Creeped out by cemeteries? These D.C. sites — with history, art and even yoga — might change your mind.
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Cemeteries aren’t just for the friends and family of the departed. In fact, in the 1800s, they were much like public parks, and places for picnics, strolls and even carriage racing. The elaborate memorials and tombstones were pieces of art carved by sculptors, meant to be admired for centuries longer than the lives they represented.
It might seem unusual to spend your leisure time walking among the dead, but it’s actually a place to think about life — to consider what we leave behind, and what our loved ones will do to memorialize us.
Visiting Arlington National Cemetery, the nation’s most famous burial site, is about remembrance and honoring those who served our country. But at these smaller sites around Washington, you can find art, history and even a mystery here and there. That might include grand mausoleums, unusual tombs or the resting place of famous names.
But you shouldn’t go looking for ghosts, like a teenager on a dare. Look instead for opportunities to reflect: Where others are resting in peace, you might find some.
St. Paul's Rock Creek Cemetery
The main reason Washingtonians might have heard of Rock Creek Cemetery: a celebrated sculpture by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. The statue of a mysterious, shrouded figure sits in a copse of trees, marking the graves of Henry and Marian Adams. Commonly known as “Grief,” this sculpture is so important that a copy sits inside the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
The cemetery, in what is now Petworth, was one of Washington’s most exclusive burial grounds in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As a result, its elaborate mausoleums, modeled after Egyptian tombs and Gothic chapels, and carved statues bear the names of the families that gave Gilded Age Washington its department stores (Garfinckel and Lansburgh), beer (Heurich) and banks (Riggs).
There are many famous sculptures on the grounds — enough that the site has been added to the National Register of Historic Places. The memorial to Washington Star publisher Samuel Kauffmann consists of a bench decorated with bronze panels depicting “The Seven Ages of Man” from Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.” Viewers can sit on the bench, next to a life-size statue of a woman in classical dress, and reflect.
Old St. Mary's Cemetery
This tiny Catholic cemetery a few steps from the Rockville Metro stop has two notable residents: writers F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. Though the pair lived much of their lives in Paris and New York, the Fitzgerald family is from Maryland — he’s a descendant of Francis Scott Key, the composer of “The Star Spangled Banner” — and this tiny church holds the family plot. They’re buried together, Zelda atop F. Scott, and the grave is inscribed with the final lines from “The Great Gatsby”: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
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