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How Congressional Cemetery Got Its Name

Filed by KOSU News in US News.
August 17, 2012

Back at the turn of the 19th century, Uriah Tracey was something of a trendsetter. The Connecticut senator was one of the first to fight in the Revolutionary War — and then one of the first to attempt secession from the Union. And in 1807, he was the first member of Congress buried in what later became known as Congressional Cemetery, in Washington, D.C.

The cemetery was called the Washington Parish Burial Grounds when it opened. But Tracey died just a few months later, as Rebecca Roberts, the cemetery’s program director, tells NPR’s David Greene, on a recent tour of the grounds in Southeast D.C.

Tracey’s death presented a problem. As Roberts says: “Where were you going to put him?”

These were the days before a railroad track had been laid between Washington and Connecticut, she says. And, “This is really before embalming was common, so you couldn’t wait,” Roberts says. “When you think about it, Washington was a really new town then.”

But why did the Washington Parish Burial Grounds become the official site for members of Congress to be laid to rest? Well, after Tracey was buried there, “it became clear that that need wasn’t going to go away,” Roberts says.

Eventually, Christ Church, which has operated the cemetery since its first days, set aside 100 burial sites for members of Congress and their families, and other government officials. That number has since grown to nearly 1,000.

Reading the list of the people buried at Congressional Cemetery is like skipping through U.S. history.

The “American March King,” John Philip Sousa, is there. So is the first director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, and his family. And oddly enough, the body of David Herold, one of the co-conspirators who was hanged for the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, was moved to the cemetery with the approval of President Andrew Johnson in 1869.

Herold’s grave still has no tombstone, though — a decision the director of the cemetery made to keep away vandals. [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

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