Congressional Cemetery rolls out, ironically, in the shadow of D.C. General Hospital. The lumpy-hilled graveyard is occupied by the three men who work there—and 70,000 cold, prostrate customers. Imagine you are one of these stiffs, kicking back eternally in your pine condo, thankful at least that you will never again jolt awake to pound a snooze button. These and other post-mortem whims float through your soul, when suddenly you feel warm—wet and warm—and become aware of an aroma you thought was gone forever when the mortuary vacuumed out your innards: urine. Concentrating your focus on specific characteristics of the pee that is raining in, you realize that it’s not your piss that pollutes your hermetic abode, but that of a dog roaming above. Is this a mere anomaly, you wonder, or something I’ll face every day for the rest of my death?
For the most part, Congressional is 35 acres of peace, but for a couple of hours a day, the cemetery comes alive with canine glee. If you look at the place in the right light, which is either dawn or dusk these days, it’s clear there could be no better place for Southeast dog owners to bring their short friends for a couple hours of communalrunning, ball-chasing, and butt-sniffing.
“I don’t know what I’d do if it weren’t for this place,” says Joseph Long, the unofficial treasurer of the unofficial canine corps of the official Association for the Preservation of Historic Congressional Cemetery.
Long found the graveyard dog culture in 1992 after Amy, his Standard poodle, got dinged by a car near Stanton Park (at 5th Street and Massachusetts Avenue NE). He wanted a safer place to exercise Amy, and, once he found Congressional, he began collecting donations from other dog owners who long to free-range their pets but live in the cement confines of an urban neighborhood. Dog owner Christine Romero and a few others had an informal arrangement with Congressional up to that point.
Congressional is fenced on all sides, immune to leash laws and speedy traffic. Long collects $100 per year from each canine keeper plus $5 per dog for tags. The loot—$15,000 yearly—is added to the coffers for cemetery maintenance. Congressional’s canine culture appears in the pre- and post- work hours—both pets and providers succumb daily to a need to interact with others of their own kind. The rules are simple: Clean up your dog’s poop, drive slowly when on the grounds, and stay away during funerals and holidays.
From an altitude of 1 to 3 feet, it goes like this: “Hi, hi there, hi, sniff your butt? Bye, hi, ooh, gotta pee here, just gotta, aaahhhh, hey, are you new? grrrrr….sniff your butt? Whoops, there goes the ball, be right back!”
And from 5 to 6-and-a-half feet, the dialogue ain’t much more impressive: “THERE’s little Maggie. How ARE you Maggie? It’s a GOOD day, isn’t it? Say “hi,’ buddy, and be nice.”
It’s a committed subculture whose members, some might think, are in need of commitment. “People at work hear me say, “my friends from the cemetery,’ and they think I’m crazy,” Long says.
“It’s not like you only get to know people,” notes five-year Congressional dog club veteran Lisa Heinz. “You also get to see their babies grow up.”
Idle chatter on the dog clock is geared so much toward the pets and the community that nine-year graveyard veteran Romero has known people for years without having the slightest notion of what they do to earn money, something she describes as “very non-D.C.”
“Sometimes you’re at a party with friends and someone asks how you know each other and you say, “the dogs introduced us,’ ” Romero adds. “What it’s really about is the dogs’ time. They love to be around other dogs, to socialize.” Most mammals check their territorial instincts at the exit to their own yards, so exchanges on neutral ground are generally friendly.
You can spot the rookies, the one- or two-month probationary couples who still believe they need to get home soon to work on that report or revarnish that kitchen floor. Oh, they’re friendly enough, chatting with Long, Heinz, and their understated ilk, but the new ones never stop moving. Out of the car, calling the dogs, down this hill, up that pitch, pick up that pile of crap, “Hi” here and “Bye” there, clipping along like it’s a 3K, right back to the car and out the gate, duty done.
But the wily veterans know the true secret, the Zen of evening worship. (I could tell you about the morning session, but my dog doesn’t even scratch his ass before 8 a.m.) Those with years under their, um, collars, almost don’t even walk—let alone scurry. They stand there and wait to be moved by the mood. Sure, the dogs are sprinting to and fro, jumping on the humans and each other, peeing and dumping, snipping and wagging. But their biped companions react only as needed. They retrieve shit with their plastic bags, hurl balls—one woman does this with a tennis racket, to capitalize on her dog’s speed—and shuffle along the paths that symmetrically sever the grounds. You never know who you’ll meet; the canine corps inspired at least one wedding and, to make it really hokey, the bride and groom each brought two canines to the new family—sort of Lassie meets The Brady Bunch.
Most dogs new to the scene go through an initiation of “bumping,” wherein two other hounds approach the rookie and repeatedly body him or her, nonviolently, to establish seniority while letting the freshman feel like part of the pack.
The humans have a way of introducing mores as well, including picking up Poochie’s paw-paws. “We train them pretty quickly,” Heinz assures me. “If we see someone new, we keep an eye on them and ask, “Are you out of plastic bags? Do you need extras?’ We like to show off the cemetery as a pleasant and clean place.”
A few of the regulars would just as soon keep the cat in the bag when it comes to Congressional. Concerned that coverage will beget wanna-bes, a wary lady named Jane offers her own spin.
“What you see here is a virtual dog park. None of this is real,” Jane says hopefully.
Long disagrees. The cemetery needs the money and, D.C. being the quintessential transient town, people drop out at a rate of a couple a month. Cemetery administrator John Hanley is in favor of full disclosure, noting that the canine corps brings money, attention, and pride to a once-decrepit burial ground.
Hanley has one goal as administrator: elevate Congressional to the significance it should have in the community, so that in 150 years it will be as esteemed as Arlington Cemetery. The dead here include J. Edgar Hoover; his alleged gay lover, Clyde Tolson; John Philip Sousa; and Tip O’Neill. Congressional also boasts 400 cenotaphs, meaning “empty tombs,” for such famous Americans as Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun; these dead men actually have vacation homes.
The cemetery “was a jungle” when Hanley assumed his role in 1987. “The grass was five feet tall….You couldn’t even walk in there,” he says. D.C.’s oldest Episcopal parish, Christ Church, owns Congressional, but it “would rather have nothing to do with the cemetery ever again,” Hanley claims. In fact, neighborhood residents started the association in 1978 because a near-broke Christ Church could not manage the cemetery. The lease, which expires mid-21st century and is renewable, gives the association “carte blanche for day-to-day and year-to-year operations,” offers Hanley. He and two full-time staffers tend to that operation, which he points out is no small task.
Hanley fields complaints from relatives of the deceased tenants who believe that the resting place of humans should not double as a dog prairie, but those gripes are down substantially from when the issue first came up. “There is an old, conservative approach to death and respect—and I have great empathy for those families—but a lot of stones haven’t been visited in 150 years,” Hanley observes.
There are occasional interruptions in the pastoral rhythm at Congressional—Hanley recalls seeing an escapee from the D.C. jail sprinting through the tombstones amid a hail of bullets—but in the main, it’s a dog’s life at Congressional. “It is just nice to have that life-affirming experience in a garden of death,” says Romero.