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Whistling Through the Graveyard

Mark Hemingway sees dead people

Mar 14, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 25 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
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My wife Mollie and I have been married just four years, but already we’re blessed with two adorable daughters, Evangeline and Linden, aged 3 and 18 months. Like most happy husbands and proud fathers, I am more than ready to produce photographic evidence of just how blessed I am. 

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Matt Collins

However, perusing the family photo album—or, to be more 21st-century about it, flicking through the photos on my iPhone—usually engenders a strange reaction. Nearly all the pictures I have of my family are set in a graveyard. 

My wife and I are not especially morbid; as it happens we lived for two years across from Congressional Cemetery, on the west bank of the Anacostia River, just over a mile from the U.S. Capitol. It’s one of Washington’s more obscure historic landmarks. 

It’s surrounded by a high, wrought iron fence and sits on a few rolling acres. As old cemeteries go, it’s picturesque enough to make you forget you’re in the middle of the city—two centuries of crumbling tombstones, interspersed with a few mausoleums and a number of towering, watchful oak trees. A quaint chapel with stained glass windows and a steeple sits at the highest point. (I’ve conditioned myself not to notice the hideous youth prison complex looming over the east wall.)

Lots of people are put off by cemeteries, and I confess they used to bother me. Then I met Mollie. Her father is a Lutheran pastor, so funerals were a prominent part of her upbringing. As if that weren’t enough, her mother’s family had a funeral home business. 

Years ago, she took me on a tour of the cemetery in Gerald, Missouri (pop. 1,171), where a number of her mother’s family members are buried. I realized then not only how special the place was to her, but that her taking me there was a solid indicator she might finally be seriously thinking about marrying me. If you want to get acquainted with someone’s family, a cemetery is a good place to start.

It was somewhat serendipitous, then, when we moved across the street from Congressional Cemetery. Mollie was pregnant with our second child, and we took long walks, with Evangeline tottering behind, while we scoured the tombstones for baby names. 

Of course, this is not your typical graveyard. Among the people buried at Congressional are band leader and composer John Philip Sousa; FBI director J. Edgar Hoover; and former vice president and signer of the Declaration of Independence Elbridge Gerry, whose bigger legacy might be bequeathing to us the term gerrymandering. 

It’s the final resting place of scores of senators and members of Congress. Three presidents and two first ladies were temporarily interred there. And there are too many other significant military leaders, government officials, and famous Indian chiefs to name, all buried alongside hundreds of ordinary citizens. 

The place also contains any number of historical oddities, such as a monument to the first person in the District of Columbia ever killed in an automobile accident. And I vividly remember the night I was channel surfing and came across a History Channel special on the Masons. It seems that William Wirt, U.S. attorney general from 1817 to 1829, once ran for president against Andrew Jackson on an anti-Masonic ticket. Wirt is now a part of Masonic lore, and sometime around 2003 someone broke into his tomb and stole his skull. 

According to the Washington Post, the skull was returned in January 2004 to a member of the D.C. city council “in an old metal box painted with gold block letters reading ‘Hon. Wm. Wirt.’ ” What the robbers did with Wirt’s skull while it was in their possession is the source of much conspiratorial mystery. Needless to say, I was somewhat astonished to realize Wirt was buried in what I had come to think of as my extended front yard. 

Alas, children don’t stay young forever. With schooling in mind, we moved from our house in the District to Virginia four months ago. But our three-year-old still asks to visit the cemetery, so Mollie recently took her to the funeral of one of the parishioners in our church. It was a teaching moment. Even though Evangeline still uses a sippy cup, her time in cemeteries has given her more awareness of mortality than I had long after I was a college graduate. 

Sadly, too few people understand why “whistling past the graveyard” is such an unfortunate expression. Believe it or not, Congressional Cemetery was overgrown and nearly abandoned just over a decade ago before being revitalized. 

Trust me, you can learn a lot from a visit to your local graveyard. And the first lesson is this: Cemeteries aren’t just places where we put our dead. They’re meant to be lived in.

Mark Hemingway


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