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By Gabrielle Vicari

Many people believe that cemeteries are unsettling places, likely because they are grounds where the deceased have been buried. However, there was a time when cemeteries were intended for active visiting and exploration. Although cemeteries don’t usually play host to a lot of visitors today, they do offer a unique way to get out this fall (and beyond!) and explore the sites we’ve got right here in Washington, DC.

congressional_cemetery

The Congressional Cemetery in Washington, DC

Cemeteries are typically visited for funerals, ghost tours, or a thrilling night out as a teenager.  In the nineteenth century, however, rural or “garden” cemeteries were popular public spaces. Landscaped and showcasing sculpture and architecture, these meticulously planned properties emerged during the Victorian era and explored and inspired the contemporary cultural obsession with death.

The rural cemetery movement was initially a campaign to end burial in the overflowing, dangerous, and disease-ridden graveyards of crowded Victorian-era city centers. Often located on the edge of developed cities, rural cemeteries were specifically designed to be visited and enjoyed. Verdant landscaping and winding paths evoked a pastoral feel removed from the grime and chaos of downtown, and elaborate sculptures and mausoleums served the dual purpose of grave marker and artistic meditation on mortality.

Washington, DC’s rural cemeteries have largely remained in their original state while the city developed around them. This is also true for Laurel Hill Cemetery (Philadelphia, 1836) and Mount Auburn Cemetery (Boston, 1831). Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery (1849) was the first DC-area tract to be planned as a rural cemetery. Glenwood Cemetery (1854) and neighboring Prospect Hill (1858) adopted this style as well, and many more area properties followed suit. Rock Creek Cemetery, originally established in the early 1790s, expanded in the rural cemetery style.

A historical headstone at the Congressional Cemetery.

A historical headstone at the Congressional Cemetery

Modern “memorial parks” have a very different appearance from historical rural cemeteries. Instead of grand monuments with art spanning from the religious to the secular, today’s headstones are often small or level with the ground—hidden from view and reflecting a societal change of minimizing our contact with death. Historically, grave markers were adorned with symbols indicating the deceased’s religious beliefs, personal characteristics, or occupation. During the years when the garden cemetery movement was at its height, grand mausoleums and ornate sculptures focused on more philosophical ideas, offering meditations on the fleeting nature of life through the built environment.

Death has become a far less visible part of daily life for the average person in Western culture. Instead of funerals occurring in the family home, the ritual and procedure of death has increasingly become the purview of hospitals and funeral homes. As a result of this sanitization of death, American culture has gained a distaste for dwelling on our own mortality.

The world-famous Arlington Cemetery, just outside of Washington D.C.

The world-famous Arlington Cemetery, just outside of Washington, DC

It may seem out of place, and even disrespectful, to visit a cemetery for the purpose of exploration and recreation. You should not, of course, go with irreverence. Whether you’re exploring just to get outside or for educational purposes, being mindful of where you are is important. However, you should also keep in mind the ideals that fueled the property’s design—the park-like setting is meant to relax, draw people outside, and inspire meditation on life and death. Garden cemeteries were intended as a place for people to visit. Even if you’re not looking for a heavy meditation on death, you can get out to explore a new part of DC and learn something in the process!

Gabrielle is a transplant from Philadelphia, which she maintains is the best city in the world. She received her MA in Historic Preservation from the University of Delaware and lives in Columbia Heights with her yarn stash, history books, and expansive collection of coffee mugs. When she’s not excitedly lecturing friends about architecture and history, you can find her watching costume dramas or racking up stamps in her National Parks Passport.

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