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Green Burial at Congressional Cemetery: One Way to Spend an Afternoon

May 31, 2019
Congressional Cemetery cherry tree in full bloom

Congressional Cemetery cherry tree in full bloom

April Fool’s Day was the perfect occasion to visit Congressional Cemetery. A free tour and an even freer (with snacks!) presentation about green burial was on offer. As a fan of shadows, cemeteries, uncommon perspectives and food I don’t have to pay for, I thought everything sounded just right. Of course, I invited a friend.

Although the cemetery’s permanent residents were not available to comment on their level of afterlife amusement, the  vast majority of Congressional Cemetery visitors and volunteer staff seemed to be having a good time. I counted at least six volunteers there,  four times as many human visitors, and even more canines than people.

Congressional Cemetery is a welcoming place. Lummi Poles at a crossroads indicate as much, but the cemetery’s “About Us” page is explicit. To be buried in Congressional Cemetery, only one requirement exists: “You just have to be dead.”

Anyone getting a cemetery tour from Paul Williams, President of the Association for the Preservation of Historic Congressional Cemetery, should expect many such frank nuggets of laughter-provoking honesty.

“Get your headstone before you die,” Williams told my group, “or your kids will take the money and go on a cruise.”

A recently-completed underground map of Congressional Cemetery showed that seventy thousand people are buried there. Thirty thousand of them lay in unmarked graves.

The Prinzessin Victoria Luise, first launched in 1900, is commonly believed to be the first purpose-built pleasure ship. Congressional Cemetery was established in 1807 — ninety-three years before the Prinzessin’s maiden voyage. That’s over nine decades of absconding with the inheritance but being unable to purchase a cruise ship ticket.

My friend Wikipedia tells me that the same year Congressional Cemetery was established, the first fare-paying passenger railroad service also began. Based on no evidence whatsoever, I posit that between 1807 and 1900, numerous drunken teenagers inheriting money from aged relatives celebrated their tombstone-free good fortune with wild railcar parties.

I call this "Awesome Cemetery Shadows." Nearby, Walt Whitman turned over in his grave at my non-poetic description of this beautiful scene.

I call this “Awesome Cemetery Shadows.” Nearby, Walt Whitman turned over in his grave at my non-poetic description of this beautiful scene.

Not only did mapping the cemetery reveal all the unmarked graves, the effort also helped the Association understand previous mistakes. Apparently, all Congressional Cemetery headstones are not necessarily placed near bodies. Whether that meant drunk teenagers one hundred fifty years ago instead decided to take expired Aunt Elspeth on a cross-country South American tour like she always wanted is beyond even my impudent calculations.

It turns out that less than a page of federal regulations exist on how to bury a body. On the other decaying hand, disinterring a corpse is highly regulated. That begs the question — should a body be buried before or after a cross-country South American tour?

On the off-chance that the modern Auntie El clarified in her will that the teenager’s inheritance was contingent on Auntie’s immediate interment complete with a headstone, a green burial might be the way to go. Congressional Cemetery permits them. All manner of corpse coverings are allowed like shrouds, wicker baskets and pine caskets purchased online and assembled at home, preferably in detached garages, where no one but you will know to worry about what all the leftover screws were supposed to hold together.

My companion for the afternoon mentioned one green burial method Williams didn’t touch upon. “The most organic way to get rid of a body is to feed it to pigs,” she said. “Pigs will eat the f^*k out of things. One pig equals 6 days. But 6 pigs equals 1 day!”

The afternoon continued to be full of other unexpected and delightful facts.

Tall cemetery tree picture that somehow contains no dogs running around

Tall cemetery tree picture that somehow contains no dogs running around

Most cemeteries wait 75 years before re-using plots. Congressional Cemetery waits 125 years to add more ingredients to the stew. When spots open in the cemetery, they go quickly, “like used cars,” the tour guide / comedian / non-profit guru Williams said.

Things were a little different in 1988, when Leonard Matlovich was buried in Congressional Cemetery. Matlovich’s grave anchors the LGBTQIA section of the cemetery. Christ Church, which owns the grounds, was one of the first churches to permit the burial of AIDS victims. Matlovich was a gay Vietnam veteran with an exemplary military record who, alongside the ACLU, officially tested the Air Force’s policies toward gay people. Matlovich’s story is worth reading about.

On the less serious side, Matlovich succeeded in being buried in the same cemetery row as Herbert Hoover and his long-time lover Clyde Tolson. Sometimes, the deceased make their own fun even without the help of a drunken relative.

Congressional Cemetery has 50 funerals each year, which is far more annual interments than when the cemetery was run-down and unsafe. Concerned citizens and neighbors helped turn it around. Along the way, in our weird culture that is captialism and civil-mindedness, Congressional Cemetery became a private dog park with annual dues, a long waiting list to join and strictly-enforced rules like “To maintain the integrity of non-dog walking events, the owner of any dog found to be on the Cemetery grounds during closure hours will have their membership/day-pass privileges immediately revoked.”

That’s badass. They don’t even refund the annual dues you paid.

The Association has a great page about the cemetery’s history including how dog owners helped turn around the space. For my part, I found the late-afternoon dogs racing through the cemetery surreal and entertaining. My group also got a sneak peak at the location of the future pet cemetery, which has since been announced. Competition is rife to be the first owner with a pet buried there.

Primo late-afternoon cemetery shadows

Primo late-afternoon cemetery shadows

At the end of the outdoor tour, my group was deposited in the chapel. We loaded up on free wine, chips and cheese, as if those would be sufficient to endure an hour of embalming scare tactics. Admittedly, most of the reason I was interested in the presentation was because of Mary Roach’s excellent book Stiff, which goes into extensive detail about all the interesting things that might happen to bodies after people die. Stiff has an intriguing chapter on green burials.

Congressional Cemetery takes its bathroom art very seriously

Congressional Cemetery takes its bathroom art very seriously.

I consider the talk a win for the fact I learned about the cryopreservation of Bredo Morstøl’s body. Since 2002, Morstøl’s continued and unexpected cryopreservation has inspired Frozen Dead Guy Days in Nederland, Colorado. The Wikipedia article does a great job of summarizing the journey of Morstøl’s body and the administrative headaches encountered if an individual is in possession of a frozen human body but not in possession of funds to pay the electricity costs of a people-sized deep freezer.

If I’m ever in Nederland, Colorado, on a Frozen Dead Guy Day, I am definitely going to try the official ice-cream — cream crushed oreos and sour gummy worms. That will be another interesting way to spend an afternoon.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 1, 2019 7:16 am

    This is great, Andrea! My wife has a copy of STIFF too, and now I want to read it!


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