Roxy the Doberman pinscher takes a stroll among the cenotaphs empty tombs that honor deceased Members of Congress at the Historic Congressional Cemetery. The graveyard has become a haven for dog walkers, who help pay for the upkeep of the grounds.
One of the liveliest places on Capitol Hill is, ironically, Historic Congressional Cemetery, a more than two-century-old resting ground wedged among the stretch of institutional ephemera that includes the local jail and the decaying remains of D.C. General Hospital. But plopping down about 700 dogs and their attendant humans can liven up just about anywhere, even a 35-acre plot populated primarily by the remains of the dearly departed.
It might seem a little weird, even sacrilegious to some, to unleash the hounds in the permanent resting place for “Cabinet members, Generals, merchants, indigents; native Americans and foreign diplomats,” as the dead are described by publicity materials of the Association for the Preservation of Historic Congressional Cemetery. But the dogs and dead coexist in an arrangement that works for both of them, particularly when it comes to the graveyard’s operating expenses.
About 25 percent of the cemetery’s operating budget — preserving 200-year-old marble monuments and mowing 35 acres of grass doesn’t come cheap — comes from the dog-walking membership known as the K9 Corps at Historic Congressional Cemetery.
“Generally, I explain to people that it’s a lively place,” said Patrick Crowley, former chairman of the association’s board and now interim senior manager. “Unlike where my folks are buried, which is a memorial park. That’s really a dead place. It’s bleak. There’s no life to it. This is a very lively place.”
The cemetery is still an active burial site. Dog walkers keep the place hopping, primarily before and after human work hours, the prime canine exercise time for their owners. And the site is home to an increasingly active amount of historical appreciation.
The association provides maps for walking tours, among them a “War of 1812 Tour,” a “Building the Federal City Tour” and a “Men of Adventure Tour.” The association also will find a docent to lead you around, and there is even a cellphone tour for dialing up according to historical markers across the grounds. In October, there is even a foot race: the “Dead Man’s Run.”
Informal groups of dog owners began contributing to the upkeep of the cemetery back in the 1990s. Crowley said in a recent interview that people have been walking their dogs in the cemetery for more than 30 years, although the situation on the grounds was far different until very recently.
“In 1990, it was a drug war zone,” he said. “The early dog walkers would stick to the main loop and band together,” he said, explaining that aside from the criminal element, the unmaintained grounds and resulting 3-foot-high grass made it difficult to traverse.
“The morning dog walkers, their job was to clean up the hypodermic needles. They had to [do it] very carefully to not stick yourself,” Crowley said.
It’s hard to imagine now, as the grounds are well groomed and many of the roads and paths within have been paved or upgraded during the past few years.
“Around 2001, 2002, I started harassing people to pay dues,” he said. At that point, the neighborhood had started improving a bit, and there was more interest in people using the park to walk their dogs.
Aside from “a few people, who would see me coming and start walking the other way,” Crowley said, membership grew and became more organized.
The K9 Corps became an official organization of the preservation association in 2007, complete with a board of directors, committees and the like. On Thursday, it starts another membership year.
It’s easy to see how the dog-walking dues have become an integral part of the budget. The membership fee is a $200 tax-deductible donation per family and a $50 per dog fee, with a maximum of three dogs per family. Dog owners are asked to volunteer at least 12 hours per year. Among the duties of a volunteer, in addition to picking weeds and clearing trash, is policing to make sure nonmember dogs don’t use the grounds.
Each year, members are required to undergo an orientation session to make sure they follow the rules and understand, among other things, the historical significance of the cemetery and how integral their efforts are to its preservation.
Still, the waiting list for the dog-walking membership is long.
A few years ago, Crowley was at a workshop for historical cemeteries, and he explained the association’s dog-walking program.
“All the people kind of looked down their noses at it,” he said, then added with a laugh:“Then I explained that it took care of the expenses for cutting the grass, and immediately, they looked up and said, ‘And how does that work now?’”
The efforts of the association appear to be bearing some fruit. “It seems like they’re doing more to orient it as a cemetery,” said Marc Olano, a neighborhood resident and a longtime dog walker of his foxhound Patience. “I think the cellphone tours are pretty cool,” he said.
A Historical Pedigree
Erin Harms, who is married to Olano and shares dog-walking responsibilities for Patience, said the association has been good about balancing the dogs and the needs of historical preservation, noting that the group banned dog toys.
“I think they had to do it, to protect the tombstones,” she said, explaining that any number of dogs could chase a tennis ball right into a 200-year-old headstone.
The cemetery, which opened in 1807, has a long history of honoring or interring the Washington elite. In its earliest days, it operated without a formal name. It became Washington Parish Burial Ground after being deeded in 1812 to the vestry of the Christ Church on Capitol Hill.
People began referring to it as Congressional Cemetery toward the middle of the 19th century, after Congress purchased plots to memorialize its Members who had died in office.
It is these stretches of the grounds that contain some of the cemetery’s most notable architectural structures, the cenotaphs, that mark the passage of some of the Capitol’s most famous denizens.
There are about 170 cenotaphs, or “empty tombs,” here. They are, mostly, short, squatty blocks, topped by stone cubes with domes and were designed by architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe.
Among the cenotaphs are markers for the likes of President John Quincy Adams, who also served in the House and Senate, Speaker Henry Clay and Vice President John C. Calhoun. Reps. Hale Boggs and Nicholas Begich, who disappeared while on the same campaign flight in 1972 from Anchorage to Juneau, Alaska, share a cenotaph. Speaker Tip O’Neill, who died in 1994, is the last Member of Congress to have a tomb marked for him on the grounds, although his marker has a different form than most and looks like a more contemporary gravestone.
Aside from the empty tombs, 80 Members of Congress are interred at the cemetery, according to the preservation association, including Elbridge Gerry, the only Founding Father to be buried there.
The non-Congressional dead residing here include such historical luminaries as FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and U.S. Marine band leader John Philip Sousa.
Even with the weight of history that surrounds it, the association certainly has a sense of humor about its mission. For information about the K9 Corps, people are directed to email queries to email@example.com. And under the cemetery website’s frequently asked questions section, one can find the following:
Q: Do you have to be a Member of Congress (or any other requirement) to be buried there?
Visitors get their first look at the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial, which opened to the public on Monday, Oct. 6, 2014. The new memorial is located off Independence Ave. SW between the Rayburn House Office Building and HHS. Buy photo here.