The Magazine

Who Let the Dogs Out?

Congressional Cemetery's four-legged groundskeepers.

Jun 13, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 37 • By MARK STRICHERZ
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Today Congressional Cemetery is in far better physical and financial shape. The dog owners have been instrumental in reclaiming the property and paying for its upkeep. About 250 people pay $125 a year plus $40 per canine for the privilege of walking their dog off the leash. Local Boy Scout troops and Marines pitch in with projects, as do the dog owners. Parts of the site are gorgeous. There are rolling hills and slight valleys, crabapple trees and pink carnation petals. In the middle of the graveyard is a small stone-covered chapel for religious services. Even the salmon-colored adjoining buildings for the D.C. jail look good.

At the same time, Congressional Cemetery does not begin to live up to the great democratic and civic standards once taken for granted at such sites. (Think of Lincoln at Gettysburg: "From these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.") It's not just the presence of the dogs. It's the lack of even cursory information about the renowned Americans buried there. The cemetery has no markers or signs explaining the accomplishments of the many historical figures buried there. No wonder that many of the dog-walkers can name only Hoover among those interred there.

Nor is this likely to improve. The directors of the Congressional Cemetery--representatives of the church, of the office of the architect of the U.S. Capitol, and of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, among others--emphasize the ecological and environmental potential of the site. "We have a string of efforts to get a more diverse constituency and make it part of a green space with parkland and a riverfront view, to make it part of the Anacostia [Waterfront Initiative]," said Patrick Lally, the chief lobbyist for the National Trust and its liaison to the cemetery. D.C. Mayor Anthony "Williams's vision is to have a network of green space that begins at the National Arboretum . . . and the cemetery will be part of it."

Linda Harper is not wedded to the idea of having dogs run around a burial ground. "Does it bring its own set of problems? Absolutely," she said, adding that down the line the organization might "do something different" with the dog-walkers. But Harper does not see the presence of the canines as a major problem; far more damaging to the gravestones, she says, is acid rain.

She and others say the main problem facing Congressional Cemetery is financial, but running the place is relatively cheap. According to Harper, its annual operating budget is about $280,000. Congress, which has bought hundreds of gravesites there over the last two centuries, could easily do more. No one on the Hill, however, has talked seriously about doing such a thing.

In this, Congress is the perfect cultural and spiritual mirror of the people. Not so long ago, our professional classes aspired toward civic greatness and revered their illustrious predecessors. They did so in many ways--one of them was founding institutions like Congressional Cemetery. They did not do so by letting their dogs run around the graves of their heroes.

Mark Stricherz, a writer living in Washington, D.C., is working on a book about how secular, educated elites transformed the Democratic party.