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Entry arch greets pedestrian visitors to the most misnamed attraction in Our Nation's Capital.
Entry arch greets pedestrian visitors to the most misnamed attraction in Our Nation's Capital.

Congressional Cemetery: A Not-Grave Graveyard

Washington, DC

In the 19th century, when government careers ended in Washington -- literally, by the bureaucrats dying there -- the bodies were interred in Congressional Cemetery. The graveyard opened as the nonpolitical Washington Parish Burial Ground, but its location near the halls of power quickly made it the go-to destination for dead officials -- and imparted onto the cemetery its new, unofficial, name. There was no embalming or overnight shipping in 1840, so corpses had to go into the ground fast, and Congressional Cemetery was only a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol.

Old grave marker reflects the cemetery's new friendly vibe.
Old grave marker reflects the cemetery's new friendly vibe.

However, the federal government's need for a local burying ground ended with improvements in postmortem preservation. This was good for Congressional Cemetery, since politicians usually have unimaginative graves. The graveyard kept its nickname but was left to non-congressional Washingtonians who simply wanted to be buried nearby. And the city attracted enough idiosyncratic people to make it a graveyard worth visiting.

Between that early period and the present day, poor finances caused the cemetery to fall into neglect. It was rescued, once again, by local Washingtonians, this time by dog-walkers who used the burial ground as a local park and chased away its resident (living) drug dealers and prostitutes. Although the lawbreakers are long gone, the dogs (dubbed the K-9 Corps), and their owners -- over a thousand of them -- still make daily visits, and the Cemetery sells passes to tourists so that they can graveyard-walk their dogs, too.

Blocky cenotaphs for Washington politicians are one of the graveyard's unique features.
Blocky cenotaphs for Washington politicians are one of the graveyard's unique features.

Congressional Cemetery president Jackie Spainhour said that, despite the graveyard's name, only 90 of its over 67,000 "permanent residents" were members of Congress. The others are a range of unexpected notables, including Indian chiefs, carny roustabouts, and silent movie stars. Some of Congressional Cemetery's more unique non-political residents died in unusual, violent ways. "Our cemetery has a lot of tragedy," Jackie said, although the grounds are not believed to be haunted. Jackie had a sensible afterlife explanation for this: "If I was murdered I wouldn't want to hang out at my grave."

The cemetery is open-minded when it comes to memorial design.
The cemetery is open-minded when it comes to memorial design.

Those souls are missing out, since Congressional Cemetery is a merry graveyard, known for its programs and events, over 100 each year. There are twilight "Soul Strolls" with costumed guides, "Cinematery" outdoor movie nights in the summer, and concerts in the chapel, including performances by the Threshold Singers, whose specialty is singing to people as they die. "We're such a weird place," said Jackie, who has to accommodate respectful new burials with, say, a neighborhood cocktail party in the Public Vault. The cemetery's liberal tombstone policy adds to the vibe of a graveyard that tries hard not to be depressing. "We rarely say no" to a monument design, Jackie said. "We want people to be as authentic as they can be."

The Cemetery offers over twenty self-guided theme tours, including "Men of Adventure" and "Agitators," and is always researching the history of its residents. So in addition to just visiting, if you've led a colorful life and want a lot of people to know about it after you're dead -- or even if you just plan to have a clever tombstone -- Congressional Cemetery may be your ideal final destination. "We have a huge list of people that want to be buried with us," said Jackie, "because they know they won't be forgotten."

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Congressional Cemetery: A Not-Grave Graveyard

1801 E St. SE, Washington, DC
Walk-in cemetery entrance is at the intersection of Potomac Ave. SE and E St. SE.
Cemetery daily daylight hours; office M-F 9-5 (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Free. Dog walk day pass $15.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Accordion GraveAccordion Grave, Washington, DC - < 1 mi.
Unmarked Grave of a Lincoln ConspiratorUnmarked Grave of a Lincoln Conspirator, Washington, DC - < 1 mi.
Cenotaph of John Quincy AdamsCenotaph of John Quincy Adams, Washington, DC - < 1 mi.
In the region:
Rumored Grave of Petey, Little Rascals Dog, Silver Spring, MD - 15 mi.

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