
The cemetery is part of the Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex, a cluster of historic graveyards. Wandering throughout the area could take the better part of the afternoon -- but be sure to check out the gravesite of the "Female Stranger" in nearby St. Paul's Episcopal Church Cemetery. According to local lore, a woman and her husband came to the port of Alexandria in 1816 and the woman fell ill at one of the local taverns. After she died, her husband asked the tavern staff and doctors to swear to never to reveal their identities -- hence the mysterious inscription on her headstone. 1450 Wilkes St., Alexandria. 703-221-2183. www.cem.va.gov/nchp/alexandriava.htm.
One of the most-trafficked and cheeriest cemeteries in the area, Congressional feels like a park on Saturday afternoons, with hand-in-hand couples, baby carriages and dogs seen meandering along the winding paths. The hilly grounds offer peaceful corners for quiet-seekers, and unusual statuary mark the graves of former D.C. mayors and members of Congress. The cemetery's extensive Web site provides directories of some of the people buried here, including odd bits of history. For example, George M. Arth, who was a musician in the Ford's Theatre orchestra the night of President Lincoln's assassination, is buried in site number 72. 1801 E St. SE. 202-543-0539. www.congressionalcemetery.org.
MOUNT OLIVET CEMETERY
Civil War buffs will enjoy the stretch of modest tombstones that mark the graves of Confederate and Union soldiers -- some with names, some labeled "unknown" -- bordering the sprawling grounds. Many are dated within days of one another, casualties of the battles of Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862, the bloodiest single day of the Civil War, and Monocacy on July 9, 1864. A small wooden structure near the main gate houses a computer terminal where visitors can look up names and locations of graves. Mount Olivet is very well marked, making it easy to find the headstones of luminaries such as Barbara Fritchie and Francis Scott Key. 515 S. Market St., Frederick. 301-662-1164. www.mountolivetcemeteryinc.com.
MOUNT ZION CEMETERY
Little more than a stretch of grass tucked behind an apartment building on a quiet Georgetown street, this cemetery feels like a forgotten secret. Most of those buried here were freed slaves and members of the nearby historically black Mount Zion United Methodist Church congregation. Part of the cemetery was founded in 1842 by the Female Union Band Society, an organization of free black women. Today, crumbling headstones jut at odd angles from tangles of weeds, and many inscriptions are all but worn away. The graveyard sits adjacent to upscale Oak Hill Cemetery, which provides a striking contrast to Mt. Zion's faded beauty. Humble wood picnic tables provide a comfortable spot for an afternoon repast. 27th and Q streets NW. 202-234-0148. forministry.com/20007mzumc.
OAK HILL CEMETERY
Practically the country club of the afterlife, Oak Hill in Georgetown is where boldface Washingtonians come to rest. Many of the names inscribed on the tombstones are also the names of local streets, institutions and neighborhoods -- hardly a surprise, since many of the city's founding families are buried here. Manicured grounds provide a lovely backdrop for wrought iron benches and neat paths. "Some of the oldest trees in the city are here," says superintendent Ella Pozell. "A lot of the others were cut down during the Civil War, but Oak Hill's were preserved." Closed evenings, Saturdays and holidays, the graveyard has more limited hours than many others. 3001 R St. NW. 202-337-2835. www.oakhillcemeterydc.org.
ST. MARY'S CEMETERY
The grave site of F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda -- the Jazz Age's "It" couple -- is the star of this sliver of a cemetery just off Rockville Pike. A few wilted flowers and a candle decorate the grave, along with an inscription from "The Great Gatsby," his landmark novel. Looking at their final resting place, it's hard not to feel a little sorry for Zelda and F. Scott. The couple, who once traveled in the most glamorous circles, now have come to rest among strip malls and traffic snarls. 520 Veirs Mill Rd., Rockville. 301-424-5550. www.stmarysrockville.org.