Cemeteries aren’t just for the friends and family of the departed. In fact, in the 1800s, they were much like public parks, and places for picnics, strolls and even carriage racing. The elaborate memorials and tombstones were pieces of art carved by sculptors, meant to be admired for centuries longer than the lives they represented.
It might seem unusual to spend your leisure time walking among the dead, but it’s actually a place to think about life — to consider what we leave behind, and what our loved ones will do to memorialize us.
Visiting Arlington National Cemetery, the nation’s most famous burial site, is about remembrance and honoring those who served our country. But at these smaller sites around Washington, you can find art, history and even a mystery here and there. That might include grand mausoleums, unusual tombs or the resting place of famous names.
But you shouldn’t go looking for ghosts, like a teenager on a dare. Look instead for opportunities to reflect: Where others are resting in peace, you might find some.
The main reason Washingtonians might have heard of Rock Creek Cemetery: a celebrated sculpture by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. The statue of a mysterious, shrouded figure sits in a copse of trees, marking the graves of Henry and Marian Adams. Commonly known as “Grief,” this sculpture is so important that a copy sits inside the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
The cemetery, in what is now Petworth, was one of Washington’s most exclusive burial grounds in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As a result, its elaborate mausoleums, modeled after Egyptian tombs and Gothic chapels, and carved statues bear the names of the families that gave Gilded Age Washington its department stores (Garfinckel and Lansburgh), beer (Heurich) and banks (Riggs).
There are many famous sculptures on the grounds — enough that the site has been added to the National Register of Historic Places. The memorial to Washington Star publisher Samuel Kauffmann consists of a bench decorated with bronze panels depicting “The Seven Ages of Man” from Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.” Viewers can sit on the bench, next to a life-size statue of a woman in classical dress, and reflect.
Rock Creek Church Road and Webster Street NW. stpaulsrockcreek.org/cemetery.
This tiny Catholic cemetery a few steps from the Rockville Metro stop has two notable residents: writers F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. Though the pair lived much of their lives in Paris and New York, the Fitzgerald family is from Maryland — he’s a descendant of Francis Scott Key, the composer of “The Star Spangled Banner” — and this tiny church holds the family plot. They’re buried together, Zelda atop F. Scott, and the grave is inscribed with the final lines from “The Great Gatsby”: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Writers come to pay their respects, and you might find the grave littered with airplane-size bottles of alcohol — a grim reminder of the pair’s lifelong struggle with it. A far better offering, which you’ll sometimes find: pens.
520 Veirs Mill Rd., Rockville.
Alexandria dates to the 17th century, but most of its graves aren’t in the historic Old Town. Instead, a series of smaller cemeteries were opened on the town’s edge beginning in 1804. Known as the Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex, these 13 cemeteries now sit cheek by jowl. Wander among them, and you’ll stumble across a wide variety of monuments: the memorial to the three Pascoe boys, who died between 1805 and 1807, topped with a skull and bone; rough-hewed Federal-era stones; Gilded Age statues; and the stirring Alexandria National Cemetery, where more than 3,500 Civil War casualties and veterans of more recent conflicts lie under rows of white headstones.
The most famous resident is known only as the Female Stranger, a woman who arrived to Alexandria by ship with her husband in 1816, her face concealed by a long veil. She died at Gadsby’s Tavern a few weeks later, and, according to popular lore, her unnamed male companion made the doctor and nurses swear they’d never reveal her identity, even in death. The nameless woman lies under a table tomb in the St. Paul’s Episcopal section, though her spirit is said to haunt Gadsby’s. Visitors to the cemetery bring flowers to leave on her grave, below a lengthy inscription from her husband.
1475-1501 Wilkes St., Alexandria.
Glenwood Cemetery was established before the Civil War, but the twisting paths and hilly landscape don’t feel frozen in time: Recent headstones, often bearing photographs, are placed among the rows of Victorian obelisks and carved crosses.
The creators of some of America’s most famous patriotic art lie here, including Constantino Brumidi, the painter behind the frescos in the U.S. Capitol’s Rotunda, and sculptor Clark Mills, whose numerous works in Washington include the Statue of Freedom atop the Capitol dome.
Beyond famous names, Glenwood is also home to some of the more unique monuments in the city. The prominent memorial to firefighter Benjamin Greenup, who was crushed by a fire engine in 1854, depicts the moment he was run over in great detail, down to colleagues watching in horror. (The fence surrounding the plot includes a trio of red hydrants.) A portrait on the grave of Victor Blundon shows him holding his Irish setter on his lap, both staring out at the viewer. And then there’s Teresina Vasco, who died in 1913 at age 2. “Her inconsolable parents” erected a life-size statue of their daughter, in a dress with a flower in her hair, sitting in a rocking chair. Some find it eerie; others get emotional at the sight.
2219 Lincoln Rd. NE. theglenwoodcemetery.com.
What makes Oak Hill the loveliest cemetery in Washington is its dramatic topography: Steep hills topped with elaborate mausoleums, navigated via winding paths and steps inscribed with grave markers. The English-garden landscaping hosts grand old trees, and many of the graves are tall obelisks or statues. A chapel designed by James Renwick, the namesake of the Renwick Gallery, presides over it all. This is by design of William Wilson Corcoran, founder of the Corcoran Gallery of Art and of Oak Hill, where he lies in eternal rest.
Oak Hill has a number of other famous inhabitants, three with ties to this newspaper: Philip and Katharine Graham, former publishers of The Washington Post, and Ben Bradlee, its former executive editor, are interred here. And, as the recent George Saunders book “Lincoln in the Bardo” chronicled, Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie was briefly buried in Oak Hill, and the president went there to mourn (the cemetery hosts themed tours around the book). A word of caution: The cemetery has limited hours on the weekends and closes promptly at 4 p.m. If you don’t leave by then, groundskeepers might inadvertently lock you within the iron gates.
3001 R St. NW. oakhillcemeterydc.org.
Aspin Hill is nothing like the Stephen King book and movie “Pet Sematary.” Believed to be the second-oldest pet cemetery in the country, it was originally private land owned in the 1920s by a dog-breeding couple, who buried their pets and those of friends in the yard. (Its name comes from a famous kennel in England, not the nearby Aspen Hill Road.) Now a proper cemetery, it’s owned by the Montgomery County Humane Society.
There are a few famous graves: one for Rags, a hero dog of World War I, and another laid by PETA, which buried a fur coat and erected a gravestone to “hundreds of defenseless animals” whose fur was claimed for “human ignorance and vanity.” Some owners had graves sculpted in their pets’ likenesses, like Bunny the bulldog. And some humans are buried here with their beloved pets. It’s not very well maintained — there are no paths, and some of the graves appear to have collapsed, so there are divots throughout the field.
A few truths emerge from a walk around Aspin Hill. One is that pet names have been relatively consistent over time: You’ll find graves for Fluffy, Ginger, Brownie and Lucky from every era. The second is that, as any pet owner knows, the loss of a beloved pet cuts as deep as any human’s. Seeing graves for pets that say “Wait for me” or, for one Chihuahua named Bitsie, “Baby is just sleeping” are enough to make you want to go home and snuggle your pets tightly.
13630 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring. mchumane.org.
Congressional has the most famous graves in the area outside of Arlington National Cemetery, having once been the de facto burial ground of politicians and notable figures. J. Edgar Hoover is buried here, as is John Philip Sousa (and people leave the mouthpieces of instruments as offerings). So are former D.C. mayor Marion Barry, the Native American chief Pushmataha and Elbridge Gerry, the only signer of the Declaration of Independence buried in Washington.
Wander the sprawling burial ground, and you’ll discover the noteworthy graves of some less-famous names. There’s Herbert Lincoln Clarke, the “world’s premier cornetist,” and Nicholas Alexander “Kolya” Dunaev, “the man who could bend a dime with his fingers.” A tombstone for Leonard Matlovich, a gay Vietnam veteran, is inscribed: “When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”
Of all the cemeteries in the region, Congressional might be the closest to the Victorian-era model: It regularly hosts book clubs, 5K races, “Yoga Mortis” and movie screenings. Dog owners who pay a fee for upkeep are allowed to let their pets roam free.
Some might think that’s disrespectful. But, honestly? The best way to honor death is to celebrate life — and the best way to celebrate life is to bring people together.
1801 E St. SE. congressionalcemetery.org.
Correction: A previous version of this story said Old St. Mary’s Cemetery was located at 1350 Baltimore Rd., Rockville. The correct address is 520 Veirs Mill Rd., Rockville.