Eerie, beautiful, forgotten: A tour of DC’s historic cemeteries (Photos)

WASHINGTON — Walk around downtown D.C. and throw a stone and you’re likely to hit a historic landmark. But outside the National Mall’s well-traveled paths and its famous monuments and museums, you’ll find another surprising source of art, architecture and history: D.C.’s centuries-old cemeteries.

“I think that cemeteries are forgotten about for their beautiful works of art as well as their beautiful landscapes and just their pastoral, peaceful qualities,” said Anne Brockett, an architectural historian in the D.C. Office of Historic Preservation, who researches the history of D.C. burial grounds.

Congressional Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
The view from Congressional Cemetery, a historic grave site set on 35 sprawling acres in Southeast D.C. (WTOP/Jack Moore) (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Congressional Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
The view from Congressional Cemetery, a historic grave site set on 35 sprawling acres in Southeast D.C. The cemetery is full of historic gravemarkers engraved with intricate designs and evocative imagery. (WTOP/Jack Moore) (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Congressional Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
The view from Congressional Cemetery, a historic grave site set on 35 sprawling acres in Southeast D.C. In this photo, two dancing cherubs are engraved on the trunk of an obelisk. (WTOP/Jack Moore) (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Congressional Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
The view from Congressional Cemetery, a historic grave site set on 35 sprawling acres in Southeast D.C. The cemetery is full of historic gravemarkers engraved with intricate designs and evocative imagery. In this photo, the cemetery’s shifting grounds have caused the centuries-old grave markers to lean in toward one another. (WTOP/Jack Moore) (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Congressional Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
The view from Congressional Cemetery, a historic grave site set on 35 sprawling acres in Southeast D.C. (WTOP/Jack Moore) (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Congressional Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
The view from Congressional Cemetery, a historic grave site set on 35 sprawling acres in Southeast D.C. D.C.’s historic cemeteries depict society’s attitudes toward death. Here, a simply cut headstone and starkly engraved message mark the passage of a child. (WTOP/Jack Moore) (WTOP/Jack Moore)
The view from Congressional Cemetery, a historic grave site set on 35 sprawling acres in Southeast D.C. The cemetery is full of historic gravemarkers engraved with intricate designs and evocative imagery. (WTOP/Jack Moore) (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Congressional Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
After falling out of use in the late 1800s, the cemetery fell into a state of disrepair by the 1970s. The site has since been restored and is once again an active burial ground. The cemetery grounds also host a leash-free dogwalking club, movie screenings and fitness programs, such as the popular Yoga Mortis club.  (WTOP/Jack Moore) (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Congressional Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
The view from Congressional Cemetery, a historic grave site set on 35 sprawling acres in Southeast D.C. The cemetery is full of historic gravemarkers engraved with intricate designs and evocative imagery. (WTOP/Jack Moore) (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Congressional Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
The view from Congressional Cemetery, a historic grave site set on 35 sprawling acres in Southeast D.C. The cemetery is full of historic gravemarkers engraved with intricate designs and evocative imagery. (WTOP/Jack Moore) (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Congressional Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Congressional Cemetery was the site of about 67,000 burials. The grounds include nearly 200 squat rounded tombs, known as cenotaphs, originally designed by Architect of the Capitol Benjamin Latrobe to honor members of Congress who died in office between 1833 to 1876. (WTOP/Jack Moore) (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Congressional Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
The view from Congressional Cemetery, a historic grave site set on 35 sprawling acres in Southeast D.C. The cemetery is full of historic gravemarkers engraved with intricate designs and evocative imagery. (WTOP/Jack Moore) (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Congressional Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
The view from Congressional Cemetery, a historic grave site set on 35 sprawling acres in Southeast D.C. In this photo, the setting sun shines through a row of headstones near the cemetery’s entrance. The cemetery is open to the public daily from sun up to sun down. (WTOP/Jack Moore) (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Rock Creek Cemetery (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
Rock Creek Cemetery’s rolling grounds are dotted with historic gravemarkers and magisterial monuments depicting crosses, angels, solemn figures and other evocative statuary. The cemetery is the site of some “master sculptures,” said Anne Brockett, an architectural historian in the D.C. Office of Historic Preservation. (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
Rock Creek Cemetery (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
Perhaps Rock Creek Cemetery’s most famous sculpture, the Adams Memorial features a solemn hooded figure enclosed in a quiet copse of pine trees. The bronze figure was designed by August Saint-Gaudens in 1891 as a memorial to Marian Hooper Adams — the wife of historian and scion of the political family Henry Adams — who committed suicide at age 42. Saint-Gaudens called the sculpture “The Mystery of the Hereafter and The Peace of God that Passeth Understanding,” but it’s more commonly known as simply “Grief.” (WTOP/Kate Ryan) (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
Rock Creek Cemetery (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
Rock Creek Cemetery’s rolling grounds are dotted with historic gravemarkers and magisterial monuments depicting crosses, angels, solemn figures and other evocative statuary. The cemetery is the site of some “master sculptures,” said Anne Brockett, an architectural historian in the D.C. Office of Historic Preservation. (WTOP/Kate Ryan) (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
This sculpture by James Earle Fraser was erected as a memorial for prominent Washington businessman Frederick A. Keep and his family.  Fraser is notable for several other sculptures in the D.C. area, including sculpted figures on the steps of the Supreme Court and a series of statues commemorating music and literature at the entrance to Rock Creek Parkway known as "The Arts of Peace." (WTOP/Jack Moore)
This sculpture by James Earle Fraser was erected as a memorial for prominent Washington businessman Frederick A. Keep and his family. Fraser is notable for several other sculptures in the D.C. area, including sculpted figures on the steps of the Supreme Court and a series of statues commemorating music and literature at the entrance to Rock Creek Parkway known as “The Arts of Peace.” (WTOP/Jack Moore) (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Rock Creek Cemetery (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
Rock Creek Cemetery’s rolling grounds are dotted with historic gravemarkers and magisterial monuments depicting crosses, angels, solemn figures and other evocative statuary. The cemetery is the site of some “master sculptures,” said Anne Brockett, an architectural historian in the D.C. Office of Historic Preservation. (WTOP/Kate Ryan) (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
Rock Creek Cemetery’s rolling grounds are dotted with historic gravemarkers and magisterial monuments depicting crosses, angels, solemn figures and other evocative statuary. The cemetery is the site of some “master sculptures,” said Anne Brockett, an architectural historian in the D.C. Office of Historic Preservation. (WTOP/Kate Ryan) (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
Rock Creek Cemetery (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
Rock Creek Cemetery’s rolling grounds are dotted with historic gravemarkers and magisterial monuments depicting crosses, angels, solemn figures and other evocative statuary. The cemetery is the site of some “master sculptures,” said Anne Brockett, an architectural historian in the D.C. Office of Historic Preservation. (WTOP/Kate Ryan) (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
A photo of Rock Creek Cemetery, run by St. Paul's Rock Creek Episcopal Parish. A spokesman for the parish said they pay $230,000 annually for water use to maintain the cemetery, almost a "6,471 percent increase in less than 10 years. " (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
Rock Creek Cemetery’s rolling grounds are dotted with historic gravemarkers and magisterial monuments depicting crosses, angels, solemn figures and other evocative statuary. The cemetery is the site of some “master sculptures,” said Anne Brockett, an architectural historian in the D.C. Office of Historic Preservation. (WTOP/Kate Ryan) (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
Rock Creek Cemetery (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
Rock Creek Cemetery’s rolling grounds are dotted with historic gravemarkers and magisterial monuments depicting crosses, angels, solemn figures and other evocative statuary. The cemetery is the site of some “master sculptures,” said Anne Brockett, an architectural historian in the D.C. Office of Historic Preservation. In this photo, the statue of a sleeping baby cradled on a dais has been overtaken by lichen. (WTOP/Kate Ryan) (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
Rock Creek Cemetery (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
The view from Rock Creek Cemetery, a sprawling 86-acre historic grave site in Northwest D.C.  The cemetery sits on the grounds of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Petworth — not near D.C.’s actual Rock Creek — and became a public cemetery in the 1840s. In the mid-19th century, small churchyard plots and family cemeteries in the center of the city had grown crowded and were thought to be unsanitary. After new burials were forbidden in the boundaries of the Federal City, thousands of grave sites were dug up and moved. (WTOP/Kate Ryan) (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
Rock Creek Cemetery (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
The view from Rock Creek Cemetery, a sprawling 86-acre historic grave site in Northwest D.C.  The cemetery sits on the grounds of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Petworth — not near D.C.’s actual Rock Creek — and became a public cemetery in the 1840s. In the mid-19th century, small churchyard plots and family cemeteries in the center of the city had grown crowded and were thought to be unsanitary. After new burials were forbidden in the boundaries of the Federal City, thousands of grave sites were dug up and moved. (WTOP/Kate Ryan) (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
Rock Creek Cemetery is the site of some "master sculptures," said Anne Brockett, an archictectural historian in the D.C. Office of Historic Preservation. This sculpture called Rabboni depicts the moment Mary Magdalene emerged from Jesus' tomb to discover he had arisen. The sculpture was designed by artist Gutzon Borglum for a prominent D.C. banker. Borglum also famously designed Mount Rushmore.  (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
Rock Creek Cemetery is the site of some “master sculptures,” said Anne Brockett, an architectural historian in the D.C. Office of Historic Preservation. This sculpture, called Rabboni, depicts the moment Mary Magdalene emerged from Jesus’ tomb to discover he had arisen. The sculpture was designed by artist Gutzon Borglum for a prominent D.C. banker. Borglum also famously designed Mount Rushmore.  (WTOP/Jack Moore)   (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
Rock Creek Cemetery is the site of some “master sculptures,” said Anne Brockett, an architectural historian in the D.C. Office of Historic Preservation. This sculpture called Rabboni depicts the moment Mary Magdalene emerged from Jesus’ tomb to discover he had arisen. The sculpture was designed by artist Gutzon Borglum for a prominent D.C. banker. Borglum also famously designed Mount Rushmore.  (WTOP/Kate Ryan
Mt. Zion Cemetery/Female Union Band Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
The view from the Mount Zion Cemetery/Female Union Band Cemetery in Northwest D.C. The grave stones, many broken and jagged, are huddled on about three acres of land perched on a modest hill tucked away behind a row of Georgetown townhomes. The historically African-American cemetery is rich with history — even if much of it went neglected for years. (WTOP/Jack Moore)   (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Mt. Zion Cemetery/Female Union Band Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
The view from the Mount Zion Cemetery/Female Union Band Cemetery in Northwest D.C. The grave stones, many broken and jagged, are huddled on about three acres of land perched on a modest hill tucked away behind a row of Georgetown townhomes. The historically African-American cemetery is rich with history — even if much of it went neglected for years. (WTOP/Jack Moore) (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Mt. Zion Cemetery/Female Union Band Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
The view from the Mount Zion Cemetery/Female Union Band Cemetery in Northwest D.C. The grave stones, many broken and jagged, are huddled on about three acres of land perched on a modest hill tucked away behind a row of Georgetown townhomes. The historically African-American cemetery is rich with history — even if much of it went neglected for years. (WTOP/Jack Moore) (WTOP/Jack Moore)
The historically African-American Mount Zion/Female Union Band Cemetery is rich with history — even if much of it went neglected for years. The oldest parts of the cemetery were chartered in 1808 as a cemetery for whites and blacks — although segregated with a wooden fence.  The interracial composition of the cemetery all but fell by the wayside after the Civil War. (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Mt. Zion Cemetery/Female Union Band Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
The view from the Mount Zion Cemetery/Female Union Band Cemetery in Northwest D.C. The grave stones, many broken and jagged, are huddled on about three acres of land perched on a modest hill tucked away behind a row of Georgetown townhomes.  This photo shows a simple headstone — the name of the dead pressed into wet concrete. (WTOP/Jack Moore) (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Mt. Zion Cemetery/Female Union Band Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
The view from the Mount Zion Cemetery/Female Union Band Cemetery in Northwest D. C. The grave stones, many broken and jagged, are huddled on about three acres of land perched on a modest hill tucked away behind a row of Georgetown townhomes. The historically African-American cemetery is rich with history — even if much of it went neglected for years. (WTOP/Jack Moore) (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Mt. Zion Cemetery/Female Union Band Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
The grave stones, many broken and jagged, are huddled on about three acres of land perched on a modest hill tucked away behind a row of Georgetown townhomes. The historically African-American cemetery is rich with history — even if much of it went neglected for years. (WTOP/Jack Moore) (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Mt. Zion Cemetery/Female Union Band Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
The brick burial vault, which was used to store bodies before they were buried, was reputedly a part of the Underground Railroad. (WTOP/Jack Moore) (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Mt. Zion Cemetery/Female Union Band Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
The view from the Mount Zion Cemetery/Female Union Band Cemetery in Northwest D.C. This photo shows the headstone of an 7-year-old girl, “Nannie,” who died in 1856. Anne Brockett, architectural historian in the D.C. Office of Historic Preservation, said she always see toys and gifts left at this particular grave. (WTOP/Jack Moore)   (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Mt. Zion Cemetery/Female Union Band Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
The view from the Mount Zion Cemetery/Female Union Band Cemetery in Northwest D.C. The Female Union Band Society was a cooperative benevolent society founded by a group of free black women, many of them former slaves, who banded together in 1842 to purchase part of the burial ground for their members. (WTOP/Jack Moore) (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Mt. Zion Cemetery/Female Union Band Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
The view from the Mount Zion Cemetery/Female Union Band Cemetery in Northwest D.C. There are new efforts underway to restore the historic cemetery, which at various points in its 200-year-history, has fallen into serious disrepair. A halted preservation effort in the 1970s beautified some of the landscape but left grave markers piled up in haphazard rows. (WTOP/Jack Moore) (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Mt. Zion Cemetery/Female Union Band Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
The view from the Mount Zion Cemetery/Female Union Band Cemetery in Northwest D.C. This photo shows a grave for which no date is given and the name appears to have been weathered away — but that still carries a stirring message. (WTOP/Jack Moore) (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Mt. Zion Cemetery/Female Union Band Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
The view from the Mount Zion Cemetery/Female Union Band Cemetery in Northwest D.C. (WTOP/Jack Moore) (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Oak Hill Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
The view from Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown. Set on a hill overlooking Rock Creek and rolling over 22 acres, the cemetery’s meticulously designed terraces and winding paths make the historic cemetery an exemplar of the “garden cemetery” movement. (WTOP/Jack Moore) (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Oak Hill Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
The historic Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown was designed landscape designer George de la Roche, whose grave is seen in this photo. The land, perched on 22 acres overlooking Rock Creek, was purchased in the late 1840s by William Wilson Corcoran, the Washington banker and philanthropist, who also founded D.C.’s Corcoran Gallery of Art. (WTOP/Jack Moore)
The view from Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown. Set on a hill overlooking Rock Creek and rolling over 22 acres, the cemetery’s meticulously designed terraces and winding paths make the historic cemetery an exemplar of the “garden cemetery” movement. (WTOP/Jack Moore)



Oak Hill Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
The view from Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown. Set on a hill overlooking Rock Creek and rolling over 22 acres, the cemetery’s meticulously designed terraces and winding paths make the historic cemetery an exemplar of the “garden cemetery” movement. (WTOP/Jack Moore) (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Oak Hill Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
The view from Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown. The cemetery’s chapel was designed by architect James Renwick, who also designed St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City and the Smithsonian Castle on the National Mall. (WTOP/Jack Moore) (WTOP/Jack Moore)
The view from Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown. (WTOP/Jack Moore) (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Oak Hill Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
The view from Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown. (WTOP/Jack Moore) (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Oak Hill Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
The view from historic Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown. This photo shows a massive grave marker designed by the Tiffany Company, better known for the design of glassware and jewelry. (WTOP/Jack Moore) (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Oak Hill Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
The view from historic Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown. With its winding paths and intricate terraces, the cemetery is an exemplar of the garden cemetery. “In the middle of the nineteenth century, previously people had been buried in church graveyards,” said George Hill, president of the Oak Hill Cemetery. “And as space became at a premium, more people developed the idea, the romantic idea of a beautiful garden cemetery.” (WTOP/Jack Moore) (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Oak Hill Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Oak Hill Cemetery is rife with Civil War history. This photo shows the headstone of Edwin Stanton, Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of War during the Civil War. (WTOP/Jack Moore)   (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Oak Hill Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
The mausoleum belonging to former Clerk of the Supreme Court William Thomas Carroll on the banks of one of Oak Hill’s steep hills. Carroll offered the use of his family’s mausoleum to Abraham Lincoln to temporarily inter his 11-year-old son, Willie, after the boy was stricken by typhoid in 1862. “Lincoln would come here and open the casket and hold the body of 11-year-old Willie in his arms,” said George Hill, president of the Oak Hill Cemetery. “Willie had been embalmed, so it’s not quite as gruesome as you might think. But I think that symbolizes the way people felt about the dead. They were unwilling to give up and let the dead go quietly.”  (WTOP/Jack Moore) (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Oak Hill Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
The view from historic Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown. History is rarely settled, not even in a graveyard. This photo depicts the grave of Washington lawyer Frederick Aiken, who infamously defended Mary Surratt, one of the alleged conspirators in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the first woman to be executed by the federal government. For years, Aiken’s body lay in an unmarked grave at Oak Hill, before a historical society paid in 2012 to erect a proper stone. (WTOP/Jack Moore) (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Oak Hill Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
The view from historic Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown. (WTOP/Jack Moore) (WTOP/Jack Moore)
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Congressional Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Congressional Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Congressional Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Congressional Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Congressional Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Congressional Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Congressional Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Congressional Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Congressional Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Congressional Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Congressional Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Congressional Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Rock Creek Cemetery (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
Rock Creek Cemetery (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
Rock Creek Cemetery (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
This sculpture by James Earle Fraser was erected as a memorial for prominent Washington businessman Frederick A. Keep and his family.  Fraser is notable for several other sculptures in the D.C. area, including sculpted figures on the steps of the Supreme Court and a series of statues commemorating music and literature at the entrance to Rock Creek Parkway known as "The Arts of Peace." (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Rock Creek Cemetery (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
Rock Creek Cemetery (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
A photo of Rock Creek Cemetery, run by St. Paul's Rock Creek Episcopal Parish. A spokesman for the parish said they pay $230,000 annually for water use to maintain the cemetery, almost a "6,471 percent increase in less than 10 years. " (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
Rock Creek Cemetery (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
Rock Creek Cemetery (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
Rock Creek Cemetery (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
Rock Creek Cemetery is the site of some "master sculptures," said Anne Brockett, an archictectural historian in the D.C. Office of Historic Preservation. This sculpture called Rabboni depicts the moment Mary Magdalene emerged from Jesus' tomb to discover he had arisen. The sculpture was designed by artist Gutzon Borglum for a prominent D.C. banker. Borglum also famously designed Mount Rushmore.  (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
Mt. Zion Cemetery/Female Union Band Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Mt. Zion Cemetery/Female Union Band Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Mt. Zion Cemetery/Female Union Band Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Mt. Zion Cemetery/Female Union Band Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Mt. Zion Cemetery/Female Union Band Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Mt. Zion Cemetery/Female Union Band Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Mt. Zion Cemetery/Female Union Band Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Mt. Zion Cemetery/Female Union Band Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Mt. Zion Cemetery/Female Union Band Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Mt. Zion Cemetery/Female Union Band Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Mt. Zion Cemetery/Female Union Band Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Mt. Zion Cemetery/Female Union Band Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Oak Hill Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Oak Hill Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)



Oak Hill Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Oak Hill Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Oak Hill Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Oak Hill Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Oak Hill Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Oak Hill Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Oak Hill Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Oak Hill Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)
Oak Hill Cemetery (WTOP/Jack Moore)

There are about two dozen cemeteries still standing in D.C. — both active and historic — ranging from relatively small plots of land to expanses of meticulously manicured greensward. And the grave markings that dot them range from modest headstones engraved with simple messages to magisterial monuments designed by world-famous architects and sculptors.

Still, despite the wealth of funerary artifacts on display, the full history of D.C. cemeteries may be largely hidden.

Back before D.C. was established, and the area was essentially pioneer territory, burials were held in churchyards or in family plots.

Landscaped lawns and stately rows of marble headstones these were not.

They were overcrowded, unorganized, sometimes unsightly and believed to be unsanitary, Brockett said. By the middle of the 19th century, space was at a premium — bodies in graveyards were literally piling up on top of each other. So, in 1852, Congress passed a law forbidding new burial grounds within the boundaries of the original Federal City.

With the passage of the new law and the creation of new public cemeteries on the city’s outskirts, thousands of graves and grave sites were dug up and moved — a process that continued well into the 20th century to make way for expanding development.

All told, more than 100 family cemeteries and small burial plots that were once recorded in the District have been essentially “lost to time,” according to the historic preservation office.

The legislation cracking down on D.C. burials also coincided with a movement to re-imagine cemeteries as a beautiful urban parks. The so-called “garden cemetery” movement has its Washington exemplar in Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery. Set on a hill overlooking Rock Creek and rolling over 22 acres, the cemetery features meticulously designed terraces and winding paths.

Oak Hill is rife with Civil War history. A grief-stricken Abraham Lincoln frequently visited the cemetery as the war raged on to visit the grave of his 11-year-old son, Willie who was temporarily interred in a mausoleum there after dying of Typhoid fever in 1862.

“Lincoln would come here and open the casket and hold the body of 11-year-old Willie in his arms,” said George Hill, president of the Oak Hill Cemetery. “Willie had been embalmed, so it’s not quite as gruesome as you might think. But I think that symbolizes the way people felt about the dead. They were unwilling to give up and let the dead go quietly.”

Some cemeteries rich in history have gone unrecognized and even neglected.

At the Mount Zion/Female Union Band Society Cemetery, which sits on three acres of land tucked away behind a row of Georgetown townhomes, many of the grave stones are broken and jagged.

The cemetery began as a churchyard burial ground for Mount Zion, the oldest African American congregation in D.C. Later, the Female Union Band Society, a cooperative benevolent society of free black women, many of them former slaves, pooled their money together to purchase nearby land to serve as a burial ground for their members.

The cemetery’s pre-burial vault — a small brick structure built into the side of a steep hill on the cemetery’s northern edge — has long been reputed to have been a way station on the Underground Railroad.

But the cemetery fell into disrepair after the last interment in 1950. A halted preservation effort in the 1970s beautified some of the landscape but left grave markers piled up in haphazard rows. There are now new efforts underway to restore the historic cemetery.

Maintaining historic cemeteries that no longer support active burials — and, consequently, for which there is no source of income — is often a struggle, Brockett said.

Weather and erosion take their toll, causing graves to sink. Rain washes out landscaped hillsides, making the ground unsteady. And falling tree branches can damage historic markers.

“So it’s an ongoing battle with Mother Nature to try and keep cemeteries looking cared for,” she said.


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