Explore Washington D.C.

Intriguing Plots: Strolls through D.C. Graveyards

Arlington may be the most famous, but lesser-known cemeteries have their own touching tales

Walks among the graceful dead at three cemeteries reveal mysterious mourning statues, uncommon tombstones and graves of the great.


Congressional Cemetery
The grave of composer John Philip Sousa at Congressional Cemetery (©Brooke Sabin)

In a direct line southeast of the Capitol lies slightly scruffy Congressional Cemetery. Visitors enter through a creaky, wrought iron gate and follow paths to graves of luminaries like first FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and father of photojournalism Mathew Brady, who recorded vivid Civil War scenes but was eventually blinded by his processing chemicals. “March King” John Philip Sousa, longtime leader of the U.S. Marine Band, rests several beats beneath a lyre-embellished stone bench.

Unusual cone-topped “cenotaphs” honor congressmen who died in office. This somewhat controversial design was discontinued in the 1870s after Senator George Hoar quipped, “the thought of being buried beneath one of those atrocities brought new terror to death.”

Once the haunt of vandals, the cemetery is now safer and better-maintained, thanks in large part to dog walkers who pay annual dues and help with upkeep in exchange for access to a 35-acre, leash-free zone.

Rock Creek

Rock Creek Cemetery
The grave of author Upton Sinclair at Rock Creek Cemetery (©Brooke Sabin)

Up North Capitol Street at Rock Creek Church Road, manicured hills hold an eerie site: the Adams Memorial. Inside a circular hedge of evergreens, a hooded figure (described by late writer Christopher Hitchens as “lachrymose and androgynous”) faces an empty marble bench. Author and diplomat Henry Adams hired sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens to design this bronze for the tomb of his wife, Marian “Clover” Adams, who committed suicide in 1885.

Over the years, the memorial has drawn many pilgrims. During a rough patch in her marriage, Eleanor Roosevelt took solace beside the grieving figure. “I’d come out here, alone, and sit and look,” she said. “I’d always come away feeling better.”

Peeks into mausoleums, like that of brew-master Christian Heurich, reveal sunlit stained glass windows. Others buried here include Charles Corby, the creator of Wonder Bread, and Upton Sinclair, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Jungle.” 

Oak Hill

Oak Hill Cemetery
Tree-shaded Oak Hill Cemetery (©Brooke Sabin)

With winding, tree-lined paths beside Rock Creek Park, Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery provides peaceful slumber for the city’s moneyed and genteel. William Wilson Corcoran founded the Corcoran Gallery of Art and, in a prescient move, this cemetery in 1849. His body rests in a neoclassical mausoleum designed by Thomas U. Walter, an Architect of the Capitol.

Near the main gate, “Washington Post” publishers Philip and Katharine Graham lie in the shade of the Gothic revival Renwick Chapel, designed by James Renwick, also designer of the Smithsonian Castle. In her memoir, Katharine Graham recalled that Oak Hill “was extremely difficult to get in…and Phil had developed an enthusiasm of an odd kind to be buried there. His grave is directly in front of a little chapel right across the street from my house, where I can see it every day. I like this now, but in the beginning it disturbed me a great deal.”

Also of note: a columned mausoleum honoring John Van Ness, a 19th-century congressman and D.C. mayor, and the tomb of Mary Cogswell Kinney, who comforted Mary Todd Lincoln after her husband’s assassination.