Cemetery of the Month: Congressional, Washington, DC

When I was growing up in Washington, DC, Congressional Cemetery was known primarily as a place where one could get mugged, buy drugs, or bust up a few gravestones. The neighborhood had deteriorated, and the owner of the cemetery (Christ Episcopal Church) no longer had the funds to properly maintain the acreage.

On one sad night, in 1973, vandals went on a rampage in the cemetery, and when they were done, five crypts had been broken into and robbed–valuable jewels taken, according to some reports, which means these vandals weren’t afraid of digging around in some serious human goo–and one hundred and fifty tombstones were overturned.

What saved the place?

Volunteers. $$$ from the Feds. Dogs. Also goats.

More on that to come. First, it’s good to know the cemetery has been pretty well spruced up. Congress provided some funding for maintenance, through the Veterans’ Administration, and volunteer groups have done great work raising money and taking care of the place.

Here’s how it looks, in part, today.

Congressional Cemetery fence - Washington DC - 2012

For a long time, Congressional was THE place for national and local politicians to be planted. Some, however, chose to be buried elsewhere, but were remembered nonetheless in Congressional. Hence, various parts of the cemetery boast long lines of cenotaphs bearing the names of men such as Charles Sumner and Henry Clay.

Treat yourself to something chocolate if you are (a) not a cemetery enthusiast, but (b) remembered that a cenotaph is a monument to someone not actually buried in that spot.

CLOSER VIEW OF CENOTAPHS ALONG ROADWAY - Congressional Cemetery, Latrobe Cenotaphs, Eighteenth and E Streets, Southeast, Washington, District of Columbia, DC HABS DC,WASH,255-2

Other famous names here include Matthew Brady, Civil War photographer who, unaccountably, has two gravestones . . . here

Mathew Brady's grave

and here.

Mathew Brady's grave 1

J. Edgar Hoover, fenced-in, perhaps to keep the Commies away.

QR CC J Edgar Hoover

John Philip Sousa provides a nice bench on which one can rest weary feet.

John Philip Sousa (12927944)

There’s also Elbridge Gerry, VP to James Madison and bestower of the scourge that is gerrymandering; Benjamin H. Latrobe, Architect of the U. S. Capitol; and Robert Mill, designer of the Washington Monument, to name just a few.

The real fun in Congressional Cemetery, however, lies in getting to know some of the other inmates, lesser known folk who boast some interesting stories as well.

For example, there is–or was (remember those destroyed tombstones?)–a statue of a young girl, dressed in late Victorian garb, dedicated to Marion Ooletia Kahlert, who died at the age of ten. For many years Marion was reputed to be DC’s first traffic fatality, killed on 25 October 1904 by an errant bread truck.

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Ghost story of the month: I Remember You

I Remember You, by Yrsa Sigurdardottir

A good ghost story is hard to find.

What qualifies as great in this genre? I find it’s easier to say what stories haven’t reached the level of good, much less great horror of the ghostly kind. Some simply aren’t frightening, such as the unaccountably lauded The Woman in Black, by Susan Hill (2001), and everything written, thus far, by Sarah Rayne. Others substitute psychological ghosts for the genuinely supernatural, such as the recent The Ghost of the Mary Celeste, by Valerie Martin (2014), and while I accept our memories are peopled with the phantoms of incidents and relationships in our past that certainly haunt us, a novel focused solely on regrets and sins, rather than an actual revenant—a spook—don’t qualify as ghost stories. Too many contemporary ghost story writers don’t even bother to attempt the challenge of building the slow, subtle escalation of fear found in a half-heard whisper, a quickly glimpsed figure, an unaccountable chill; instead, they fall back on the easily gruesome, replete with chainsaws, nail guns, fangs, and claws.

A few of the better ghost stories include The Uninvited, by Dorothy Macardle (1942); Ammie, Come Home, by Barbara Michaels (1968); The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson (1959); The Shining, by Stephen King (1977). Each creates a creepy atmosphere, attributable primarily—if not solely—by the supernatural, atmospheres so suffused with tension the reader doesn’t dare stop reading, not matter how late the hour, lest she be forced to turn out the lights without having the mysterious explained, if not resolved.

Happily, the Icelandic author, Yrsa Sigurdardottir, decided to take on the genre, and while her attempt isn’t entirely successful, I Remember You rises well above the current competition to deliver genuinely chilling ghostly goings-on.

The first ninety pages unfold slowly, introducing an ever-growing, disparate cast of primary and secondary characters, and a large part of the fun of I Remember You is realizing how deftly Sigurdardottir deftly controls how and when we learn what each has to contribute to the two separate vandalism cases and the two separate disappearances. So adept is the author I had to read the book a second time, dissecting how the author constructed such an enjoyable puzzle.

In the far northwest of Iceland, in the town of Ísafjörður, a criminal psychologist named Freydr attempts to dissect an incident of destructive vandalism that has occurred at a local elementary school. Being around the children who attend this school revive Freydr’s emotional struggle to cope with the disappearance, three years earlier, of his young son, Beni, a struggle that escalates when Freydr discovers, almost by accident, that a similar incident occurred in the same school sixty years earlier . . . and that this presaged the disappearance of another young boy.

At the same time, three friends—Katrin and Gardar, who are married, and Lif, their recently widowed friend—leave Ísafjörður by boat and deliberately maroon themselves for a week in a remote, seasonal village, determined to renovate an old, abandoned house. They suffer the lack of electricity, cell coverage, heat, running water, and—beginning on the first night—a host of strange noises within their house. Floorboards squeak; mysterious, wet footsteps are found in the house despite locked doors and windows; shells arranged on the floor spell out an ominous word. Soon their days are equally haunted, when a haggard-looking boy appears and follows them, eluding all attempts to communicate.

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I Remember You Book Cover I Remember You
Yrsa Sigurard[ttir
Fiction
Hodder & Stoughton
2012
391

"The crunching noise had resumed, now accompanied by a disgusting, indefinable smell. The voice spoke again, now slightly louder and clearer: 'Don't go. Don't go yet. I'm not finished.' In an isolated village three friends set to work renovating a derelict house. But soon they realise they are not alone there... something wants them to leave, and it's making its presence felt. Meanwhile, in a town across the fjord, a young doctor investigating the suicide of an elderly woman discovers that she was obsessed with his vanished son. When the two stories collide the terrifying truth is uncovered... "--Back cover.

Cemetery of the Month: Graceland, Chicago, IL

Founded in 1860, Graceland Cemetery boasts the graves of the well-known (Alan Pinkerton, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Marshall Field, Jack Johnson) and the relatively obscure (Augustus Dickens, the younger brother of Charles, and Kate Warn, the national’s first female private detective, employed by Pinkerton).

Sadly, there are no ghosts. None, at least, whose stories are the least credible. Oh, there are rumors of a little girl, Inez Clark, whose statue is said to disappear from its glass case every so often, but the debunking of this story has been discouragingly thorough. For one thing, the body underneath the statue is a young boy named Amos Briggs (although this is disputed), and the statue itself is thought to have been an advertisement, placed in the cemetery by an enterprising sculptor and monument maker, Andrew Gagel.

Advertising in cemeteries . . . an idea whose time will no doubt roll around again. Which is why the body of Ogarita will be tossed into the flames of the nearest crematory, then scattered to the winds or, if possible, in the direction of George Clooney.

In Graceland, one can also visit a delightful statue, Eternal Silence, that stands atop the aptly named and long-deceased Dexter Graves.

Chicago, Illinois Eternal Silence1

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