Photos: Courtesy of Congressional Cemetery
Photos: Courtesy of Congressional Cemetery

Headstones and Hooch: October in Congressional Cemetery

Nestled in the heart of DC near the former DC General Hospital and the Anacostia River are 30 acres of rolling green hills, shaded by ancient trees and filled with birdsong. Established before the Civil War, Congressional Cemetery is an active green space, off-leash dog park and the resting place of more than 65,000 people. It’s the perfect spot for picnickers, history buffs, art appreciators and anyone who loves Halloween.

Older than Arlington Cemetery, Congressional is filled with beautifully carved headstones and sculpted angels, as well as the best spot outside of the Tidal Basin to experience the cherry blossoms, which bloom in a canopy over a path leading to a small and charming chapel. Markers range from simple names and dates to funny epitaphs.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, nearby residents used it like parkland. Children played, dogs frolicked and couples courted. After World War II, public parks were established and funded by government agencies, and the cemetery fell into disrepair. Urban decay and the space’s dereliction made it perfect for criminal activity.

But in the 1990s, local dog walkers came to the rescue. They reclaimed the space, eventually raising money and establishing a nonprofit to restore and care for the historic site. Not only is it pup-friendly, the cemetery has also become a favorite spot for runners.

“People can have a really fulfilling experience in the space that brings them joy,” says Kelly Carnes, who discovered the cemetery while walking her pooch. “The best way to respect the dead is to celebrate living.”

October, of course, is one of the best times to visit. As the leaves change and the weather cools, get into the Halloween spirit by going on special night tours. You just might run into the specters of First Lady Dolley Madison, composer John Philip Sousa and silent screen film star Mary Fuller, but the hundreds of politicians underfoot might be the scariest ghosts of all.

Soul Strolls takes place on October 20-21 and 27-28 at $22 per ticket, with beer, wine and cider available for purchase. This year, the public vault will be transformed into a Prohibition era speakeasy featuring craft cocktails for sipping in and around the building. Purchase a VIP ticket, and after the tour, your guide will admit you to the pop-up bar where you can mingle with some of the lawmakers and lawbreakers of the 1920s.

If you’re looking for a healthier alternative, participate in the seventh annual Dead Man’s Run 5K on October 7 at 6 p.m. for $40 per runner.

“There are so many reasons why I love this race,” says Catherine Collins, who has participated in the last five Dead Man’s Runs. “Everyone’s attitude is amazing, and they are there to have fun and be a little scared. I love all the great costume ideas people come up [with].”

The route takes runners through the cemetery and along the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail. Following the race, a DJ spins while runners and their fans snack on giant soft pretzels, enjoy beer and dance to spooky tunes.

Congressional Cemetery is open from dawn to dusk daily. The cemetery also serves as an off-leash dog park, so a friendly dog or two might join you! Learn more at www.congressionalcemetery.org.

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Vanessa Mallory Kotz

Vanessa Mallory Kotz has been a writer and editor for more than 15 years. She covers visual arts, fashion, food and anything that advocates for better treatment of humans and animals. Her work has appeared in Popular Photography, American Photo, The Writer's Guide, Hirshhorn Magazine, First Person Plural, Goucher Quarterly, AmericanStyle, Niche, Reflections: Ultra Short Personal Narratives and art catalogs for museums across the country.