A cemetery might not be the most obvious place for an outing with kids. But when one is full of history, graves of notable people, lovely grounds, and even geocaching opportunities, it’s a pretty cool place to go.
Congressional Cemetery in southeast Capitol Hill has all of that and then some. Deemed a National Historic Landmark in 2011, burials first started at the 35-acre location over 200 years ago, and more than 67,000 have taken place there since, including some for famous DC residents. John Phillip Sousa, J. Edgar Hoover, Choctaw Chief Push-ma-ta-ha, Mathew Brady, Marion Barry, many members of Congress, and Civil War heroes are among those for whom the cemetery is their final resting place. There are also cenotaphs, which are memorials — the word actually means “empty tomb” — for even more remarkable people who are buried elsewhere.
It’s a beautiful place, and not too far from where we live, so we occasionally go there to roam around and, every now and then, attend an event. The Cemetery hosts a lot of community gatherings throughout the year, from Day of the Dog in the spring to movie nights in the summer to Soul Strolls and the Dead Man’s Run 5k leading up to Halloween to an annual birthday celebration for John Phillip Sousa to Yoga Mortis sessions to live entertainment to book clubs.
From April through October, free docent-led walking tours are available to visitors on Saturdays at 11am. Free tours focusing on the Civil War are also available on the third Saturday of the month at 1pm from April through October. You can also take a self-guided tour using brochures that you can pick up near the entrance — they suggest significant graves to visit and provide background on the people buried there. You can also find the brochures online if you want to print them out in advance.
The Cemetery was also known for its Goats in the Graveyard, when they would bring in a herd of goats in August to help with maintenance. They ate vines, poison ivy, ground cover, and even fallen debris, while also “depositing” fertilizer. It was fun (and funny) to see them in such an unexpected place.
Sasha and I visited most recently at the beginning of Winter Break. We’d started a geocaching adventure there a couple of years ago, but never found the cache, because my phone, ironically, died mid-quest. This time, I made sure my battery was well charged, and we used GPS via the Geocaching.com app to navigate to the hidden treasure, stopping to look at some of the tombstones on the way. It’s interesting and often moving to read the epitaphs, note the birth and death dates, and see the design and artistry of the graves — some of them simple, others very ornate.
When we discovered the cache, I realized I forgot to bring along a pen to log our find (but I made a note on the app) — just mentioning that, so you don’t forget one if you go. There are actually a couple more geocaches in the Cemetery, but we decided to save those for another time — and a new stroll through the grounds.
Congressional Cemetery is located at 1801 E Street SE on Capitol Hill. It’s open daily from dawn to dusk. Admission is free, though some special events require fees. For more information about geocaching, see this KFDC post.