At Mount Vernon, on the stately grounds called home by America's first president, lie the remains of many in the George Washington line. But nobody's quite sure where.
Over the years, a steady stream of Washington's collateral descendents, and an unknown number of his devotees, have found a final, unmarked resting place on this historic acreage.
The ashes of many of them were spread across the sprawling lawn or among the pampered foliage in sanctioned ceremonies. Perhaps an equal number -- or maybe even more -- were thrown to the winds surreptitiouslyby people anxious to fulfull a relative's dream of a place of honor.
The subject of spreading ashes is a touchy one among the staff at Mount Vernon.Fearing swarms of ash spreaders converging on the site, they would prefer that as few people as possible know of the practice.
The resident director, John Castellani, acknowledges that the ritual still takes place, but in a way that raises the question ofwho can, and who cannot, be spread.
"Most of them," Castellani said, "are people with close affiliations with Mount Vernon."
For some, the final wishes are carried out in a quiet, after-hours ceremony on the lawn, their ashes tossed aloft or planted dutifully beside a favorite rose.
For others, the last departure is oneof stealth and a quick release that will guarantee anonymity to those who do it.
Sometimes, Castellani said, it is only a little pile of greyish dignity, found bya gardener plucking weeds around the boxwoods, that tells of another body coming home to Mount Vernon.
"It's really pretty easy to see," Castellani said. "The ashes are quite stark against the dirt."
Though the practice seems to go back as far as anyone living can remember, former Mount Vernon Director Charles C. Wall said it has gained in popularity in more recent times.
"There would be several thousand (indirect) descendants" of Washington, Wall said."So this would account for an unpredictable numnber of descendents who might see this as, sentimentally, an attractive option."
Wall said he paid little attention towhere the ashes were being spread during his 47-year tenure. Some people appear to prefer the rose garden, he said, "It's such a lovely, peaceful place."
But others are just as content to be on the spacious lawn, nearly two acres of tree-shaded greenery. "I have expressed a preference for the lawn myself," Wall said.
Wass said he "never refused a requestto come in after hours" to spread ashes. Most of these ceremonies, he said, were conducted without clergy, after the tourists had left.
An undetermined number -- some caught in the act by grounds personnel -- decline to notify the management of the private property, which is owned by the Mount Vernon Ladies Association.
"The person doing this could come in and do it unbeknownst to us," said Wall. "Human ashes are quantitativelyvery small. You can get them in what, a quart jar? You could put your top coat over your arm and a jar under that and just walk in."
Robert F. Goran Jr., Fairfax County Commonwealth's Attorney, said he knows of no law prohibiting the spreading of ashes. "As far as I'm concerned," he said, "you could spread them on the grass at Mount Vernon."
Castellani recalls the recent plight of one woman. "She had put the ashes in the rose garden but didn't want to just leave them there." Apparently, she was afraid they might wash away in the rain.
Castellani accompanied the woman to the scene himself and, with a garden fork, turned the ashes over in the soil.
"I wish she had come in and told us beforehand," Castellani said.
Some former staff members request that their ashes be spread on the grounds. One, said Castellani, has asked in his will that his remains be sprinkled on the Potomac behind the mansion "so people can see him float by."
It's a matter "of no great consequence to me," Wall said. "I think it's a great vanity to assume that one's ashes have any significance. But I've told my daughter that if she wishes, shecould spread mine on the lawn of Mount Vernon."
Strange as the story of Mount Vernon's vistors might sound, Wall believes it is not alone among Washington landmarks singled out for posthumous rituals of the same sort.
"There's one story," he said, "of a stonemason who worked on the National Cathedral. He became so in love with the cathedral that, when his wife died, he asked if she could be interred there. Of course they said that wouldn't be possible.
"One day at work one of his friends on the job came over to console him about his wife. The man turned to him and said, 'It's all right. She's here.'
"He had put her in the mortar."