Congressional Cemetery a Dog Heaven

Posted April 13, 2010 at 6:01pm

When Patrick Crowley started walking his Saint Bernard in Washington, D.C.’s Congressional Cemetery in 1979, the Queen Anne’s lace was chest-high and hypodermic needles crunched underfoot. Many tombstones had fallen over, and about half of the vaults had been broken into or looted. The historic graveyard, which sits on the banks of the Anacostia River in the southeast section of Capitol Hill, was in the middle of a drug zone.

You could be buried in Congressional Cemetery, but you may not stay buried, they used to say. Notable Americans interred there, such John Philip Sousa, J. Edgar Hoover and Civil War photographer Mathew Brady, not to mention 90 Members of Congress, were likely resting uneasily.

The property looks very different today. Thanks in large part to the efforts of Crowley, an energy regulation consultant, and other neighborhood dog-walkers, the cemetery was moved in 2002 from the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of the 11 most endangered sites in the country to its “saved” category.

While not sporting the manicured lawns of Arlington Cemetery, the hilly 33-acre burial ground is well-kept, with new stone walkways put in for its 2007 bicentennial and most tombstones in good repair.

Because the space is open to unleashed dogs every day except 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, you’ll generally find some of the 450 families and their 600 dogs who pay around $250 a year to use the cemetery strolling, bounding and nosing around each other in curiosity or recognition.

Crowley remembers feeling annoyed at how dirty his dog would get after their walks among the graves 20 years ago and that “they” should do something about it. He soon realized that because the cemetery is privately owned by a nearby church without the funds to maintain it, conservation efforts had to come from somewhere — or someone — else.

“I started by cleaning up the dog poop,” he says, “and other dog-walkers from the neighborhood got on board.”

The group cut down dead trees and planted new ones, cleaned gutters and dug trenches. The official dog-walking organization of the cemetery, the K-9 Corps, was soon formed. Crowley now represents the K-9 Corps on the cemetery’s board, and over the years he’s helped bring in more than $2 million in funding for restoration from not only the dog owners but other private citizens and grants.

Since 2003, many of the cemetery’s most impressive structures have been refurbished, including a number of family vaults. These early to mid-19th-century brick buildings are built like an upside-down U, with a front door that eerily opens to four or five steps that descend below the earth’s surface. They lead to a large room where caskets and coffins sit stacked on top of each other. Sixty such vaults once existed, though 20 have collapsed and are lost. The few of the remaining 40 that have been restored are now solidly constructed, while those that wait for funding still have collapsed ceilings and brick mortar in stages of disintegration.

Before restoration work could begin on the lucky few, the vaults’ human remains had to be identified and stored for safekeeping. Forensic anthropologist Doug Owsley and archaeologist Laurie Burgess of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History worked through layers of casket debris, bones, dirt and twigs to date and identify Washington’s early residents.

Burgess dates the remains via coffin styles and ornamentation, as well as materials such as buttons and pins from clothing that has long since turned to dust, while Owsley determines the age, sex and perhaps time of death of each person through the skeleton. Then, with cemetery records, they match remains with names.

Most of those interred in the vaults came from illustrious families, such as Griffith Coombes, who hobnobbed with George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

Crowley opens the heavy iron door to the recently restored William G. White family vault (built in 1835) and descends the stairs. A small, oblong iron coffin likely made for an adolescent sits to the side, and a large, rectangular casket has been placed in the middle of the open space. The vault is mainly empty because the White family is still at the Natural History Museum, to be returned to their final resting place in the coming months. The conservation work will keep the vault in good shape for 50 to 70 years.

Local and national media outlets have recently covered the restoration efforts, bringing more curious visitors to the cemetery. Those who run the grounds are also looking to lure more guests, but through a different method.

Cemetery manager Alan Davis wants to increase the number of graves. The cemetery buries only 12 souls a year. Davis has come up with the idea of making the cemetery the only graveyard in the region that performs green burials, in which a corpse is placed in a biodegradable casket that decomposes with the body. He is in the process of marketing it.

“I want to make this place more active,” he says. “I want to make it come alive.”

Davis adds that the cemetery’s dog-walkers are required to give 12 hours of volunteer work per year. For many, that means “poop patrol,” in which they must keep a parcel of land (one of 15) clean of dog feces for a period of time. While this helps keep the grounds clean, with 600 dogs there’s bound to be some missed piles.

Crowley notes that the delicate balance between the dog-walkers and visitors occurs because the cemetery is relatively unused.

“People don’t like finding poop on grandmother’s grave,” he says, adding that the dogs also stain certain tombstones by urinating on them repeatedly.

So what will happen to the dog-walkers as activity increases in the form of more tourists seeking a historic site and more burials for the ecologically minded?

“Though the dog-walkers bring in $130,000 a year, if the cemetery was much more active, the arrangement wouldn’t work,” Crowley says.

In the meantime, the dog-walkers rule, and their presence transforms Congressional Cemetery into a unique space. As 3 p.m. rolls around on Saturday afternoon, hordes of dogs and their people arrive. The grounds are suddenly loud and lively.

“Apollo!” bellows a man who has lost his charge.

Yet the dog-walkers will stay — in one form or another. Now that being buried at Congressional Cemetery means you’ll likely stay buried, many are expressing a desire for an eternal resting spot there. Crowley already knows where his plot will lie, and Lynn and Rich, a neighborhood couple who are walking their two mutts, say they’ll be purchasing a space for themselves as well.

Even archaeologist Burgess is pondering being buried there.

“After all, I know the cemetery better below ground than above ground,” she says with a laugh.