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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.
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.
“I don’t have any family and no one will be visiting me,” he said. “I thought it would be neat to be buried somewhere where there were famous people buried, too, so that if there was a tour, and they were pointing out someone, they could say, ‘Oh and here’s our librarian.’”
He’s so delighted with his future home, he even featured the grave site and stone on his last Christmas card. The cheery holiday greeting featured a passage from Charles Dickens’ classic “A Christmas Carol,” in which the chastened miser Scrooge sees his own name on a headstone and utters the line: “Oh, tell me that I may sponge away the writing on this stone!”