There is a scene in “House of Cards” in which coldblooded political wife Claire Underwood jogs through her District neighborhood into what looks like Capitol Hill’s Congressional Cemetery. As she runs heedlessly past the headstones, a passing woman chastises her for disrespect to the dead. Claire is — for once — unnerved. But the truth is, jogging is hardly out of place at Congressional.

The 35-acre cemetery, with its open fields and twisting trees, serves also as both a grand city park and a sort of neighborhood community center. Visiting on a sunny autumn day, I saw a young family racing toward the gate in the iron fence; a couple of women with coffee cups heading for a workshop on gravesite preservation; and an abundance of dogs and dog walkers.

The Association for the Preservation of Historic Congressional Cemetery, which manages the property (it is owned by Christ Church on Capitol Hill) maintains a robust calendar of activities, exhibits and events, including a weekly yoga class called Yoga Mortis, the Halloween-themed Ghost and Goblins’ Soiree and a birthday party for cemetery denizen John Philip Sousa.

In other words, Congressional Cemetery is a resting place for the dead, but it is also one of Washington’s liveliest historic sites.


Hilary Benson strolls thought the Congressional Cemetery with her daughter Sophie Lee. (Bonnie Jo Mount/Washington Post)

Tours for all interests

To serve the needs of a growing capital, Washington Parish Burial Ground was established in 1807 on a picturesque vista next to the Anacostia River. The name reflects its early use as a burial site for senators and congressmen who died in office, but today the list of gravesites reflects a much wider diversity: In addition to 19 senators and 71 representatives, it includes J. Edgar Hoover, first director of the FBI; Alain LeRoy Locke, the first black Rhodes scholar; Leonard P. Matlovich, a gay Vietnam veteran who outed himself to challenge military policy on gays; Belva Lockwood, the first woman to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court — plus thousands of ordinary citizens.

There are about 60,000 people buried here in all — the exact number, like many facts about the cemetery, is difficult to pin down. Some of the most charming stories about the Gorey-esque necropolis may well be apocryphal.

On a recent visit, I took one of the free walking tours that the preservation association’s “Dozen Decent Docents” lead on Saturday mornings from April to early November. They’re not formally trained, but the docents share a core knowledge and “We read, read, read!” as our leader, Lynne Boyle, put it.

The casual nature of the program allows for improvisation. If you ask to see a particular grave site or are interested in African American history or Victorian-era headstones, the docents will gear that tour accordingly. They combine a reverence for history with wry humor: Their official T-shirt reads, “We’ll talk about you after you’re gone.”

My tour group included out-of-town visitors and curious locals, namely Mike O’Dell and Jim Smith of Southwest Washington. “Neither one of us has ever been here,” O’Dell said. “Plus, I’m looking for a site for later on.”

“You could call it scouting,” Smith added.

Yi Yin Chong told us that “visiting cemeteries like this is not the usual thing to do” in her home country of Malaysia. “Maybe once a year on a specific day to pay respect to your family. Otherwise it is taboo.”

But, at least in this romantic, historic cemetery, we do want to be associated with the dead, and Boyle led us on.


Historian Donald Ritchie gives a tour to Senate staffers at the Congressional Cemetery. (Bonnie Jo Mount/Washington Post)

History found in, around and under

We paused beside the grave of Alain LeRoy Locke — “our newest resident,” said Boyle. A philosopher and writer, he was the first African American Rhodes scholar and later taught at Howard University. He is perhaps best known as one of the leaders of the Harlem Renaissance. After his death in New York in 1954, his ashes were passed from one caretaker to the next until the mid-’90s, when they were stored with his archives. An organization of fellow Rhodes scholars raised funds for a burial at Congressional. The ashes were interred in September. When we passed by, an arrangement of white flowers remained from the service.

We wandered down Congress Street, so called because it borders a neighborhood of cenotaphs, the short, squatty little markers designed by Benjamin Latrobe for the congressmen and senators. Cenotaph is Greek for “empty tomb,” and of the 165 memorials at Congressional, only 80 are actually grave sites. Composed of the reductive classical forms Latrobe embraced — a cube resting on a raised square, topped with a pointy dome — they have not been universally admired. The use of the cenotaphs was discontinued in 1876 after Massachusetts senator George Frisbie Hoar said “the thought of being buried beneath one of those atrocities brought new terror to death,” according to the cemetery’s brochure.

Heading east on Ingle Street, we came to the grave of Thomas Peter Lantos. “Born in Budapest, Hungary, the only Holocaust survivor elected to the US Congress (1980),” reads the simple inscription. Stones outlined the top of the marker and many more crowded the base, placed by visitors as a mark of respect. “It’s a sign that you’ve been here,” Boyle said.

She directed us to a nearby site that has “no historical significance, it’s just fascinating to me” — the grave of Sally Wood Nixon, a shipbuilder’s wife who died in 1937. Cemetery lore has it that Nixon was an avid china collector, and her memorial is a replica of a china cabinet, complete with a pair of glass doors (now protected by a metal grid). Inside, the cylinder holding her ashes rests on a stone shelf.

The Nixon grave testifies to Congressional’s past neglect. In the back wall of the cabinet is a bullet hole from the time the cemetery was the site of frequent crime and drug trafficking. “About 20 years ago, there were all of these wildly famous people buried here and no one caring for it. The grass was up to here,” Boyle said, gesturing to her waist.

But things have changed, and one reason is the K-9 Corps, devised in 1990 by concerned neighbors and dog owners. Locals pay an annual fee for the privilege of walking their dogs in the cemetery; the funds contribute to the maintenance of cemetery grounds, and the dog walkers provide a certain level of friendly surveillance.

“Some people like it, some don’t,” commented Dayle Dooley, the cemetery association’s archivist. “I have family members [buried] here, and I like it.”


The Public Vault (Bonnie Jo Mount/Washington Post)

In the oldest section of Congressional is the Public Vault, with a façade like a small Italian Renaissance church and a pair of metal doors stippled with holes. Somewhere between 4,000 and 6,000 people have rested there temporarily — we’ll never know, because records from 1832 to 1854 have been lost — including Presidents John Quincy Adams, William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor, and first lady Dolley Madison. The vault was open and empty the day of our tour. “Feel free to come in!” Boyle said cheerily as she descended the steps to the partially underground chamber. “It’s cool in here!”

A number of us cautiously stepped in. The room was low with a curved ceiling and white plaster, and as long as the doors were propped wide open, it was fine.

A tour with one of the Dozen Decent Docents may spark your interest and your eventual (though not necessarily eternal) return to Congressional. If you do, plan to take one of the cemetery’s 12 self-guided tours. Each is delineated on a map, and all are available at the main gate or can be downloaded from the cemetery’s Web site. There is the Introductory Tour with a number of the sites mentioned here,and many themed tours including women of arts and letters, builders of the federal city and men of adventure, as well as a new D.C. brewers tour.

Your initiative would win the approval of at least one of Congressional’s residents, the historian and teacher Ruth Ann Overbeck, whose gravestone, by design, has no birth or death date engraved. “Look it up!” it reads.

Program director talks about bringing life to historic Congressional Cemetery

Congressional Cemetery gives new meaning to the phrase “living history.” We recently spoke to Lauren Maloy, program director at Congressional, to ask how this final resting place for many Washingtonians is energized by the living. Here are edited excerpts from that conversation.

How unusual is it for a cemetery to have a program director?

“There aren’t many of us! [Congressional] is not the only one with programs, though [it is] the only one in D.C. There’s Laurel Hill cemetery in Philadelphia, Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta, a few others across the country. We see them as a model. It’s not uncommon for historic cemeteries to do this.”

“No, we wouldn’t. . . . Some people think it is a little taboo, running or having a cocktail in a cemetery. But that’s also what draws you in. It’s okay to come to the cemetery; people used to do it all the time in the 19th century — bring a picnic, spend the day. It’s a unique space to have a program in.”

Does the Association for HCC organize the events? Who develops the ideas?

We have a small staff and a big community. We like to talk about the names of events, ideas, funding for the future. It’s a group effort. And you can’t forget the dog walkers!”

What accounts for so many athletic events at the HCC — Dead Man’s Run, Yoga Mortis, etc.?

“It’s a way to get a new demographic to appreciate the cemetery. Running events and yoga are very popular. D.C. is a pretty active city, and [those activities] draw people out who wouldn’t maybe come to a traditional event like a lecture or a tour. We’re tapping into the interests that are here in the community and hope they will come back.”

Are community events a trend that you see occurring at other historic cemeteries?

“There are other cemeteries similar to us that are [hosting community events.] And the reason is a lot of historic cemeteries are full or filling up. That’s not the case with us; eventually we will, but we still have a thousand spaces and we depend on that income.

“Historic cemeteries are aligned with historic sites. We have a community that draws people in and sustains the site. [Without that,] old cemeteries typically fall into neglect, so a lot of historic cemeteries are branching out.”

Do these activities spur people’s interest in selecting HCC to be their final resting place?

“Yes, they really do. And we see interest in the sites after these big events. It might not be for everyone. But some want to be in a place that is vibrant—not a word you associate with a cemetery!

“We are very respectful in everything we do, to honor them. And a way to honor them is to have these events and make sure that the site is loved and cared for.”

Lispcomb is a freelance writer.