The Secret Life of Our Dying Cemeteries

It’s easy to forget that cemeteries were made for the living. Where first we may come in sorrow, seeking consolation, we often return again and again for something else.

We discover that places of eternal rest have many moods and designs — the moneyed hush of Oak Hill in Georgetown, the canine frolic of Congressional near Capitol Hill, the fields of infinite sacrifice at Arlington — yet in whichever idiosyncratic refuge we linger awhile, we sense the dead watching and taking our measure as well, keeping us company as much as we keep them.

“I just came to say ‘Hi’ to my dad,” says Christina Incognito, 53, eating a picnic salad with her son, Tyler, 20, on a blanket spread over the Arlington National Cemetery grave of Robert Eugene Bornsheuer, senior master sergeant, U.S. Air Force (May 21, 1927-April 5, 2012).

They drive down often from suburban Maryland to happily reminisce about the departed veteran. Incognito is awed by the crisp beauty of the ranks of white stones that seem paused in a timeless march.

“It gives me hope,” she says. “That there’s still kindness, that people take care of people who are not here.”

Hope is a concept that Romantics, Victorians and plutocrats brought to cemetery design in the 19th century. Before then, urban burial grounds were dismal, overcrowded labyrinths wedged into churchyards, scarcely meeting the minimum requirements of either municipal sanitation or reverent remembrance. Carved stone skulls and images of stalking Death adorned the tombs like dire warnings.

Romantic designers with Victorian taste and plutocratic capital launched the movement toward so-called garden cemeteries or rural cemeteries within the city. Monuments and mausoleums were set along curving paths within picturesque landscapes, the more topography the better. Stones were decorated with cherubs and angels and hopeful messages of gone-but-not-forgotten.

These green oases — places like Oak Hill, Mount Olivet and Rock Creek cemeteries — became the first large-scale parks of great American cities, places to stroll and court and relax, before actual parks came along, inspired in part by the restorative and aesthetic possibilities of cemeteries.

The absence of the dead is a park’s loss, and their presence is our gain as we hike to the summit of Mount Olivet on Bladensburg Road NE, where the stone cross of the Dominican Fathers and the graves and vaults of bishops and parishioners insist on an existence no less solid and perpetual than the one embodied by the Capitol dome visible across the urban valley from here.

The writing on tombs — names, dates, messages — is like the information cards next to paintings in a museum. We might begin our visit reading every one; then inevitably we start skipping. In a cemetery, some messages draw us in and get us thinking about people we never knew, such as Thomas Evans, “a native of England,” who died in 1884 at the age of 58, according to his monument in Oak Hill. The inscription asserts: “To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die.”

Does Thomas Evans still live in anyone’s heart? Unclear. But at least for a fleeting moment he is on our minds.

At Arlington National Cemetery, about 400,000 people from the
United States and 11 other countries are buried. 
(Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

Beneath a sheltering oak in Rock Creek Cemetery (which is nowhere near Rock Creek), three generations of Nairn women are sprucing up the family plot established by Joseph W. Nairn, who died May 27, 1875. He owned a drugstore downtown and lived on H Street NW. Later, a family farm became part of Wheaton Regional Park. A column topped by a stone urn carries the names and dates of ancestors, surrounded by the graves of several Nairns.

To the women, the monument is like a book, each name a chapter. It gives them a sense of who they are, especially now that family members have scattered across the country.

“No one lives here anymore, but the memories are here,” says Holly Simmons, 28, a graduate student at the University of Maryland. Her grandfather, William W. Nairn III, a career Army officer, was buried in the family plot in 2013. Now there is room for only one more Nairn.

Janice L. Nairn, 85, widow of William, seems untroubled to stake that claim. In fact, she has made arrangements. “I’ll be back,” she says in a chipper voice, standing over a stone that carries her name and date of birth. Just one piece of data is yet to be chiseled.

By the late 1980s, there was widespread national concern that cemeteries were moribund. People stopped visiting. It’s not that cremation rates have now reached a record high of 49 percent. Ashes can still be buried, or visited in the cemetery’s columbarium, which can feel like paying respects before a library card catalogue.

Modern families have just become too transient, unsentimental, agnostic and forgetful to spend much time in graveyards.

“Once the families stop visiting, the personal touch, the scrubbed look, and the feeling of human presence are gone, and the ordinary cemeteries ‘lose their soul,’ ” Kenneth T. Jackson and Camilo José Vergara wrote in “Silent Cities: The Evolution of the American Cemetery.”

“Many dozens” of cemeteries have been lost or removed from the District over the centuries, leaving 22 today, according to a report by Anne O. Brockett, architectural historian in the D.C. Historic Preservation Office. Some that survive are fading, with headstones becoming illegible or broken, and vegetation encroaching.

Still, evidence of the ravages of time, a touch of the ramshackle, add drama to a cemetery and richness to our musings. At the Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home National Cemetery, magnificent trees have grown up to disrupt the chalky ranks of markers. The trunk of a tulip poplar has ingested two graves so that the edges of the stones jut out from the bark on either side like hip bones. Life goes on.

A sculpture at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Washington, D.C. Mount Olivet is maintained by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington and was one of the first in the city to be racially integrated. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)
To survive, a cemetery needs a gimmick. The little graveyard at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Rockville found one when it accepted the remains of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. The writer — whose full name suggests his Maryland roots: Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald — originally was denied burial there in 1940 among other Fitzgeralds and Scotts because he had not gone to confession and taken communion regularly. Three decades later, church officials relented, and the graves were relocated from Rockville Cemetery.

Now admirers and necrotourists make their way here, where they take selfies before the gravestone etched with the last line of “The Great Gatsby,” perfect for a cemetery:

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Congressional Cemetery was in decline in the 1990s when neighbors and cemetery leaders began transforming it into a community crossroads like no other cemetery in the city. Residents chipped in money to cut the grass. The cemetery welcomed dog owners to unleash their animals to chase and romp amid the tombstones. Now there are 770 canines registered for an annual fee, plus a wait list of more than a year, while other owners pay a daily rate. The cemetery hosts weddings, bar mitzvahs, a yoga group, a book club (Tombs and Tomes), chamber music (Notes From the Crypt) and a Twitter feed (@CongCemetery), and the gift store is stocked with jars of honey harvested from beehives on the grounds.

The cemetery has about 1,000 plots left. It sells 30 to 40 a year for $4,000 to $8,800. After they’re gone, then what? Already most of the graves have no contact from descendants.

“We needed people to care,” says Margaret Puglisi, vice president of the Association for the Preservation of Historic Congressional Cemetery. “This is a living space.”

The dead and the pre-dead are in on the crusade to save Congressional and other cemeteries. They are adding personality, which is to say life, to their tombs, turning cemeteries into community bulletin boards, etched with battle cries, résumés, sports teams, jokes.

“When I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”

“Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.”

“Templeton Prize.”

“Sweet to the Core.”

“At Home with the Dogs.”

“First African-American Rhodes Scholar.”

“Come sit awhile.”

Athena Ullrich visits the graves of her parents at Arlington National Cemetery. Ullrich's father was a private in the U.S. Army during World War II. For his service he received a purple heart. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post) 

In the end, cemeteries give us what we’re looking for, but we’re looking for different things.

Veterans Day finds us back at Arlington. It is at least three cemeteries in one. It has a superficial identity as a tourist attraction, where death is spun into a national epic. It is also the resting place of veterans such as Christina Incognito’s father who went on to live full lives.

And it contains tragic groves like Section 60, where those who served the missions in Afghanistan and Iraq are buried, men and women who scarcely saw their 20s. Here the grief is particularly raw.

Jennifer Williamson crouches by the grave of Marine 1st Lt. Mark Steven Williamson (March 28, 1986-May 4, 2011).

“This is my brother,” she says. She visits as often as she can, all the way from Massachusetts, because “going to Arlington is a reminder that all of us are part of something larger than ourselves.” She also comes to thank her brother, she adds later in an email, “however strange that may seem. ... His ending sparked a revolution in my heart, and ... also opened my eyes to the beauty that was still left, and that I could contribute. I want to make the most of this life, to honor my brother and to honor myself.”

A couple of rows away, Yumiko Southard spreads a blanket on the grave of her son, Senior Airman Julian Seiji Scholten (Oct. 17, 1985-Feb. 18, 2012). He helped pioneer a new field of airborne intelligence and was on his third tour when the plane he was in crashed. The Air Force named an award for commando of the year after him.

His mother always sets out excited from Virginia’s Hampton Roads region at the prospect of a visit, accompanied by her husband. Penetrating the tourist throngs is surreal, then a familiar heaviness descends.

She lights a candle, places a picture of the young man, lays out sushi — his favorite food — and a bottle of Coors Light, his beer. On cold days, she might bring something warm in which to wrap the white stone.

“He is in here,” she says, indicating the grave, and she wants him to understand that “Here’s Mom, and I’m here to come see you.”

She gave birth to six children, and when someone asks how many she has, she still says six.

As the sun sets, she packs the sushi and beer and pushes herself to her feet. She kisses her fingers and rubs them on the top of the stone. Her fingers linger, flesh on marble, a moment of contact filled with one last feeling that we sometimes have in a cemetery, when the air goes out of these majestic spaces and they are reduced to their essence — the fulfillment of a timeless exchange between the living and the dead.

The mother passes through the gates of the cemetery, reflecting on her already well-lived life, and says, “I would take his place.”

Author: David Montgomery is a staff writer for the Washington Post. To comment on this story, email wpmagazine@washpost.com or visit washingtonpost.com/magazine.

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