Report on Congressional Cemetery

Originally known as the Washington Parish Burial Ground, this blog report is about the many interesting aspects of Congressional Cemetery

A place to bury elected officials

Cenotaphs honoring elected officials that served in Washington, D.C., including Tip O’Neill (near headstone). Photo from Congressional Cemetery

When Washington, DC was established in the 1790s, planners did not include space for a cemetery.  By the early 1800s, the need for a local cemetery became apparent. It would accommodate the graves of individuals that died while they were in the nation’s capital for government business.  Organizers created the Washington Parish Burial Ground. The wording in the contract forbade burial of “infidels,” and persons of color within the area enclosed by the fence.

Reading the “fine print” though, nothing prevented burials of persons of color outside of the fence. So African American graves were placed in the remaining cemetery grounds.  Those “outside” graves started a history of inclusion that remains active today.

Congressional Cemetery became known as the “national burying ground” in 1820 based on the number of government funerals. It remained the place to bury government officials until Arlington National Cemetery took the title in the 1870s.

The Public Vault

One of the many interesting features in the cemetery is a brick and steel entrance to an “underground” storage area called the Public Vault. (See the photo below).  Built in 1835, it is designed as a temporary tomb for the bodies of public officials. The body remains there until a permanent tomb or grave can be set up.  Over 4,000 dignitaries have been placed there temporarily, including presidents William Henry Harrison, John Quincy Adams, and Zachary Taylor.

View of the “front” of the “Public Vault.” Photo from Congressional Cemetery

A very diverse “eternal community”

The Congressional Cemetery website has an impressive amount of information. You can take a virtual tour of the entire cemetery. Information is available for 21 specific interests at the site. They include African American, Native American, Chinese American, FBI men, politicians, the pet section, civil rights heroes, etc.

Visit Virtually – Congressional Cemetery

Neglect and Recovery

This is copied directly from the cemetery website:

For a time in the 20th century, Congressional Cemetery was forgotten and neglected. The grass grew waist high, the stones crumbled and toppled, and the back corners of the property were dirty and dangerous. By 1997, Congressional Cemetery had the dubious distinction of being added to the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of the most endangered historic sites.

A stubborn group of dedicated Washingtonians knew the cemetery was worth saving. Local Capitol Hill neighbors who walked their dogs on the grounds began taxing themselves to pay for grass mowing. Today, the K9 Corps at Historic Congressional Cemetery has hundreds of members who pay an annual fee to walk their dogs off-leash on the grounds. Their resources and volunteer work keep the cemetery clean and secure as well as lively and well loved. Other volunteers-including members of the armed forces, school groups, church groups, service associations, and descendant organizations-put in thousands of hours of work each year. They accomplish tasks the cemetery could never afford to pay for. Private donations, Congressional appropriations, foundation grants, and proceeds from gravesite sales have all allowed the cemetery to rebound from neglect and vandalism.

K9 Corner – Historic Congressional Cemetery

John Edgar Hoovers’ grave is kept company by graves of the LGBTQ community

The cemetery is open to the public. Burial plots are still available for purchase, making it popular for some activists. For instance, members of the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning) community started buying plots after Leonard Matlovich secured two spots in the same section as former FBI director John Edgar Hoover. This was a protest against Hoovers’ efforts to expose and prosecute “subversives.” He included individuals suspected of being part of the LGBTQ community as subversives.

Matlovich was an active-duty Technical Sergeant in the U.S. Air Force when he publicly confirmed that he was gay. This led to his “other-than-honorable” discharge from military service based on his sexual orientation. He used his headstone to advocate for equal rights for members of the LGBTQ community.

Now, the same section that houses Hoover’s grave has the “Gay Corner”, a cluster of burials near the Matlovich grave. You may be aware that the FBI Chief was suspected of having a gay lover. It was his longtime friend Clyde Anderson Tolson, also buried near Hoover.

Musical legacy

The music composer and Marine Corps Band Conductor John Philip Souza is buried here, in the Sousa family grave. He is known as “The March King” for the military marching music he wrote. The Marine Corps Band visits his grave on his birthday in November to play his music as a tribute.

Grave of John Philip Souza

Historic Congressional Cemetery – Washington, DC

About the author – Cultures and Graves

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