Place: The Graveyard Shift

At a historic cemetery in Washington, D.C., you can ponder the mysteries of death, but you'll quickly be awed by something else: the presence of the living.


Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

Credit: Matthew Kocur

"Papa, can we go to the cemetery?"

The tone in which my four-year-old son poses that question is no different than if he were asking to visit the playground or a friend's house or the colony of stone turtles in the park down the street.  He asks with the full expectation of pleasure—adventure even—and without the slightest consciousness of morbidity. He asks because the place he has in mind is for the living.

I'm raising my kids, it seems, to be lovers of cemeteries. I should be specific. Lovers of one cemetery, where, at any given hour, amorous lawyers are sitting down to a picnic, droves of dogs are bounding past headstones, bird watchers are squinting for glimpses of hawks and yellow-bellied sapsuckers, and children are sliding toboggan-style down the grassed-over slopes of old burial vaults. A place where the city of the dead walks in the light of day.

Exactly 200 years old, Congressional Cemetery is, despite its name, a privately owned 33-acre tract, rising at that exact point in Southeast Washington, D.C., where the city sloughs off its urban grid and bristles up into forested hills. Standing at the cemetery's summit, you can look down on the Anacostia River and, across the river, to the rumpled beech and maple woodlands of Fort Dupont Park. The altitude is enough to make the place quiet without being … funereal. Traffic on the Southeast Freeway produces a steady liquid noise, and even on breezeless days, there's an oak tree near the chapel that never stops shaking its leaves. I have seen those leaves whirring well into February—brown and still game.

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