Congressional Cemetery [Washington Parish Burial Ground]

Established 1807

This cemetery came into being at just the time when those who first established and ran the federal government began to need eternal housing. For over 50 years (from 1823 to 1876), it was directly funded by the US Congress. Congressional Cemetery is the final resting place of many from the courts of 19th century government: Senators such as Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun, legendary Madam Mary Ann Hall, first ladies Dolly Madison and Abigail Adams, John Philip Sousa, Elbridge Gerry (both signer of the Declaration of Independence and inventor of gerrymandering), Robert Mills (architect of the Washington Monument) and many others. Despite the growth of alternative sites, it also houses central political figures of the 20th century such as J. Edgar Hoover, Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neil, Tom Lantos and Washington’s erstwhile four-term mayor Marion Barry.

Most cemeteries of powerful places present this sort of compression of time through personalities, and sum up a place in individuals, however ironically. But Congressional Cemetery in not just a mirror but a part of the city and its government. The cemetery is laid out in a grid pattern that extended Pierre L’Enfant’s original design for the city of Washington itself, made almost 20 years earlier. Among its most striking grave monuments are 171 identical stone cenotaphs designed in 1817 by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, architect of the US Capitol.   These structures create a remarkable forest of forms, based on a design that bespeaks Enlightenment rationalism, with virtually no connection to traditional Early American funerary forms. It’s sort of an imposed “big government” approach to death.

Located two miles or so down grand, stately Pennsylvania Avenue from the Congress, Congressional Cemetery also has played a role in state funerals, of presidents like Zachary Taylor, William Henry Harrison and John Quincy Adams and other central governmental figures. This is a kind of pomp as important in its time as the inaugural parades that still proceed every four years down the other portion of the same street.

But perhaps the greatest example of Congressional Cemetery’s continuing role among the living is that it has what may be the world’s only defined LGBT section. One can find throughout the cemetery striking and unconventional monuments to gay and lesbian couples, notably that of Kenneth Dresser and Charles Fowler.   But even more notable is the area centered around the 1988 grave of Leonard Matlovich, a highly decorated Vietnam veteran who challenged the ban on gay servicemen. His grave is a sort of shrine, a setting for the slogan at its center “ When I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.” At this cemetery social justice is not dead.