- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 30, 2001

A walk through Washington's historic public cemeteries provides more than just a stroll among the famous and sometimes infamous names of America's past.
These cemeteries are more like public parks where residents take in the vast expanses of trimmed lawns, and if allowed, to picnic or walk their dogs in and around stands of trees, and to marvel at the silent beauty of mausoleums and other memorials.
One recent muggy afternoon at Congressional Cemetery in Southeast, a D.C. police officer walked her golden retriever among the graves and headstones. The retriever spotted a puddle and indelicately plopped herself in the middle of it.
"I can't blame her," said the dog's owner, Officer Heidi Helwig, noting the humidity this day. "I think she's had it for the day."
"That's the way it is around here," says Bob Dean, the cemetery's volunteer coordinator and sometime caretaker-manager.
"We're open here. You can walk your dog here, people eat their lunches here, kids from school come here for history lessons," he says. "For a place full of graves, it's very much alive."

Washington's three largest public cemeteries are sprawling repositories of departed souls, differing as much in style and landscape as in the historic figures and eras they commemorate.
Congressional Cemetery in Southeast, the oldest major cemetery in Washington, holds the remains and markers of about 60,000 persons in an all-embracing kind of way, from the city's beginnings to the present. Here are buried 76 members of Congress, 10 former mayors of Washington and the chiefs from numerous Indian tribes.
Oak Hill Cemetery in Northwest winds its way around the rustling, expensive back streets of Georgetown. It remains the model of the elegant, tree-rich, deep-shadowed Victorian cemetery, full of family names that repeat themselves over and over again.
Rock Creek Cemetery, neighbor to the Soldiers' and Airmen's Home in Northwest, is full of the shadows of the Civil War and Victorian Americana. Picnicking on the grounds is allowed by reservation only. Dog walking is prohibited.
These cemeteries, which are overseen and managed by historical boards, attract the curious and the contemplative because of their size, grounds and artwork, as well as the antiquities they hold.
"People come out of curiosity. They come for the peace and quiet. They come to gawk at the famous graves. They come looking for somebody, or they're historians working on a paper. Or they come for the beauty or just to get away from the daily grind," Mr. Dean says.
"I think it's soothing here, and it's beautiful, and we try to keep it that way," says Joseph Pozell, superintendent at Oak Hill. "It's a business, to be sure, but it's a place of great beauty, and it's my responsibility to maintain it."
People come looking for the historical names, of course, and there are plenty of them, especially when it comes to the Civil War and connections to Abraham Lincoln.
David Herold, who was one of the four conspirators hanged in the aftermath of Lincoln's assassination, is buried at Congressional beneath a marker without a name (Site 44). E.W. Hansell, wounded by the would-be assassin of William H. Thomas Seward, Lincoln's secretary of state, also is interred there.
At Oak Hill, you will find the grave of Lincoln's relentless secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, who said upon the death of the 16th president, "Now he belongs to the ages."
You also will find the grave of Richard T. Merrick, an attorney for John Surrat, one of the Lincoln assassination conspirators.
Meanwhile, Lincoln's postmaster general, Montgomery Blair, is buried at Rock Creek.
The remains of an infant son of Jefferson Davis and Lincoln's son Willie were once at Oak Hill, although not at the same time, before being moved to another site.
"I love history and the Civil War era, and here you're surrounded by it," Mr. Pozell says of Oak Hill.

The graves of Union and Confederate officers can be found at all three cemeteries, but there's a sizable contingent of Confederates at Congressional.
"The way you can tell the difference," Mr. Davis says, "is that Confederate monuments and markers tend to come to a point. That's so nobody can sit on them."
Rock Creek holds the remains of Henry Adams and wife Clover, with the shrouded, immensely sad memorial by Augustus St. Gaudens. Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Theodore Roosevelt's gadfly daughter, also is buried there.
You can hear echoes of the city's history here in names like Julius Garfinckel, Gilbert H. Grosvenor, Henry Lansburgh, Alexander "Boss" Shepherd and Christian Heurich.
Meanwhile, Oak Hill features the famed Renwick Chapel. Right alongside the chapel is the grave of Katharine Graham, the late publisher of The Washington Post, whose house sits just across the street.
Dean Acheson, President Truman's secretary of state during the onset of the Cold War, also lies there.
The remains of William Wilson Corcoran, who founded the Corcoran Gallery of Art and Oak Hill Cemetery itself, lie in an imposing mausoleum.
"No question, no matter how you might feel about the man, J. Edgar Hoover's grave is a big draw here," Mr. Davis says. "I would guess it's the most visited site at Congressional."
Hoover's grave bears the FBI emblem prominently and is enclosed by a small, black iron fence. Nearby, is the final resting place of his close friend and fellow FBI stalwart, Clyde Tolson.
Civil War photographer Matthew Brady is interred at Congressional, as is John Philip Sousa, the legendary U.S. Marine Corps bandmaster who made made military music stirring and popular. He is buried with his family in a section prominently marked "SOUSA."
Also buried here is Elbridge Gerry, vice president under James Monroe and one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.
Many American Indians, mostly Choctaw, are buried here, including Taza, son of legendary Apache chief Cochise, who died of pneumonia while visiting Washington in the 1870s.

Founded in 1849, Oak Hill was part of a general movement to create cemeteries that would serve as genteel parks and gardens, a reflection of Victorian-era American family values. Families would visit the departed and enjoy the cemetery's serene, beautiful setting.
Oak Hill owned and presided over by the families of plot owners remains a cemetery suited to its origin and its surrounding. Walking through the sprawling cemetery no picnicking or no dog walking is allowed invites respect, contemplation on the eternal and mortality, as well as admiration for the memorial sculpture, the profuse and fading angels and cherubs, the biblical quotations.
"I cherished truth and fragrant flowers," reads the inscription on the grave of John Joyce, a self-described poet, soldier and philosopher.
"They sure knew their Bible," Mr. Pozell says.
If Oak Hill represents a certain part of American history, Congressional Cemetery, which was founded in 1807, is part of the country's democratic, restless spirit.
It's thick with history, some of it unique, like its long rows of cenotaphs 70 sandstone memorials for members of Congress from the early 19th century. Cenotaphs are memorials or tombs honoring people whose remains normally are elsewhere. These tombs some empty, some not were erected to legislators who died in office. They rise in a tidy row along the cemetery's long pathway leading to the chapel.
But Congressional is also very much alive. "Yeah, that's what it is," Mr. Dean says. "It fits in with the neighborhood. It's a lot more open than some cemeteries. It looks up to the sky, it's a real part of the whole city and the country."
There are the dog walkers, who for a modest yearly fee can let their pets run free in the cemetery.
"To me, it adds life to the place," Mr. Dean says. "Plus, it's a kind of security thing, too, people around all the time. It's gotten to be quite a thing. It's mostly people from the neighborhood, professionals who live on the Hill."
People routinely picnic and eat their lunch there.
On John Philip Sousa's birthday, the U.S. Marine Corps Band comes to play. On the Fourth of July, all sorts of groups the Daughters of the American Revolution among them gather to honor Gerry. Students from Georgetown Day School come by regularly to work on history projects.
Congressional is enjoying something of a resurgence of interest after falling on hard times, so much so that the National Trust for Historic Preservation declared the site endangered in 1999.
Last year, its former superintendent, John S. Hanley, pleaded guilty to stealing more than $175,000 from the cemetery, which caused the graveyard to fall into disrepair.
Thanks to the efforts of an activist board and Christ Church, things have turned around. Board member Jim Oliver, a history buff and activist, spearheaded the Association for the Preservation of Historic Congressional Cemetery.
"It's pretty lively here," says Mr. Dean, 65, a retired cryptologist from the National Security Agency.
He knows all the nooks and crannies of the place, the stories behind many of the graves.
"That area in the back with the small markers, that's 'Babyland,' " Mr. Dean says. "The infant mortality rate, so many children. Plus, I think there are some indigents there also."
"I grew up here in Congressional Heights," he says. "This area was a part of my childhood. It's still welcoming to me."
He shows you as much as he can. Angels mark the memorial for one Elizabeth Barthold O'Brien, who was in her time a leading madam of Washington with aspirations to class. In a brochure, she is discreetly described as an "entrepreneur."
You keep walking and suddenly you notice embedded in the green grass a marker for Elizabeth Calhoun, Sept. 1819-March 22, 1820, Infant Daughter of Hon. John C. Calhoun.
"Something always manages to surprise me here," Mr. Dean says. "I used to have a little bit of a phobia about death before I started here. Now, I don't. I think it's OK. I mean, look at this. I plan to be buried here."
It's the thing about Congressional Cemetery. Surrounded by the constant stir and movement of daily life, open-aired, it seems, in the midst of death, full of both history and life.


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