Figuring out which sites are available is tricky. Some are in areas newly cleared because of improvements to the roads that crisscross through the grounds. Others are interspersed throughout old parts, amid headstones that date from the past two centuries. “We had to do quite a bit of research to make sure the graves we thought were empty really were,” Crowley said.
Once a plot is certified empty, anybody can move in, famous or not.
“A lot of people are surprised by that,” Crowley says of the come-one, come-all policy. “They ask what is the criteria for being buried here.” He waits a few beats to deliver the answer. “Death. The board frowns on live burials.”
That sense of gallows humor typifies the atmosphere at the cemetery, where recent programs have featured the “Uppity Women” (suffragettes) and the “Bad Cops, Good Cops” buried there. The recent ad campaign, too, projects a cheeky image.
Recent ads have proclaimed it “The only gated community on Capitol Hill,” boasted about its “Location, location, location” and urged readers to “Join the District’s oldest underground community.”
“We wanted to introduce ourselves to the neighborhood and to kind of poke fun at ourselves,” Hays said. “This is not a somber place.”
And with dogs romping around the headstones, organ lessons in the chapel, and concerts on the grounds, that’s easy to believe. The cemetery is even host to some unusual visitors. Marching bands visiting Washington for parades or concerts often pull up to the cemetery in buses and spill out for quick serenades at Sousa’s grave.
Gay veterans often visit the grave of Leonard Matlovich, the Vietnam War hero discharged for violating the military’s ban on gays, whose stone reads “When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”
That spirit attracts other unconventional gravestones: a couple famous for their dinner parties fashioned their stone in the shape of a picnic table, where visitors are encouraged to dine with them again. A librarian’s headstone simply bears her name and the admonishment to “Look it up!” should a curious passerby want to know more.
The cemetery also drew Thomas Mann, a 62-year-old Hill resident who purchased his own plot two years ago in a prominent spot near a walkway. Mann is planning ahead. A reference librarian at the Library of Congress who penned “The Oxford Guide to Library Research,” he had a stonecutter make a stone in a shape that defined his life’s work: a card from a library catalog.
The square stone, complete with a hole punch at the bottom, follows the system long used at the LOC, with his parents listed as the publisher, the call number as that of the book he wrote, and the edition as “Future corrected edition in the hands of a higher editor.”
Mann said he chose Congressional Cemetery because it embraces quirky stones and because of the traffic it attracts.
Former Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., candidate for U.S. Senate in New Hampshire, holds his hand over his heart during the singing of the national anthem as he waits to take the stage for his town hall campaign rally with Sen. John McCain at the Pinkerton Academy in Derry, N.H., on Monday, Aug. 18, 2014.