City Desk

Ideas to Breathe New Life Into D.C. Cemeteries

A damaged gravesite at Holy Rood Cemetery in Glover Park. (Photo by Michael E. Grass)

A damaged gravesite at Holy Rood Cemetery in Glover Park. (Photo by Michael E. Grass)

While the recent grave mismanagement scandal at Arlington National Cemetery may dampen local enthusiasm for the national trend of finding creative new uses for cemeteries, in a backwards-kinda-way, it does spark questions about whether D.C. could taking better advantage of its cemetery spaces for the public good.

As The Wall Street Journal reports, cemeteries across the nation are trying to inject new life into places filled with dead people by having sock hops, fireworks, scavenger hunts, and events involving clowns. It’s in part a long-term survival mechanism: attracting the living before they’re dead, to keep the money coming in.

Hell, even in an emptying Detroit, people think the city "should go into the cemetery business." ("When someone dies it would generate city revenue.")

There’s a future in death, but how do the District’s cemeteries stack up?

Holy Rood Cemetery, maintained by Georgetown University, is in a pretty awful state of disrepair (but a great place to watch July 4 fireworks!). Across town on Capitol Hill's eastern end, Congressional Cemetery was once a scary place. But thanks to neighborhood dogwalkers, the historic resting place is largely a safe, clean and maintained final resting place. So sayeth the cemetery’s website: “The presence of dogwalkers at almost every hour of the day constitutes a de facto on site patrol all day long. With watch dog eyes and ears on duty, Congressional is mostly free and clear of riff raff and vandals.” Somebody needs to keep watch over J. Edgar Hoover and John Phillips Sousa!

A grave at Rock Creek Cemetery near Petworth. (Photo by Michael E. Grass)

A grave at Rock Creek Cemetery near Petworth. (Photo by Michael E. Grass)

Rock Creek Cemetery, which borders Petworth, isn’t necessarily hidden, but is unfortunately overlooked as a D.C. attraction. Not only is it a beautiful landscape—and home to a famous Augustus Saint-Gaudens sculpture—but it's the final resting place for a number of famous-for-Washington types, including presidential daughter and socialite Alice Roosevelt Longworth, writer Henry Adams, master brewer Christian Heurich, Riggs Bank founder George Washington Riggs, U.S. Postmaster General Montgomery Blair, Supreme Court Associate Justice John Harlan, and Hope diamond owner and Father Struck It Rich author Evalyn Walsh McLean to name a few. (Writer Gore Vidal plans to be laid to rest at Rock Creek Cemetery, as well.)

Rock Creek Cemetery has hosted larger festivals to draw new people in. But that’s the exception to the rule. Most cemeteries in the District are closed off, precincts for the dead, not the living. But in a crowded city, that’s underutilized open space.

If the cemetery stewards are looking at the Journal article for inspiration, there are ideas aplenty. However, since there are many gravestones at Holy Rood that have fallen over, a community sock-hop competition might not be the best idea.

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