By Doug McElrath, Host Committee Member
Whether you are attracted to them as repositories of memory, places of serenity, or perhaps by a morbid curiosity, paying a visit to historic burial grounds can be a good way to learn about a city. In Washington, DC, almost everyone knows about Arlington National Cemetery located just across the Potomac in Virginia. John F. Kennedy’s grave, the eternal flame, the Tomb of the Unknowns, and the long rows of headstones to the fallen often are an obligatory stop for tourists. But I would like to suggest some less celebrated graveyards that take visitors a little off the beaten path and provide insights into the true character of the nation’s capital.
1801 E Street SE. Closest Metro Station: Potomac Avenue.
At one time Congress actually provided burial markers designed by the architect Benjamin Latrobe in the suite of benefits for its members, and this cemetery founded in 1807 and situated a mile and a half east of the Capitol became the final resting spot for many notables. Within its confines are buried one Vice President, one Supreme Court justice, six Cabinet members, 19 Senators and 71 Representatives. Sadly, Congressional fell into neglect by the mid-20th century as the parts of Washington bordering the Anacostia River became a public embarrassment. In a particularly gruesome touch, vandals stole the skull of former U.S. Attorney General and presidential candidate William Wirt from his family’s burial vault. It was rediscovered ornamenting someone’s office desk. Ultimately, forensic scientists at the Smithsonian were able to verify the identity of the skull and rebury it in the repaired vault. By 1997 Congressional had earned a place on the National Trust’s List of 11 Most Endangered Places before a local preservation group formed to save the historic grounds. Now thanks to the volunteers of the Association for the Preservation of Historic Congressional Cemetery, whose nucleus is a group of neighborhood dog walkers, visitors can find the graves of politicians, war heroes, local celebrities, and even the long-time FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover. This old trumpet player is proud that John Philip Sousa rests peacefully in these grounds – whistling the Stars and Stripes Forever at his grave somehow feels appropriate.
Old Soldiers’ Home Cemetery
21 Harewood Rd. NE. Closest Metro Station: Fort Totten.
Washington is dotted with national cemeteries for the military dead, but the Old Soldier’s Home cemetery is worth a visit. Officially known as the United States Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home National Cemetery, the rolling grounds have 14,000 burials dating to the Civil War. Among them are 21 recipients of the nation’s highest honor, the Congressional Medal of Honor. The other reason to visit the Soldier’s Home is the Lincoln Cottage. Recently restored and reopened to the public, this Gothic Revival house was the place where Abraham Lincoln found refuge from the stresses of war-time Washington. He often rode there to escape Washington’s notorious summer heat and humidity, and in the summer of 1862 he wrote the first drafts of the Emancipation Proclamation in the cottage.
Mount Zion Cemetery
26th Street and Mill Road, NW. Closest Metro Station: Dupont Circle.
With its swanky restaurants and posh boutiques, Georgetown today disguises its industrial and working class origins. Once a tobacco port of export and the terminus of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, Georgetown predated the formation of the District of Columbia. Its population of merchants and artisans included a significant number of African Americans, both free and enslaved. Among those who gained their freedom was the remarkable Yarrow Mamout whose image survives in paintings by Charles Willson Peale and James Alexander Simpson. The latter version currently is on display in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery on loan from the Peabody Room of the Georgetown Public Library. Yarrow Mamout likely was buried a few blocks west of the Mount Zion Cemetery near his house on Dent Place after he died in 1823, but this cemetery helps remind the visitor that Georgetown’s African American community was strong and vibrant. The three entities associated with this graveyard – Mount Zion Cemetery/Female Union Band Cemetery/Colored Union Benevolent Association – all predate the Civil War. Just as Georgetown’s black community members were pushed out by the gentrification of the neighborhood, its historic cemetery also was marginalized. Efforts currently are underway to repair the fallen headstones and restore a sense of the importance of this place.
Further Afield – If you have access to a car.
St. Mary’s Church Cemetery
520 Veirs Mill Rd, Rockville, MD 20852. Take an Uber from the Rockville Metro Station.
For the literary minded, the quest to find F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald’s graves in Rockville, Maryland may require a fortifying cocktail. Located at the intersection of major thoroughfares in a small church yard, the setting hardly evokes the Jazz Age ethos of the Great Gatsby. Why are they buried in suburban Maryland you may ask? Well, Fitzgerald’s roots were in the state – the Francis Scott in his name comes from the same family as Francis Scott Key of Star Spangled Banner fame. Oddly, the author and his wife were not buried in the Fitzgerald family plot in Rockville until 1975, having been denied burial in sanctified ground by the Catholic Church after their deaths in the 1940s. Fame apparently overcame religious objection, and the cemetery has become something of a pilgrimage site.
(From Wikimedia Commons)
Westminster Burying Grounds and Catacombs
519 W. Fayette Street, Baltimore, MD 21201
If you happen to find yourself in nearby Baltimore and are a fan of the macabre, a visit to the Westminster Grounds is in order. There you will find another author not always associated with Maryland – Edgar Allan Poe. Poe’s mortal remains rest in Baltimore, where in 1849 he was found lying in a gutter, insensible, and not wearing his own clothes. His mysterious death came a few days later and he was buried in an unmarked grave as the pauper he essentially was. Poe’s family origins were in Maryland, and the Westminster church yard was the site of his grandfather’s burial plot. By 1865 Poe’s literary reputation was such that there was a campaign to raise funds to raise an impressive monument for his grave, which was moved to a better location in the burial ground. A curious tradition, perhaps not so curious if you know about Baltimore’s oddball quirkiness (think John Waters), used to occur on the anniversary of Poe’s birth. Between 1949 and 2009, a person in disguise appeared around midnight of January 18/19 and left as tribute a partial bottle of cognac and three roses on Poe’s grave. This person or persons unknown became known as the Poe Toaster. Each year since 2009 there has been a vigil to see if the Toaster returns, although the true believers have rejected more recent but similar expressions of devotion as the work of impostors. Being a fan is a very complicated business!