How Congressional Cemetery Got Its Name

  • Congressional Cemetery was founded in 1807, when Washington, D.C., was a new town. The 35-acre historic burial ground is located in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, overlooking the Anacostia River.
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    Congressional Cemetery was founded in 1807, when Washington, D.C., was a new town. The 35-acre historic burial ground is located in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, overlooking the Anacostia River.
    Blake Lipthratt/NPR
  • Congressional Cemetery is home to 171 cenotaphs honoring members of Congress who have died. The tradition began in the early 19th century, when it was often impossible to transport bodies home for burial. Later, as this became less of an issue, members of Congress still chose to have a marker in the cemetery, even if their final resting place was elsewhere.
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    Congressional Cemetery is home to 171 cenotaphs honoring members of Congress who have died. The tradition began in the early 19th century, when it was often impossible to transport bodies home for burial. Later, as this became less of an issue, members of Congress still chose to have a marker in the cemetery, even if their final resting place was elsewhere.
    Blake Lipthratt/NPR
  • Washington funeral grounds like Congressional Cemetery often served as parks for the city's residents. Gravestones shaped like picnic tables encouraged people to come and spend the day, and even have a picnic.
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    Washington funeral grounds like Congressional Cemetery often served as parks for the city's residents. Gravestones shaped like picnic tables encouraged people to come and spend the day, and even have a picnic.
    Blake Lipthratt/NPR
  • Congressional Cemetery also serves as a private dog park. Neighbors have walked their dogs in the cemetery for years.
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    Congressional Cemetery also serves as a private dog park. Neighbors have walked their dogs in the cemetery for years.
    Blake Lipthratt/NPR
  • In the 1990s, as the cemetery fell into disrepair, a small group started paying to mow the grass. That group grew to become the K9 Corps — an official organization of the Association for the Preservation of Historic Congressional Cemetery.
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    In the 1990s, as the cemetery fell into disrepair, a small group started paying to mow the grass. That group grew to become the K9 Corps — an official organization of the Association for the Preservation of Historic Congressional Cemetery.
    Blake Lipthratt/NPR
  • In the 1830s, a public vault was built with federal appropriations money, because Congress decided it was useful to have a holding place for the deceased while arrangements were being made.
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    In the 1830s, a public vault was built with federal appropriations money, because Congress decided it was useful to have a holding place for the deceased while arrangements were being made.
    Blake Lipthratt/NPR
  • An old iron key unlocks the public vault on the cemetery grounds.
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    An old iron key unlocks the public vault on the cemetery grounds.
    Blake Lipthratt/NPR
  • Because of Congressional Cemetery's age, the gravestones' styles are varied. More uniform headstone styles didn't become common until the 1870s.
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    Because of Congressional Cemetery's age, the gravestones' styles are varied. More uniform headstone styles didn't become common until the 1870s.
    Blake Lipthratt/NPR
  • The cemetery that served as the first national burial ground remains an active cemetery. Here, the headstone of Rep. Tom Lantos of California, who died in 2008. The stones on top have been left by visitors as a mark of respect for Lantos, per Jewish tradition.
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    The cemetery that served as the first national burial ground remains an active cemetery. Here, the headstone of Rep. Tom Lantos of California, who died in 2008. The stones on top have been left by visitors as a mark of respect for Lantos, per Jewish tradition.
    Blake Lipthratt/NPR
  • Among the cemetery's many luminaries is Washington native John Phillip Sousa, the bandmaster of the Marine Corps Band, who wrote more than 300 compositions. Each year on Sousa's birthday, the Marine Band pays a visit to the cemetery to play a musical tribute.
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    Among the cemetery's many luminaries is Washington native John Phillip Sousa, the bandmaster of the Marine Corps Band, who wrote more than 300 compositions. Each year on Sousa's birthday, the Marine Band pays a visit to the cemetery to play a musical tribute.
    Blake Lipthratt/NPR
  • Rebecca Roberts serves as program director at Congressional Cemetery and is the co-author of a new book on the cemetery and its history. Her grandfather Hale Boggs, a representative from Louisiana, has a cenotaph in the cemetery. Boggs was aboard a plane that disappeared over Alaska in 1972 and presumably crashed; his body has never been recovered.
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    Rebecca Roberts serves as program director at Congressional Cemetery and is the co-author of a new book on the cemetery and its history. Her grandfather Hale Boggs, a representative from Louisiana, has a cenotaph in the cemetery. Boggs was aboard a plane that disappeared over Alaska in 1972 and presumably crashed; his body has never been recovered.
    Blake Lipthratt/NPR

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Back at the turn of the 19th century, Uriah Tracey was something of a trendsetter. The Connecticut senator was one of the first to fight in the Revolutionary War — and then one of the first to attempt secession from the Union. And in 1807, he was the first member of Congress buried in what later became known as Congressional Cemetery, in Washington, D.C.

The cemetery was called the Washington Parish Burial Grounds when it opened. But Tracey died just a few months later, as Rebecca Roberts, the cemetery's program director, tells NPR's David Greene, on a recent tour of the grounds in Southeast D.C.

Tracey's death presented a problem. As Roberts says: "Where were you going to put him?"

These were the days before a railroad track had been laid between Washington and Connecticut, she says. And, "This is really before embalming was common, so you couldn't wait," Roberts says. "When you think about it, Washington was a really new town then."

But why did the Washington Parish Burial Grounds become the official site for members of Congress to be laid to rest? Well, after Tracey was buried there, "it became clear that that need wasn't going to go away," Roberts says.

Eventually, Christ Church, which has operated the cemetery since its first days, set aside 100 burial sites for members of Congress and their families, and other government officials. That number has since grown to nearly 1,000.

Reading the list of the people buried at Congressional Cemetery is like skipping through U.S. history.

The "American March King," John Philip Sousa, is there. So is the first director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, and his family. And oddly enough, the body of David Herold, one of the co-conspirators who was hanged for the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, was moved to the cemetery with the approval of President Andrew Johnson in 1869.

Herold's grave still has no tombstone, though — a decision the director of the cemetery made to keep away vandals.

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