The Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

The following is the transcript of an interview done with Lauren Maloy, the Program Director at the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C. Their dog walking program is one of the most innovative cemetery programs and is one of the most sought after  memberships in the D.C. area. They also do over one hundred different events at the cemetery each year, from living history, to a 5k walk and run!

Interview with Lauren Malloy, Program Director at Congressional Cemetery, April 2018

About how many events do you put on at the cemetery in a year?

Strangely enough, that’s a complicated question! If you count the entirety of our schedule of events (weekly tours, book clubs, plus our larger events), then we host over 100 within a year. It sounds more intimidating than it really is, honestly, as many of these events run well with limited oversight once we get them up and running, like the free, docent-led tours which occur every Saturday April through October.

What kinds of events do you do?

We have a broad range of events we put on at Congressional Cemetery. We host some more “traditional” events, such as historical lectures, tours, and chamber music concerts. We also put on events that are not as typical for cemeteries – we have 5k runs, yoga, movie nights, a dog festival, a book club, and theatrical walking tours (tours with a first-person interpretation at grave sites). This isn’t a comprehensive list but does give a sense of the range of events we put on at Congressional Cemetery.

What are the most successful events, both in terms of financial return and attendance?

Our most successful event financially is by far Soul Strolls. Soul Strolls takes place over four nights and features tours with first-person interpretation. Visitors walk on a guided tour to hear the stories of five of our “residents” from the people themselves – of course, actors dressed up as these people. This event brings in over 1200 people over the course of two weekends and is financially successful for the cemetery.

As far as one-day attendance goes, Day of the Dog reaches well over 1,000 people in the course of one day. Day of the Dog is a dog festival that opens the cemetery to all leashed dogs, as typically we only allow members of the K9 Corps in. We host local pet vendors and adoption organizations, and also put on a variety of activities specifically for dogs. It’s a free event, and although we recoup many of our expenses through sponsors, it isn’t as financially successful as Soul Strolls but still is invaluable for community engagement.

Does your cemetery accept new burials? How much available space do you have left?

We are indeed still an active cemetery, and we estimate that there around 1,000 sites still for sale. This figure also changes as we have a reclamation process: the cemetery can reclaim sites if they haven’t been used for 125 years, so that can up the number by a few even as we’re actively selling sites.

What is the most challenging aspect of putting on events at cemeteries?

The most challenging aspect of putting on events at cemeteries is definitely the line we have to walk that most non-profits don’t have to think about. To put it bluntly, we have 65,000 dead people buried on our property, and all of our events have to take this into account. We strive to put on events that are respectful but also interesting, and we recognize that although many people come to our events simply because we’re a cemetery, there will always be a segment of the general public who strongly disagrees with hosting events in a cemetery. The most difficult thing for us is this balancing act between respect and creativity.

In the cemetery survey, the question of dogs in the cemetery was the most divisive, with about half of the respondents for dogs and half against. Can you tell me a little more about the successes and problems you have with your dog walking program? Do you have issues with people not picking up after their pets?

The dog walking program at Congressional Cemetery began organically, and it also almost single-handedly saved the cemetery. A few Capitol Hill residents began walking their dogs here in the early 1990s. They tell stories about how high the grass was, how drug dealers frequented the grounds, and how the cemetery as a whole was mess. Within a few years they formalized it into a membership program and began self-taxing themselves to raise money for the cemetery. Slowly, the presence of these dog walkers transformed the cemetery from a neglected corner of Capitol Hill to what it is today. This is partially because the program grew, but also due in great part to the funds the K9 Corps brings in, which is now over 200k. The non-profit that runs the cemetery (APHCC) now also runs the dog walking program.

The successes of the program far outweigh any disadvantages, at least in our case. Many historic cemeteries have difficulties with vandalism, and since the dog walkers are almost a constant presence here, we have had only minor problems with vandalism. As part of their memberships, all dog walkers are required to either volunteer 8 hours or pay out of this option – either way, the cemetery either gets the volunteer hours on the grounds or at our events, or gets the additional revenue.

I understand why it’s still controversial, and although I wish I could say that we never have a problem with people not picking up after their pets, we do. As a whole, our dog walkers are conscientious and extremely respectful, but at times their dogs get away from them, and this can lead to dog waste on the grounds. We will always people who strongly disagree with having dogs in a cemetery, period. However, the benefits of the K9 Corps extend far beyond revenue and stopping vandalism – the K9 Corps really gives this cemetery life. We have a group of over 600 people with their pups who strongly value this cemetery and want to contribute to its success. You can come here at almost any hour of the day and see someone, and that’s not something you could say about many historic cemeteries.

What makes people want to visit the Congressional Cemetery, in your opinion?

Many people visit Congressional Cemetery for the history, as we have “something for everyone” here among our 65,000 residents. There’s an almost magical aspect of Congressional Cemetery, though, in that many people visit once and then are completely and utterly hooked. We don’t have hard and fast numbers on this, but we have a great deal of repeat visitation – people who come to our programs and find themselves coming back for something else entirely. For instance, our Tombs and Tomes book club has garnered the Cemetery additional volunteers and docents as well as sponsors. People tend to fall in love with this cemetery and want to give back and sustain it.

I think part of the beauty of Congressional Cemetery is that people visit the first time for all sorts of different reasons: to walk their dog, to come to a program, or to pre-plan a funeral and buy a site. But oftentimes, this connection to the cemetery grows and builds upon itself, and people become entangled in the cemetery in all sorts of different ways.

What is the relationship between an older (full or almost full) cemetery and modern Americans? Why should we care about them?

Cemeteries represent a community’s shared history. They’re an amazing portal for learning about the past, and I can almost guarantee that you’ll find a personal connection that will draw you in. But more importantly, cemeteries don’t have to be a place where you think about death and mortality, although they certainly can be. They’re amazing spaces for melding the past and the present, so being aware of the finality of death shouldn’t keep the public away; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. When cemeteries are viewed as community spaces with multiple touch points for engagement, then they have the incredible capacity to maintain relevance and stay an integral part of a community.

Anything else? Feel free to add anything else you might find relevant or interesting:

Just a word of advice for anyone embarking on putting on events in a cemetery: get comfortable with controversy! You’ll never be able to change everyone’s mind, and there will always be those who strongly oppose hosting anything other than funerals in a cemetery. This was hard for me as I’m definitely a “please everyone” kind of person, but once I really became comfortable and confident with our stance, it got a lot easier. Be ready to defend why you’re hosting events in a cemetery (in particular, I wrote this blog post when we received a lot of criticism for our movie nights), and once you have that defense in hand, you’ll be fine.