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Cemetery’s Sales Pitch: We Want Your Body

There’s no more potent reminder of one’s mortality than receiving a solicitation to buy a cemetery plot. Last month, thousands of Hill residents got just such a dose of the inevitable amid their credit card bills and grocery-store coupons.

“Where do you see yourself in 100 years?” inquired a flier that landed in the mailboxes of local residents. The reverse side offered a suggestion for where they might like to spend eternity. Congressional Cemetery is offering “PLOTS, VAULTS, and OTHER INTERMENT ARRANGEMENTS,” it read. “Call us to arrange superior company for the ages.”

Most people familiar with Congressional Cemetery know it as a historical site where centuries-dead luminaries repose. John Philip Sousa is buried there. So is J. Edgar Hoover. Or perhaps they know it as a popular dog-walking park, where Labradoodles piddle on the headstones of the great names of the city’s founding: the Macombs, the Bennings, the Seatons.

Few think of it as a place where they, too, might be buried, having never served in Congress, led Arctic expeditions or fought heroically in wars.

But Congressional Cemetery’s board hopes to change the site’s image as the exclusive resting place of Washington’s historical elite. Cemetery officials have launched an ad campaign to sell plots to contemporary — and yes, decidedly average ­— Washingtonians.

It’s the first marketing campaign in memory, and certainly the only one to use tongue-in-cheek come-ons that would make a “Mad man” proud.

Why the push now? Fifteen years of restoration have turned a weedy, overgrown patch of urban grit into a well-ordered oasis, and the board has decided that Congressional Cemetery is finally ready for its close-up.

“Now that the ambiance and reputation are back up, we thought it was time,” said Patrick Crowley, the group’s chairman. In the mid-2000s, when the board was drawing up long-term plans, Crowley suggested getting out of the burial business entirely and focusing only on historic preservation, designing better tours and programs that would highlight the cemetery’s notable statuary and its famous residents.

“They almost threw me out of the room,” he said. “They said, ‘We want to continue to be part of the American story. We want to be part of the future.’”

Sales of burial plots will bring in more money for programs such as tours and community events, cemetery executive director Cindy Hays said. Sales of grave sites and burials account for only 12 percent of the cemetery’s budget.

Almost no grave sites were sold from the mid-1950s through this year, Hays said, and the relatively few burials held there were on ancestral plots bought long ago. About 2,000 grave sites will be available, and up to five bodies can be interred in one grave site — two bodies buried double-deep and three urns.

Rates start at $3,000 for a plot; the prices are “market-based” as required by partnerships between the cemetery and the Architect of the Capitol and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

And just like other real estate, it costs more to get into the fancy part of town. Sites in the oldest quarter of the cemetery, where heroes of the War of 1812 rub shoulders with the likes of Elbridge Gerry, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and vice president under James Madison, run $4,000.

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