Tale of two cemeteries: Rock Creek and Congressional, D.C.

Mausolems, like these at Rock Creek Cemetery, were used by wealthy families in the 1800s. [Photo by Lucy Chumbley]

Rock Creek Cemetery[Washington Window] The Diocese of Washington’s churches have always dealt with death: providing parishioners with services, solace and in many cases, a final resting place.

While many churches concentrate on serving their own members, the two largest Episcopal graveyards in the District of Columbia – the Rock Creek and Congressional cemeteries – opened their gates early on to those of other denominations and faiths.

Rock Creek Cemetery, in the Brookland section of northwest Washington, is the oldest Episcopal graveyard in the District of Columbia. The 100-acre site has been managed by St. Paul’s since it was given to the church in 1719 by Col. John Bradford, a tobacco farmer, as a glebe.

“Glebe is an old English word for a portion of land set aside to generate income for the parish,” said David Downes, former cemetery superintendent. And from the very beginning, Bradford’s gift proved profitable.

At first, timber was cut and sold to raise money for the parish. Then some of the cleared land was rented out to farmers. In those days there was a small burial ground around the church, but it was not until the mid-1800s that the parish decided to turn its land into a public cemetery. Today individual lots sell for about $2,925, according to Carol Ford, Rock Creek’s office manager.

At Congressional Cemetery there are now 300 lots on sale, with prices ranging from $2,000 to $4,000, said Farleigh Earhart, who serves on the cemetery board.

“I think there’s more space than that in the long run,” Earhart said. “But right now, that’s what we’re working with.”

Congressional Cemetery, which sits between Robert F. Kennedy Stadium and the Anacostia River, was founded in southeast Washington in 1807 in response to a growing demand for a graveyard in that area. The original four-acre site was purchased for $400 by the vestry of Christ Church, Capitol Hill, and in 1812, the land was deeded to the church, with the stipulation that one quarter of the property be reserved for the poor. The cost of a burial was not to exceed $2.

Over the years, Christ Church has added to the property, which now covers just over 32 acres. But while the church still owns the land, the graveyard is now managed by a private foundation –The Association for the Preservation of Historic Congressional Cemetery.

“From the start, they used it as public burial grounds,” said Earhart. And from the beginning – thanks to its location – the cemetery has had a connection with Congress.

In July, 1807, Congressman Uriah Tracy, of Connecticut, was interred at the cemetery, and a long association with the U.S. government began.

“It was considered kind of the official government burial ground – even though there’s never been an official legal connection,” Earhart said. “They pretty early on made this connection, and asked congress to pay for some maintenance.”

A special feature of the cemetery is the rows of cenotaphs that commemorate congressmen who died in office. While the word cenotaph means “empty tomb,” about 80 congressmen are actually interred there, Earhart said.

The highest ranking government official buried at Congressional is Elbridge Gerry, who died in 1814. He served as vice president under Madison, and is the only signer of the Declaration of Independence to be buried in the area.

While congressmen are Congressional’s chief claim to fame, there are a number of other well-known folk interred there. These include composer and bandmaster John Philip Sousa (1854-1932); FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, (1895-1972); Push-ma-ta-ha, a Choctaw Indian Chief, (1764-1824); and Matthew Brady, the father of photojournalism (1822-1896).

Rock Creek also has its share of famous figures – society people, newspaper editors, politicians, generals and the like – but it is perhaps best known for the Adams Memorial.

The memorial was commissioned by writer and historian Henry Adams, grandson of  President John Quincy Adams, following the 1885 suicide of his wife, Marian “Clover” Adams. It was designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, one of the leading sculptors of the day.

“People come from all over the world to see that,” Ford said. “They’ve read about it somewhere or seen a picture of it or heard about it.”

“It clearly has very Eastern overtones to it,” Downes said, explaining that the brass sculpture of a veiled figure was quite controversial in its day.

Rock Creek is essentially a Christian burial ground, he said, but secular markers like the Adams Memorial are now permitted at the discretion of the cemetery.

Burial trends at both cemeteries have changed over the years. In the 1900s, wealthy local families built large mausoleums, Downes said. In recent years, lack of space has led to a decline in the construction of family mausoleums, he said, but there are still community mausoleums at Rock Creek.

In previous times, families bought large lots, with as many as 20 burial sites, Downes said, but “there are very few families that do that any more. Generally people will buy one or two sites or maybe three or four – very rarely more than that, and that is largely to do with the mobility of our society.”

Cremation has become more common in the last 30 years, he said, and Rock Creek now has a columbarium – a place where ashes are kept.

Congressional does not have a columbarium yet, but its newly adopted master plan calls for one to be built. Earhart said that in recent years, there have also been requests for a scatter garden, and there is a trend toward burying ashes.

Expense and environmental considerations are some reasons why more people are choosing cremation, Downes said. And these days, there is a greater acceptance of cremation in the Episcopal Church.

“I think there’s probably a growing sense that what’s important is the spirit,” he said.

For more than 200 years, these two very different cemeteries have served as physical reminders of the spirits of the men and women who found their final resting place within their walls. And with good stewardship, they will continue to be places of history and memory for years to come.


Tale of two cemeteries

Congressional and Rock Creek have been offering peace for two centuries