–by Joanna Hallac
I had occasion to take a tour of Congressional Cemetery a couple of weeks ago, an experience I found to be very interesting for a few reasons, mostly stemming from the fact that I am a lover of history and dogs, of which both are in abundance. We’ll get to the dogs, but first a little history.
While Congressional Cemetery was started in 1807, this was not its original name. According to their website, the name evolved over some time; it went from having no name for its first four years, to being called “Washington Parish Burial Ground” until 1830. From this point, as Congress put more money into the site, it became known as “Congressional burying ground,” and then simply “Congressional Cemetery.”
The cemetery is home to tens of thousands of deceased persons, some of whom were members of Congress, but most of whom were not; however a great number of empty tombs, called cenotaphs, are lined up in the cemetery for members of the House and Senate who died in office up until the 1870’s, when they decided to discontinue the practice. Few members of Congress have been given that honor since, but one cenotaph that was approved by Congress and put in since that time was in 1972 when the plane carrying Congressman Nick Begich, an Alaska Democrat, and House Majority Leader Thomas “Hale” Boggs, a Louisiana Democrat and father to Cokie Roberts, disappeared in Alaska (presumably after crashing, though the wreckage was never recovered), with both men eventually being declared dead; Boggs and Begich share the same cenotaph. According to the Congressional Cemetery website, the last member of Congress to have a “cenotaph of non-standard design” put in the cemetery was former Speaker Tip O’Neill (Massachusetts), who passed away in 1994.
There are more than a few notable people actually buried on the 30-acre grounds, including the nation’s fifth vice president and signer of the Declaration of Independence, Elbridge Gerry (pronounced like Gary, not Jerry). Gerry served under President Madison and is the only vice president buried in the cemetery. Interestingly, Gerry’s name is where the term “gerrymander” originates from; as the Governor of Massachusetts he was the first to redistrict his state in a way that benefited his party and in a way that looked quite ridiculous on the map. The Boston Gazette printed a political cartoon depicting a newly redrawn district that looked like a salamander, but they called it a “Gerry-mander,” hence the term we use today to refer to that same way of redistricting along party lines to protect incumbents.
Some other persons of notoriety interred at Congressional Cemetery are John Phillip Sousa, Belva Lockwood, and more than one of the conspirators involved in President Lincoln’s assassination plot. It is also worth noting that people can still be buried there and apparently they inter people pretty consistently throughout the year.
As for the dogs, Congressional Cemetery may be even better known in the District for the many dogs and their owners who are able to use the grounds as an off-leash dog park than for the many persons who have been laid to rest there over the past 200 years. The memberships they offer to those who want to walk their dogs there make up the bulk of the money Congressional Cemetery needs to keep up its grounds and maintain the large, 30-acre swath. On my visit, we were greeted by quite a few dogs, including a Chocolate Lab named Wilson, who was just about as happy as a dog could ever be, and he made my tour experience even more memorable. Sadly, however, I didn’t get a picture of the good-natured pup to share with all of you.
One last note—two of our former Capitol Fellows, Ronald and Abby Arthur Johnson, have a new book coming out on the history of the cemetery, so be sure to keep an eye out for that one.
I highly recommend that if you are planning a visit to DC (or are a native Washingtonian who has never been) and are looking for something a little less touristy and highly enjoyable to do one day that you consider stopping by Congressional Cemetery. It is worth the trip.