By her own admission, Diane R. Johnson spoiled her first dog.
The best perks in Kirby Dennis Johnson’s life were his daily romps off-leash across the hills of historic Congressional Cemetery each morning and night. After his death in July at age 12, Johnson remained devoted to the black Labrador retriever as she spread a portion of his cremated ashes along the beach of her native Cape Cod, Mass. And she often talks to the ashes she keeps in her home in the Trinidad neighborhood.
The 46-year-old health-care communications consultant even wrote an obituary about him for the newsletter of the dog-walking group at the cemetery on Capitol Hill.
Soon, Johnson will be able to have Kirby’s remains remain forever at Congressional, as the cemetery plans to open the District’s first pet burial site in coming weeks.
“I want him to be the first dog interred here,” Johnson said. “There’s no place like this on Earth.”
The Kingdom of Animals section will be available for the furry, the scaly, the four-legged and the fliers.
The cemetery considers the move to offer pet burial a natural extension of a wildly popular members-only dog-walking group that for the past two decades has breathed life into this place of eternal rest. The K9 Corps at zCongressional Cemetery is a club of 770 dogs and their 660 humans, who pay $235 a year, plus $50 per dog, so their canines can roam the paths and hills off-leash. There is a $75 nonrefundable fee to be placed on the waitlist.
The club revived the cemetery after decades of neglect and nocturnal activity by drug users and prostitutes.
The members’ volunteerism, donations and dues support groundskeeping at the 35-acre site, tucked away just a few blocks south of RFK Stadium and near the John Philip Sousa Bridge over the Anacostia River.
Officials do not have a firm date for opening the pet gravesite but are aiming for late June.
The cemetery will clear a third of an acre of wooded area on its eastern border, a stone’s throw from a “doggy day spa,” a small pool of water formed by a natural spring, said Paul Williams, president of Congressional Cemetery.
Once fences are erected and landscaping is complete, cemetery officials expect to begin interring the cremated remains of pets in about 300 graves, each of which will be able to hold about 25 pets. People also will be able to memorialize their pets by having their names etched on “community columns,” slender granite obelisks and square pillars that stand about three feet high.
“We’ve been open to dog memberships for 25 years now. There have been hundreds of thousands of dogs who have enjoyed the cemetery, and the District doesn’t have a pet cemetery,” Williams said. “We started putting feelers out there, and almost every pet owner on the grounds here [has] cremated remains at their home.”
He added: “It could be birds, snakes, alligators. Whatever pet you got, it doesn’t matter.”
On Saturday, the cemetery held its seventh Day of the Dog, an annual celebration of its connection to the dog-walking community. The event featured food trucks for people and tasty treats for canines, and for the first time publicly advertised animal burial spots.
Prices will range from $500 to $1,500 for burials, inscriptions on the shared stone columns or the pricier individual flat engraved markers. On the first day, 10 people signed up, Williams said.
Stephen Brennwald, a volunteer cemetery board member for the past five years, said the decision to open a section for pets was “a no-brainer” because the dog-walking community has been so vital to the restoration and upkeep of the grounds and invigorates the space.
“This place is special. It’s a place you meet friends. It’s a place people come to meditate and contemplate as they walk their dogs. It’s a place where people refresh their souls.”
Brennwald bought a brick inscribed with the name Roxy, his beloved 13-year-old Weimaraner. The brick is part of a pathway on the grounds.
“People’s pets are their children; you want to be buried with your family,” he said.
However, there is one potential hitch in her plans: Another person, a board member, also wants to have the pick of this litter with the first interment.
Johnson already has a plot for herself at the cemetery, and now she knows Kirby will be nearby.
Congressional was the place that introduced Johnson to a community of dog lovers, people who have become longtime friends whom she connected with through her dog’s energy.
She now has a black poodle named Calliope, a lively 1-year-old who has helped Johnson move past the pain of losing Kirby and keeps her returning to the cemetery each day. And before long, her first dog love will be back at Congressional awaiting her daily visits.
“He had a good life; he was very spoiled,” Johnson said of Kirby. “It’s the most fitting place for him. It was our respective happy place.”