Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Graveyard



Like many dog owners who live on Capitol Hill and don’t have much of a yard, I walk my dogs in Congressional Cemetery, an historic graveyard in southeast DC that dates back to 1807 (go to http://www.congressionalcemetery.org/ for more information). Walking dogs in a graveyard sounds strange at first, but it makes sense once you actually see it. In return for dog-walking privileges, each dog walker pays a yearly fee, and the dog-walking money funds the cemetery’s considerable ground maintenance bill. In addition, many dog walkers volunteer to help with various grounds-keeping and administrative projects at the cemetery, and some dog walkers have helped the cemetery procure major funding from other sources. The routine presence of people and dogs on the grounds transforms the graveyard into a wonderfully alive space, and most of the dog walkers find themselves falling in love with history and ambiance of the burial ground. In the view of most people involved, allowing dogs in the graveyard turns out to be a win-win situation (see http://www.cemeterydogs.org/ for more about dogs at Congressional Cemetery).

Some folks on the cemetery’s board disagree with the established dog-walking program, I think because they view the presence of dogs as disrespectful to those interred and fear that having a critical mass of dogs on the grounds will transform what should be a somber burial ground into nothing more than a dog park that happens to have head stones. My view, however, is that if these anti-dog folks would just talk to the dog walkers, or maybe even better yet actually visit the cemetery during peak dog-walking hours, they would find out that the dog-walking program doesn’t turn Congressional Cemetery into a dog park but rather enhances it as a cemetery.

Although some burials still occur at Congressional Cemetery, most of the graves are old, forgotten by descendants, and rarely visited. The dog walkers basically serve as equal-opportunity visitors for all of those interred at the cemetery. We pay attention to the grave sites, wonder about the lives of the people whose graves we notice, and continually point graves out to one another. Even after walking there for years, people find themselves noticing new things all the time. Many of us, including me, could give you a comprehensive tour of the graves that are considered historically noteworthy, but we also could give you the saddest stories tour, the funny names tour, the I’m-really-perplexed by this family plot tour, and the list goes on. How many graveyards in this country can boast a whole legion of people each of whom visits daily (some of us multiple times daily) and in the process forms on ongoing and attentive relationship with the entire place and all of its inhabitants? Certainly having 50 or 60 happy dogs frolicking around the 33-acre grounds on a given morning or evening is a small price for that kind of stewardship. Plus the dogs really brighten things up, and most of the non-dog-walking visitors seem genuinely delighted by their presence.

I probably never would have discovered Congressional Cemetery, and I certainly would not have made walking there a daily habit, if it had not been for my dogs. As it has turned out, though, I have walked in Congressional Cemetery twice a day virtually every day for the last 5 years, and it has become one of the most important places in my life. First of all, the place is beautiful. It is like a wonderful mirror that not only reflects but also intensifies the particular beauty and ambiance of each season. The stillness and chill of winter, the rebirth and teeming energy of spring, the heat and sultriness of summer, and the crispness and rustling of fall – it always seems to me that each season is at its quintessential best in that graveyard. I also love the feeling of ever-present peace that seems to hover over Congressional Cemetery. Regardless of the season, there seems always to be a sense of tranquility in the place that nothing can shake. I consistently have found that, no matter how foul my initial mood, the tranquility of the graveyard somehow rubs off on me and I always leave more at peace than when I arrived. And then there’s the whole bit about how walking in a graveyard every day can inspire one to confront the “big questions” – is there a god, is there an afterlife, can there be one without the other, why am I here, what is my purpose, how can I make peace with the fact that no matter what I do I will die, etc., etc. My daily walks in Congressional Cemetery certainly prompted me to spend considerable time thinking about all these questions. On top of all this, walking in the final resting place of many people who were critical to the forming of our nation and its capital city has given me quite a history lesson. Last but not least, I have made a lot of wonderful friends while walking dogs among the tombstones.

I’m sure that, without Congressional Cemetery, I eventually would have found other places and ways to appreciate the full measure of all the seasons, to get an instant shot of tranquility, to contemplate life and death, to learn more about our nation’s history, and to make friends. However, I can think of no other place where I would have gotten all these benefits so strongly and so routinely, and I can certainly think of no other place where I would have found all these things simultaneously. If someone had told me 6 years ago that I would spend an average of two hours a day walking dogs in a graveyard and that those would frequently be the best two hours of my day, I would have thought they were crazy. But that’s how it’s turned out, and I am so very pleased that it did.

I love Congressional Cemetery. Sometimes I think that maybe, although I didn’t know it at the time, part of the reason I was drawn to live in Washington was in order to get to know and so richly benefit from this wonderful, special place.

7 comments:

Barbara said...

One of the best stories I have heard of Congressional Cemetery is about one of my favorite meditation partners, who fell in love with his significant other as they walked their dogs there. I think that totally justifies its use as a dog park!

Adrianne said...

There are several couples I know who fell in love while walking dogs in the cemetery -- one such couple just had their first child earlier this year. Now the two of them stroll around with both dogs and their new baby, warming the hearts of all of us who knew them back when they were "just friends" (although we could all totally see that they were headed for romance. (: )

I fell in love once while walking dogs in the cemetery, too, but the man in question did not fancy me as more than a dog-walking buddy. It broke my heart at the time, but the lessons I learned from that experience got me ready for my current relationship. Everything works out in the end, I suppose.

P.S. Who is the opera singer you mentioned the other day?

Barbara said...

Adrianne -- The couple with the baby might be my friend and his partner. They just had their first child about 6 months ago.

Shoot me an e-mail message at barbara.diskin@verizon.net and I will give you the singer's name. I'm not sure she would want me advertising on the Internet for her. :)

Reya Mellicker said...

Fabulous post. Thank you!!

D.C. Confidential said...

I love Congressional Cemetery and you have capture precisely the spirit that makes it so attractive. Were it not for the dog walkers, this cemetery would likely still be overrun by drug dealers, junkies, and pimps. As a place of historical significance, you are doing those who repose there and those of us who visit a great service.

Besides, I'm sure John Philip Sousa, Mathew Brady, J. Edgar Hoover, and Leonard Matlovich--to name only a very, very few--would love the playfulness and loyalty of a dog or two in their final resting places.

Adrianne said...

D.C. Confidential -- thanks so much for taking the time to comment, and I'm glad that you agree!

Barry said...

What a wonderful idea. While doing genealogical research on my family I visited many old cemeteries. For the most part they were very forlorn places, actively avoided by most people.