Weekends are made for stealing away from the city. So you pack up a lunch, grab your sweetheart, and head toward open greenery. Once there, you stroll under the trees, stop to admire the sweeping vistas, and relax among the flowers with a few hundred others who have also come to rest. Only they’re there permanently.
In the 19th century, city residents nationwide fled bustling downtown streets to take sanctuary in picturesque fields such as Glenwood Cemetery in Northeast Washington. On a typical summer afternoon in, say, 1874, couples would take their walks on the grounds of Glenwood, pausing to check out the family plots they’d bought, tend to the gardens they’d planted, or just enjoy an escape from city life.
In those days, the cemetery wasn’t a part of the city—it was a refuge from the city. At its founding, for instance, Glenwood’s acreage was beyond D.C.’s boundaries. Among sloping hills and serpentine paths, tall obelisks punctuated the landscape, marking the location of family plots, while smaller, ornate monuments offered allegorical allusions to the deceased’s lives. Visitors weren’t spooked or depressed by the surroundings. Referring to these cemeteries, Englishman Henry Arthur Bright quipped, “People lounge in them and use them (as their tastes are inclined) for walking, making love, weeping, sentimentalizing, and every thing in short.” Cemeteries such as Oak Hill, Holy Rood, St. Mary’s Catholic, Prospect Hill, and Glenwood idealized the notion that graveyards were not just where loved ones were interred, but where the living went to contemplate.
Glenwood’s pastoral aspect was also a function of the law: The District in 1852 banned from its boundaries all new cemeteries, which had previously consisted of relatively simple headstones in cramped churchyards. New graveyards were relegated generally to areas north of what is now Florida Avenue. Today those once-rural cemeteries have been swallowed into the city’s expanded grid. Holy Rood sits against Wisconsin Avenue in Glover Park, while Prospect Hill, Glenwood, and St. Mary’s Catholic straddle Lincoln Avenue NE in Edgewood.
Think the Victorian ideal of frolicking among stone monuments to the dead is anachronistic? Just take a look at the National Mall. The McMillan Commission in 1902 put forth a plan to recapture Pierre L’Enfant’s vision for the Mall, which had become littered with railroad tracks and other distractions from its axial relationship with federal Washington. Charged with channeling L’Enfant, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. turned the Mall into the memorial park that it is today. Olmsted’s famous father had championed the notion that cities should make room for green spaces that accommodate parks and cemeteries, so it was fitting that the Mall was rededicated to this tradition.
Most folks out for a stroll these days would rather spend an afternoon on the Mall than at one of the city’s cemeteries. Even so, though these resting places may be devoid of the Victorian-era crush of visitors seeking solemn celebration, the spirit in which they were conceived remains very much alive.
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Pilar Vergara.