It is March, but the sun is slung low and the light filters down sheer and bleached by winter. As I reach the gates of Congressional Cemetery, the wind rises off the Anacostia River. It whistles through the tombstones, leafless oaks and drooping willows. Hyacinth, determined sprigs of royal purple, press out of the frosty earth along the path. Spring feels distant yet.
I walk down the cemetery’s central boulevard, Congress Street, past a line of stone memorials with pyramid caps that look like squat obelisks, toward a chapel with barred windows shaped like coffins. From the street I could hear the plaintive tones of a bagpipe. I quickly discover their origins. A man in a Scottish kilt parades down the stone path, playing and breathing heavily. Two others flank him: an older gentleman in a gray blazer with a red bucket hat pulled down low over his forehead. To his left is a woman of similar age sporting a dark coat and darker sunglasses.
I worry I am a voyeur at a funeral. Congressional is one of twelve functional cemeteries in the city. Around 1,000 three-by-eight foot plots are for sale, for a price as low as $4,000 in the east wing. The historic heart of the cemetery, where some of the most famous Washingtonians are buried, costs eight thousand these days. Around two funerals take place each week. But my fears are assuaged by the woman’s hearty cackle of a laugh as the three stop and listen casually at a grave for an Episcopalian priest. The ground around its headstone is a dewy brown. The site is stripped of the unkempt grass that carpets the rest of the grounds. A mane of flowers on green metal stilts stands sentinel nearby. I offer a nod of respect as I pass.
I’ve wandered most of the District’s brightly lit memorials. I’ve lain beneath the Washington Monument at dusk, like the school children, and watched the bats flit and dart after moths and beetles. I’ve disturbed the mallard ducks that doze along the banks of the reflecting pool that stretches down to the stone archways of the World War II Memorial. I’ve read the Gettysburg Address inscribed into the shadow-cast eves of Abraham Lincoln’s statue. I’ve walked the length of the tidal basin and rested on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial. And I’ve listened to the cackle and yip of the red foxes in the bushes east of President Roosevelt’s sprawling commemorative as the sun rises above the Potomac and illuminates the stones and the bronze and the carved places of the nation’s capital. You can’t live in Washington without knowing these places. This is the City of Monuments, after all. Public totems to our national history can be found at every turn. But the forgotten corners — the places washed by time — these intrigue me most.
That’s why I have come to Congressional Cemetery. Thousands of souls are laid to rest here, at the end of a series of arterial streets with numbers for names on the eastern lip of Capitol Hill. Many names are common. Others are not. Some carry surnames that lie on the lips of average Americans — Clay, Calhoun, Adams, Hoover. But these grounds are unlike the National Mall. They are somber, unpolished. They lack the pomp and the prestige of the memorials to presidents and statesmen, captains of industry and suffragettes, civil rights heroes and warriors of great merit. Rather, Congressional is composed of more muted pigments. This is the place beyond the marble and the steel, where one can find fame reduced to something more intimate and vulnerable than anything along the famous boulevards.
Founded in 1807, Congressional Cemetery has gone from four and a half acres to a sprawling near-forty covered by thousands of headstones, columbarium niches, footstones, graves, and crypts. Fashioned in the nineteenth-century rural cemetery style, the grounds share characteristics with a public park. Benches, pathways, and groves of trees mark its hillocks and flats. Once, Antebellum Washingtonians spread blankets on the grass and dozed under parasols in and amongst some of the nation’s most illustrious departed.
The original layout of Washington, D.C. included a plan for two cemeteries: one for the east, another for the west. The western plot became Rock Creek Cemetery, the District’s oldest. The site for the eastern cemetery, on the other hand, flooded frequently. So an association, composed largely of parishioners from Christ Church, a local Episcopal congregation, sought a suitable alternative. They found one between E and G Streets and purchased it for $200. Articles of subscription were filed and plots were offered for sale at two dollars a piece — enough to cover cost and raise funds for a rudimentary fence.
Senator Uriah Tracy, a Federalist from Franklin, Connecticut, died three months later. It was decided that he would be buried on the new grounds, in the shadow of the partially completed Capitol, and honored with a capstone made of the same Aquia Creek sandstone as the Capitol Dome. Soon afterwards, Congressional — known then as the Washington Parish Burial Grounds — became the final resting place of Washington’s mandarins and public heroes. The cemetery expanded plot by plot, through purchase and donation, reaching a height of thirty-five acres.
Now its rows are home to soldiers, musicians, Congressmen, Senators, Vice Presidents, and Choctaw and Apache chiefs. The bodies of Presidents John Quincy Adams and Zackary Taylor were kept in the public vault. Some claim President Lincoln’s assassin crouched low to avoid capture here amongst the stones and geraniums, only a matter of years after Lincoln gave a eulogy on these same grounds. Some of the slaves who built the Capitol, its stonecutter, and its architect are buried here, too. And in a grove of flowering trees is a plaque for the victims of September 11th.
“For those who no longer hear noisy leaves, shimmering in the summer breeze,” it begins. “For those who might have sought shelter from the mid-day sun under a nave of gnarled hornbeams. For those who would grieve in the quiet space amid a grove of flowering trees.”
In 1864, workers broke ground on Arlington National Cemetery. Washingtonians gravitated toward the rolling hills overlooking the Potomac watershed. Nearly a thousand plots were set aside at Congressional for prominent burials. A fraction are occupied. For a period of time in the’ 90s, the cemetery became the providence of the weeds. Vines streaked the crypts. Grasses sprouted up to a man’s waist, obscuring the slate pathways. Victorian pillars crumbled and turned to dust. Some peddled dope and other varieties of vice under the boughs of shaggy trees.
Disrepair is still apparent in places, despite a successful effort to rehabilitate the cemetery. Gravestones sit upside down. Some crumble. Others rust. Moss is a common, uninvited accent. The mark of age seems to offer a lesson: that a burial is a living thing. It needs to be tended. At times, it needs to be mended. We think that mortality heralds immortality. For a tomb stone or a footstone, it certainly does not. As I walk over spongy earth, I gather how finite immortality can be when it’s hewn by man out of earth and wood.
I take a left and descend among the stones. The geometry mirrors the city’s original design with a four-quadrant grid divided by wide paths. I choose to explore the slope of its southeast first and step down a brick path. As I walk, I find familiar names, but not of the celebrated variety. Diedtrich. Clark. Watts. Ford. All possess some level of meaning to me, but none are the heroes of history. Thayer. Hall. Roche. Harbin. Risen. Woodworth. Carthart. Croxton.
I come across a tree with black bark. Nubby spring blooms coat the tips of its limbs. They are ruby red, fragile, and crumble like old paper to the touch. The wind rustles its branches, producing a hollow twang as they tap against one another. It looks like a cherry tree. At this time of year every tree in the District with the promise of flowers looks like a cherry tree. They evoke spring, the passing of winter, and the coming of summer. The tidewater basin is lousy with them.
In 1910, the Mayor of Tokyo gifted two thousand sakura, or cherry trees, as a token of the friendship between Japan and America. In Japan, the sakura symbolize the beautiful, yet ephemeral, nature of life. Days after their delivery, however, it was discovered that the precious trees were riddled with disease and were quietly burned to protect Washington’s own cherries from the blight. A century later, thousands of tourists come to the banks of the Potomac each spring to snap photos of the sakura’s papery trunks and famed petals. The blossoms were late last year and the powerful late April squalls that roll off the Atlantic stole them away in their prime. At Congressional, the first shoots of spring go unrecorded by the tourists.
I walk on. There is a vast diversity of grave markers at Congressional: traditional rectangle headstones with rounded tops; marble squares, known as footstones, set flush to the earth; polished copings and ledgers; rough-hewn granite crosses; brick facades with weep holes; grey marble blocks freckled with white stone accents; a memorial yard ringed by a fence of stone. Along the east end, a row of tightly packed mausoleums line the road. Links of metal hoops clasped with a padlock seal their doors. The huddled crypts, with their vaulted roofs and narrow girth, look like the row houses that sit on 17th Street just outside the gates.
I grew up five blocks from a cemetery much like Congressional. From time to time, during long August days, I would wander its grounds with friends. We would touch gravestones and read names out loud to one another. But those days were few. Graveyards are foreign to me now — the stuff of vague memory. I stayed in the car with my godfather as my great aunt was put to rest. I was young, but I remember how everyone wore black. How I peered up the road at my family’s leather shoes. How the warped glass of the back window of our rental car obscured their faces as they walked away after the ceremonies.
A splash of color in the grass catches my eye. As the brick path gives way to gravel and quartz, I notice it: an American flag driven low into the ground. It stands out. Few headstones at Congressional appear tended to. I slip past a marble headstone covered in yellow moss where the tendrils of a vine tug at its mortar-and-brick base. I am careful to avoid the sunken troughs on my trek off the path. Each indentation marks a coffin long ago interred, the earth having settled around it.
I find the flag marking a headstone the shade of bone. It is of a military make — the same design that populates Arlington National Cemetery a few miles down the Anacostia River, past where its waters meet the Potomac, past the tidal basin where the cherry blossoms germinate, past the boundary channel and the trails along the riverbanks. The stone reads, “Otto Scholz, New York, U.S. Marine Corps, July 19, 1890.” The fabric is not frayed despite how it whips furiously with each gust of wind. Someone planted it recently.
I crouch and try to imagine Otto. I wonder if he was born along an avenue in Brooklyn, on a block where shipwrights and longshoremen lived. I imagine that skyscrapers were soon to go up across the East River in Manhattan. The city poised to press into drive as modern industry gathered steam and exploded. I imagine Otto trying on his dress blues in front of parents flushed with pride — maybe a girlfriend with curled hair fights back tears in the back of a drawing room. I can smell the detergent and the mothballs as he carefully hangs the slacks up after a night out on Bleecker Street, ready to ship out the next day for Havana or Port-au-Prince or Honolulu, not knowing if he will come home. But he does. Or maybe he doesn’t. His headstone offers only one clue: July 19, 1890.
Someone else remembers Otto. The flag violently twitching in the breeze proves it so. Congressional sells flowers for the same purpose — summer lilies, daisy bouquets, mixed bouquets, and holiday wreaths, to be exact. To mark Otto’s gravestone, one would select Range 7, Site 199, Grave 6. But there are no flags for sale. Whoever planted it had to drive its pole — a thin balsa wood dowel — into the spongy grass themselves.
I notice other signs of remembrance as I stroll. I see devotional phrases like “our beloved pompy” driven into marble. Flowers mark various plots — pink and lavender tulips, leafy arrangements of fall colors, deep reds and burnished orange. Some headstones, toppled by age, have been righted. They lean against their neighbor or an exposed faucet. I pause over buttons of stone no larger than a single brick split in half, the letter,“C” pressed into each surface. Pebbles with rounded edges are perched on top of headstones, each a small act of simple remembrance.
The grounds are nearly empty, except for me. A couple walks by on the perimeter, at an exercise pace. A woman in a pink winter parka speeds past me, her arms pumping madly. All the while, I can hear the notes of the bagpipe carried by the wind. The melody of “Amazing Grace” wafts by and I smile. My mother used to sing it to me when I was a child. I remember her telling me how my grandmother had done the same for her when she was little.
I never knew my grandparents, but I know their gravestones well. Two footstones, side-by-side, set into the slope of a piedmont in the Shenandoah Valley, beneath the Blue Ridge Mountains. I’ve visited three, maybe four, times before. But I can recall the plot vividly. I remember the moss that speckles them. I remember the military honor next to my grandfather’s. I remember how the family’s pets are buried along the fence line amongst the English ivy. And I remember how on my last visit someone had left a bouquet of flowers by their side. It had tipped over in the wind, so I set it right again.
Death is still largely foreign to me. I have been fortunate to keep its touch at bay for as long as I have, only seeing and feeling it in halting starts. But I feel unequipped. I worry I lack an essential emotional register, the one that steels the heart and prepares the soul. When I was fifteen, a friend from the local YMCA passed away. I felt vulnerable. I felt unprepared. And to this day I struggle to remember him — to find a way to honor his memory or satisfy my own need to grieve. In my darkest hours, late at night, I wonder what loss has in store for me in the years ahead, whether I will have the capacity to grasp it without losing something more than I will already have.
I find the last reaches of the cemetery not far beyond Otto’s headstone. This is what the cemetery calls Anacostia River Plaza — the easternmost point of the acreage where the grounds butt up against a path that runs the length of the river. Piles of leaves, asphalt heaped like cordwood, and tree cuttings are stacked high against the chain link fence. Back here the façade is forgotten. I run my hand along the chain link and follow it to the other end of the grounds, inspecting trees wrapped in sheaths of ivy as I pass.
On my way out of the cemetery, I find myself walking behind a young couple with two children being led by an eager dog. I watch them explore the stubby pyramidal headstones, called cenotaphs, by the front gate that line the path like a colonnade. “Look, I found it!” The little girl cries out. They cluster around and snap photos. The blue-grey dog licks the sandy marble. Soon, the children lose interest and chase one another around a cavernous mausoleum nearby. I slip in behind them. They have found President John Quincy Adams’ name chiseled into a conical cenotaph. I have finally stumbled across Congressional’s famous names.
Here is Henry Clay and John Calhoun. Here is Preston Brooks and Thaddeus Stevens, Tip O’Neil and William Pinkney. I had passed right by them in my hurry to avoid intruding upon the bagpipe vigil. I stay with them for a moment, exploring their forms, before being driven away by the creeping cold. I find out later that these cenotaphs are empty. There is no body beneath them. They are memorials, too, much like those that rear above the tree line along the National Mall.
The wind subsides and the sky goes from clear to pewter — a storm brews over the Chesapeake. Later that day, I walk past Christ Church, further down G Street where the keepers of the cemetery worship. Flurries of snow twist in the wind. The ancient tabernacle is quiet. I find no sign of life. Curious to know more, I resolve to return for a service.
The next morning, I find a man laying green palm fronds in a woven pattern over the stone path of the church. “Strewing palms for Palm Sunday,” he tells me with a warm smile. This church is older than the cemetery itself. A few years ago the vestry celebrated the first days of their second century. I find my place in the back pews and a man named John hands me a frond.
“Welcome,” he says.
“Thank you,” I reply.
“Thomas Jefferson once attended services here at Christ Church,” he tells me with pride.
Mass starts without warning, as if a television has been flicked on in the bronze light filtering through the stained glass. The rector, a young woman with black hair in flowing white robes, tells stories familiar to most Christians: of Jesus washing the feet of the homeless; the passion of Christ; and the saga of Lazarus, buried in a cave, sealed by a stone, only to reemerge, alive, days later.
Partway through the service, again without warning, the entire congregation breaks out into kinetic motion, as if animated by a single jolt of energy. “Peace be upon you,” a woman sitting in the pew in front of me says, offering a hand. “Peace be upon you.” Everyone shakes hands with friends and strangers alike. “Peace,” John says. He grasps my hand and smiles widely.
I have never taken communion before, but I am tempted this morning. On the rare occasion I have attended a service, I listen to the good news from a safe distance. Perhaps today I won’t. Perhaps this morning I will take the body of Christ. John wouldn’t mind. In fact, he beckons me with kind eyes as the congregation shuffles toward the shrine at the front of the church. The rector with black hair murmurs an incantation and hands wafers to those collected at the altar.
The scene recalls a passage from a favorite Joseph Mitchell story of mine. A prolific wanderer, Mitchell spent the balance of his life writing soaring love letters about mid-century New York City for the New Yorker. Once, Mitchell went to a liturgy at a Catholic Church. He took communion and felt a great power in the hall.
“One dimly remembered observation about the ancientness of the Mass…began to haunt me,” Mitchell wrote. “I began to feel that the Mass gave me a living connection with my ancestors in England and Scotland before the Reformation and with other ancestors thousands of years earlier than that in the woods and in the caves and on the mudflats of Europe.
“It put me in communion, so to speak, with these ancestors, no matter how ghostly and hypothetical they might be. This was deeply satisfying to me — it was like finding an aperture through which I could look into my unconscious, a tiny crack in a wall that all my adult life I had been striving to see through or over or around.”
I approach the altar, but hesitate. I stand back with the loitering few, left outside the circle, steps away from the crimson carpet that adorns the chancel. John looks back at me. He looks rueful, but seems to understand. I’m an outsider, yet. But here there is community and, like Mitchell, I can sense it in its fullness. Great, frothing community. Stepping into the bosom of this church feels warm to the touch, even if I still find myself standing aloof.
When the service ends a man named Paul introduces himself. He has a voice of avuncular compassion and authority. Paul shepherds me around the meeting hall for coffee and pastries. I meet his wife. I meet John’s wife and a couple who came down from their new home north of Baltimore to visit old friends. I listen to stories about Martin Luther King, Jr., speaking at Oberlin in the ’60s, and others of Capitol Hill when the city was rougher.
All the while, I begin to notice that each story is common to those around me. Around the big oval table, leaning against the wall, picking through the croissants, sipping coffee, people nod in recognition as they listen to the well-worn tales of their fellow parishioners. Everyone seems to carry great affection for one another. I can see them laying a pebble atop an old friend’s headstone or telling their children about King at Oberlin or how their old friend had bought milk at the same corner of North Carolina and 7th Street for decades. I can see them remembering one another, keeping each other alive as long as they are of this earth.
I think about Congressional as I leave later that morning. I remember the names, all the names I found, and I feel stories brought back to life by each one. A name stirs the memory unlike anything else. A name recalls moments, details and contradictions — all in full color. A name conjures emotions and tastes, honest moments and lies, violence and caresses, passions and predilections. A name comes as close to capturing the full scope of a life as anything we have. And a name written into stone is as close as we come to permanence.
How do we remember our dead? How do we exercise our grief? How do we fortify ourselves against loss and guard against forgetting? We tell stories, and we mark them with stones like mnemonic devices. Famous men need no marker, really. They are the providence of history; of memorials that shine all night, illuminated by floodlights; of hollow stones divorced from all but a name; of the history conjured by an eminent surname. But Otto and thousands of other names at Congressional need the honor. They need the memories. They exist in as far as we let them.
As I walk down Christ Church’s steps, I resolve to leave a pebble on Otto’s headstone whenever I return to Congressional next.