Tending to the dead: Meet the man who lives at DC’s Oak Hill Cemetery

This spooky season, WTOP’s DMV Download got the scoop on cemeteries from a man who lives on the grounds of one in D.C.

Paul K. Williams has unique insight into how to get the most out of your experience if you’re thinking of visiting one of the district’s graveyards. He’s the superintendent at Oak Hill Cemetery, which means he oversees the grounds, funerals and burials in addition to selling plots.

Williams and his husband live in a 5,000-square-foot gatehouse at the cemetery with their two cats.

“It’s an amazing property,” Williams said. “One of the best perks of the job.”

Of course, we had to ask … are there ghosts there?

“We like to think that because we live among 20,000 dead people that they like to go and hunt somewhere else because they live here too, so we’re in that philosophy. But there were rumors decades ago that there was a young, female ghost in the house here, and I think her grave had been unmarked,” Williams said.

But once that grave was marked, he said there weren’t any other sightings.

“My predecessors said that they’ve never had any ghostly operations in the house since. So we appease her,” Williams said. “They haunt somewhere else, their house where they died or somewhere else out there.”

Williams isn’t new to cemeteries. He was the president of the Congressional Cemetery for several years.

“You don’t really go to school to run a cemetery, it doesn’t exist. So most of us superintendents or presidents fall into it,” Williams said.

He has a background in historic preservation and the preservation of architecture. He said that helped him get the position at Oak Hill Cemetery, as the gatehouse needed some work.

“They had a need for someone that knew about preservation of both the architecture here, the chapel, the gate house, as well as headstones that might have issues being, you know, 175 years old and fallen over and how to put it back together,” Williams said. “So that’s kind of the skills that I brought.”

Paul K. Williams is the superintendent at Oak Hill Cemetery, which means he oversees the grounds, funerals, burials, and sells plots. (Courtesy Paul K. Williams)

The most recent preservation project is working on the gates to the cemetery.

“They’re about 10 feet tall and weighs thousands of pounds, and they take them away to a foundry in Baltimore, where they’re kind of restored and stripped, and then we put an electrostatic paint on them that should last about 150 years,” Williams said.

He said the property is deceiving.

While it looks like it’s only about two blocks long in Georgetown, the cemetery has 22 acres of rolling landscape all the way to Rock Creek Park.

“As I mentioned, we have about 20,000 people there and it really is a living museum of Washington, D.C. Once you start walking around back there, I tell everyone to get lost on purpose,” Williams said. “Everybody that has a name associated with things that we all know in D.C., including street names, are all buried here. So it’s really a great connection to those of us that have lived in Washington for a long time.”

So can you and should you go take a walk around the cemetery?

“We encourage that. We’d like to have people come in, wander around, it’s literally like a 22-acre central park in the middle of Georgetown, full of trees.”

And how much does it cost to be buried there at Oak Hill Cemetery?

“It still continues to shock me how expensive it is, really. If you want to be buried in a casket, it starts at $30,000 for a site, and if you want a family mausoleum site, I just sold one last week, it’s $500,000,” Williams said. And that site is just for the 15-foot by 20-foot land – you’ll need to have your own mausoleum built.

He said there’s also some cultural history, too. Like Congressional Cemetery, Oak Hill Cemetery has a “gay corner.”

“I was introduced to it by a gay man that owns one and he said ‘all of our friends are all buried there since the 1980s.’ So we have a gay corner here too, which is interesting, just fascinating,” Williams said.

Oak Hill Cemetery in D.C. covers 22 acres in the area. (Courtesy Paul K. Williams)

And, as a superintendent of a cemetery, the DMV Download asked him if he has a favorite headstone.

“One of my favorite stones here is a cremation site near our chapel and it’s a family and they have their names and their dates, just like everyone does around the world, but what they also have inscribed is, ‘we finally found a place to park in Georgetown.'”

A recent big name was buried there this year as well.

“I had the honor of burying Madeline Albright just about two months ago,” Williams said. “So she is now here at Oak Hill Cemetery.”

Valerie Bonk

Valerie Bonk started working at WTOP in 2016 and has lived in Howard County, Maryland, her entire life. She's thrilled to be a reporter for WTOP telling stories on air. She works as both a television and radio reporter in the Maryland and D.C. areas. 

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