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Washington thrives on exclusivity: Power brokers live to schmooze at the Cosmos Club, the Federal City Council, or Jack Kent Cooke’s box at RFK Stadium. But the most selective club in town meets—permanently—in the crypt of the Washington National Cathedral, the Episcopal church that dominates the city skyline. There, perched in Gothic splendor on Mount St. Alban, about 140 Americans—or rather, their earthly remains—occupy some of D.C.’s most prized real estate, spending life everlasting in the highest church in the land.
For any social-climbing Washingtonian, the super-elitist interment site prompts an obvious question: How can I get buried in the National Cathedral?
This is not a question episcopal officials like to discuss. (And for good reason: If you had buried more than 100 dead bodies in your basement, would you want to talk to a reporter about it?) The cathedral press officer—let’s call her Morticia—met an inquiry about cathedral interments (and how to get one) with a stony silence. Then, remembering her duty to flack, Morticia sweetly replied that the cathedral’s building expert—the only person who could converse about burials—would be happy to talk to me. In two months.
But two months might be too long to wait for this extra-holy land. According to tour guides, the cathedral has already run out of room for whole bodies. It now accepts only urns of ashes, and no more than a few of those every year.
Since the church leaders wouldn’t explain the admissions policy, I conducted my own tour of the cathedral to learn how they choose their corpses. Many of the bodies and cremains are stored in crypt-level rooms closed to the public. But judging by the several dozen sarcophagi and memorial tablets that are displayed openly, anyone who wants to decompose on Mount St. Alban should do at least one of the following:
Be (or Marry) a Church Bigwig You can hardly round a corner in the cathedral without crashing into the sepulcher of some bishop of Washington. The alabaster tomb shared by Henry Yates Satterlee (born 1843, “Entered Into Paradise 1908”), the first bishop of Washington, and his wife Jane is placed behind the altar in the crypt’s Bethlehem Chapel. Alfred Harding, the second bishop, his wife Justine, and their infant son await Judgment Day down the hall from the Satterlees in the Resurrection Chapel.
James Edward Freeman, the third bishop, is entombed upstairs in the cathedral’s north transept, and other bishops, a few cathedral deans and canons, and a choirmaster also are interred in their old office. Philip Hubert Frohman, the cathedral’s chief architect, is buried in the building he designed. Frohman is not-living proof of the fact that sacred ground is not always safe ground. The architect was killed in 1972 at age 85 when a truck flattened him on a cathedral road.
Be (or Marry) a Great American President Woodrow Wilson was buried in the cathedral in 1924. The wife of Adm. George Dewey, hero of the Spanish-American War and an early cathedral benefactor, had the admiral’s body exhumed from its original grave in Arlington and reburied on Mount St. Alban. The cremains of Helen Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan Macy occupy two niches in the cathedral’s columbarium.
The cathedral offers a particularly warm welcome to dead secretaries of state. Cordell Hull (1872-1955), who served under Franklin Delano Roosevelt, is memorialized with his wife outside Bethlehem Chapel. Their plaque reads, “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit saith the Lord,” an inscription that might surprise America’s World War II foes. That sentiment would fit more comfortably over the grave of Frank Kellogg, who is also buried with his wife in the cathedral. Kellogg, who was secretary of state a decade before Hull, co-authored the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact, the ill-fated treaty that was supposed to outlaw war. (Current Secretary Warren Christopher, who displays few, if any, signs of life, probably commutes to his State Department office from a cathedral coffin.)
Die Bravely Lt. Norman Prince founded the Escadrille Lafayette—a corps of Americans that flew for the French Air Force during the early days of World War I. He won the Croix de Guerre and was killed in action in 1917. Prince merits a sarcophagus and a statue in the Chapel of St. John, right next to the cathedral’s main altar. Tablets honoring other war heroes litter the church, as do memorials to Warren Behrend, who rates eternal commemoration for “sacrific[ing] his life to avoid collision with a motor bus filled with children,” and to Maj. Archibald Willingham Butt, an aide to President William Howard Taft who drowned on the Titanic.
Give Money Even if you, unlike Maj. Butt, would have tossed infants and mothers overboard to secure a place on a Titanic lifeboat, you may still be able to buy your way past the cathedral’s metal gates (if not past heaven’s pearly ones). Congress chartered the “Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Foundation” in 1893 to build a “great church” in Washington. But the cathedral builders received not a penny of federal money and have had to scrounge for the millions they needed to erect it. So it’s hardly surprising that in the very early days of construction, the cathedral foundation seems to have reserved crypt spots for big donors. Frederick Ward Denys, for example, died in 1912 and is sleeping in heavenly peace outside Resurrection Chapel, next to the gift shop. His sarcophagus reads, “His foresight and generosity built [the cathedral’s] baptistry and deanery.”
Don’t despair if the cathedral exhausts its space for cremains before you meet your maker. The cathedral may not bury you, but it will memorialize you in almost any other way you choose—if you write a large-enough check. Cathedral visitors already enter reverently through the Morris Cafritz gates (“Builder, Benefactor 1883-1964”), ascend the tower donated by drug czar Eli Lilly, lean against the Virginia M. Harbour arch—supported by the Adelaide Gordon Flagg flying buttress—and admire the Roger Firestone stained-glass window, which is illuminated by light switches housed in the Lyman Warner, Thomas Hawley, and Andrew Heywood fuse box, given “in loving memory of three friends whose lives were devoted to the usefulness of electricity and the art of light.”
According to Cathedral Age, the church’s quarterly magazine, a $15,000 gift purchases a stone gargoyle on the building’s west towers. Your own memorial angel costs a mere $5,000. And for those heading toward a pauper’s grave, $15 buys a hymnal and inscribes your name forever—with the other cheapskates—in the cathedral’s “Book of Remembrance.”