Georgetown University has decided to get out of the cemetery business. It has announced plans to close the 132-year-old Holy Rood Cemetery, a 6 1/2-acre island of tranquility alongside bustling Wisconsin Avenue just above its intersection with 35th Street NW.
Little noticed by passers-by, the cemetery has as its closest neighbors -- on the opposite side of Wisconsin Avenue -- a Holiday Inn and a Safeway supermarket.
"Frankly, cemeteries are not the university's business," said Charles Meng, GU's vice president for administration and facilities. "The costs are rising and the problems of finding the burial records are mounting. I don't relish it, but it has to be done."
My colleague Lawrence Feinberg, who did preliminary research for this item, reported plans to halt all burials after Jan. 1 and to lock the now-open gates, except by special request. The university will continue to maintain the grounds.
The university's decision has sparked protests. "It costs just as much to mow the lawn if the gate is locked as it does to mow the lawn if the gate is open," said Marcelline Hummer, a retired motions commissioner for the U.S. District Court. "They must have something else in mind. It's a very valuable piece of real estate."
The cemetery land, which is tax-exempt, has an assessed value of $4.4 million.
GU officials say they have no plans to disturb the existing graves.
One active protester is Stanton Kolb, 72, a real estate man whose grandparents and parents are buried there. He and his sister own burial plots that they presumably can't use. "I'm in no hurry" to meet the university's Jan. 1 deadline, said Kolb.
Holy Rood was established in 1832 as the burial ground for Holy Trinity Church in Georgetown, and it was inherited by the university in 1942 in a realignment of church-owned properties.
Most of the 7,300 known burials were of Irish working-class families, but interments include Susan Decatur, wife of an early naval hero, and members of the Tenley family for whom the Tenleytown neighborhood is named.
Holy Rood, incidentally, means the holy cross upon which Jesus Christ was crucified.