The Cenotaphs at Historic Congressional Cemetery

I have found that cemeteries are often bastions of history, especially here in D.C.  The graves of the many historic figures, politicians and famous people buried here provide a portal to the history that they lived.  But Historic Congressional Cemetery, located at 1801 E Street in southeast D.C.’s Capitol Hill neighborhood (MAP), and which happens to be one of my favorite cemeteries in the city, also has a number of cenotaphs that also point to a wealth of history.  And it was the cemetery’s 165 cenotaphs that were the destination and purpose of my lunchtime bike ride today.

Traditionally, the word “cenotaph” is defined as A cenotaph is an “empty tomb” or a monument erected in honor of a person or group of people whose remains are elsewhere. It can also be the initial tomb for a person who has since been interred elsewhere.  As used at the Congressional Cemetery, the term cenotaph includes not only those that fall under the traditional definition, but also to monuments that mark the actual graves of representatives and senators who died in office during the first several decades of the nation’s history. Some congressmen are buried under a cenotaph, some are buried with a headstone instead of a cenotaph in a different area of the cemetery, and for some the marker is a true cenotaph. And one individual, a Revolutionary War soldier and Congressman from North Carolina named James Gillespie, who was reinterred in 1892, has a separate grave and cenotaph.

Designed by architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe, who was then working on the new south wing of the U.S. Capitol Building, the cenotaphs are constructed of Aquia sandstone, as are The White House and the Capitol Building, and were likewise painted white, forming a visual connection with these nearby symbols of Federal government, and a contrast to the cemetery’s surrounding gravestones. They are grouped in rows in the older part of the cemetery near the main entrance, where they dominate the landscape.

A cenotaph was erected at Congressional Cemetery for each congressman who died in office from 1833 to 1876. The first was for Congressman James Lent from New York, who was initially interred in the cemetery. But after Congress appropriated funds and his monument was ordered, his family had his body brought back and reinterred in New York. Congress erected the monument in 1839 anyway, establishing the tradition of erecting cenotaphs.

After the Civil War very few congressmen were buried in the cemetery, as their bodies were commonly shipped to their home states or buried in the new United States National Cemetery System, in cemeteries such as Arlington National Cemetery. And cenotaphs were discontinued for the most part in 1876, after Massachusetts Senator George Frisbie Hoar stated that “the thought of being buried beneath one of those atrocities brought new terror to death.”

Since that time, only two new cenotaphs have been erected at the cemetery. After a 1972 plane crash in which their bodies were unable to be recovered, Thomas Hale Boggs Sr., the majority leader in the House at the time, and Nick Begich, a Congressman from Alaska, share a cenotaph. And the last one to date is for former Speaker of the House Thomas P “Tip” O’Neill, Jr., who was honored with a cenotaph in 1994, although it is not in the style of the Latrobe cenotaphs.

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