The cemetery which is located on the west bank of the Anacostia River in southeast D.C. was founded in 1807, but had no formal name for its first four years. After the property, located at 1801 E Street (MAP), was deeded to Christ Church on Capitol Hill, its name became “Washington Parish Burial Ground.” Then in 1830, after Congress purchased several hundred sites, built monuments to representatives who died in office and appropriated money for improvements, the public and the members of Congress began referring to it as the “Congressional burying ground”. Eventually that was shortened to “Congressional Cemetery.” Today it is officially named Historic Congressional Cemetery.
It is a historic yet active cemetery. Over 65,000 individuals are buried or memorialized at the cemetery, including 806 burial plots which are owned by the Federal government and administered by The Department of Veterans Affairs. Those interred there include many who helped form not only the national capitol city, but the nation itself, during the early part of the nineteenth century. Many members of the U.S. Congress who died while Congress was in session are interred at Congressional, as well as other politicians and public figures. Other burials include the early landowners and speculators, the builders and architects of many of the great buildings of D.C., Native American diplomats, and hundreds of Civil War veterans. Nineteenth-century D.C. families unaffiliated with the Federal government have also had graves and tombs at the cemetery. In all there is one Vice-President, one Supreme Court Justice, six Cabinet Members, 19 Senators and 71 Representatives – including a former Speaker of the House, buried there; as well as the first Director of the FBI, an American Indian chief, more than one leader in the American gay rights movement, as well as veterans of every American war. The cemetery was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1969.
By the mid to late 1970s, however, urban decay, the declining membership of Christ Church, and the declining value of the endowment funded by Christ Church, left the cemetery with minimal funding and in serious difficulties. Monuments and burial vaults were in disrepair, and general maintenance on the chapel and other buildings had been delayed for too long. Eventually, drug dealers, gang members and prostitutes began to occupy the cemetery. Although attempts to restore the cemetery were initiated throughout the 1980s and 90s, the National Trust for Historic Preservation included the Cemetery on its 1997 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. As a result, many gifts and donations were soon received. Congress provided one million dollars in matching funds in 1999 to create an endowment for basic maintenance, and a 2002 Congressional appropriation helped fund restoration. Today the cemetery is still owned by Christ Church, but since 1976 it has been managed by the non-profit Association for the Preservation of Historic Congressional Cemetery.
One of the more creative management techniques of the Association was the formation of a dog walkers club at the cemetery. The dogwalkers now play a vital role in the running of Congressional Cemetery. In addition to making up a major portion of the volunteer efforts to maintain the cemetery, donations by the dogwalking members provide enough income to cover the cost of the grounds maintenance contracts. Additionally, the presence of dogwalkers at almost every hour of the day constitutes a de facto on site patrol all day long, keeping the grounds clear of drug dealers, prostitutes, vandals, and other undesirable elements that had contributed to its decline in the past. It’s not all business though. In addition to being able to walk their dogs off-leash over more than 35 fenced-in acres, the dogwalkers enjoy social activities with their animals like “Yappy Hours” in the spring, photos with Santa at Christmas, and the Blessing of the Animals in October. Membership is a requirement of dogwalking privileges in the cemetery, but it is so popular that there is a waiting list.
Recently, the Association also employed a creative solution to a unusual landscaping problem. They partnered with Eco-Goats, a company that uses grazing goats to restore land overgrown with unwanted weeds. They brought in a herd of more than 100 ravenous billies and nannies, and even a few kids, who “goatscaped” the exterior perimeters of the grounds as an “innovative green project.” The goats grazed 24 hours a day for six days, and eliminated vines, poison ivy, ground cover and even fallen debris, all the while they fertilized the ground.
The Historic Congressional Cemetery provides a unique blend of the past and the present, and is well worth a visit.