What do you think of when you picture a cemetery? Do you imagine a desolate landscape, filled with creepy mausoleums and cracked tombstones? Do you think of movies like Pet Sematary or Night of the Living Dead? Or do you just imagine hushed funerals? What about parties and movies and dog walkers? What about concerts in the public vault and Saturday morning history tours? What about laughter?
“We’re an active cemetery to be enjoyed, not a place of complete solace,” says Paul K. Williams, president of the Congressional Cemetery. Unlike many of the other cemeteries in D.C., this one is known for their propensity to have fun. They have a robust dog walking program, a summertime movie series with a cult following and plenty of other ongoing events, like yoga classes and book clubs. When I met with Williams, Crystal Pate (director of sales and funerals) and Lauren Maloy (program / events director) in the gatehouse at the cemetery, what struck me most was how much they laughed with each other. They were excited to talk about the history of the space, the challenges of running a modern cemetery and their own personal stories. Even when touching on the more morbid aspects of running a cemetery, there was a certain lightness in the room.
“We’d say that most people choose to be buried here now because of all the things that we do and because we take it a little less seriously,” says Maloy, as we talk about how they’re changing people’s notions of what a cemetery does. Pate agrees, adding “People our age and younger are just like, ‘Hmm… Something hip, something different, something new.'”
Want more spooky cemetery info? Right this way…
Can you all tell me about the first job you ever had?
Paul Williams: I graduated with a degree is historic preservation and my first job was in the basement of the National Register at the National Parks Service. I manually typed in old mimeographed National Register nominations. Locked in a basement, no sunlight, just taking and composing these old, handwritten sometimes, register nominations.
Crystal Pate: I worked at Hardees. I was the 3 a.m. biscuit maker. Which was really cool because I already knew how to make biscuits and they made them from scratch. My grandmother had already taught me how to do it, so it was really easy. I’m a caterer, and it was my full time job until I started here five years ago. I needed residual income and this was it, so now my catering is my side gig.
Lauren Maloy: I guess my first job, my high school job, was working at a coffee shop. I’m still a coffee addict, so it helped fuel my addiction. I guess my first real job after college was working in archeology. That’s what I thought I would do, but things changed obviously. Now I’m working in a cemetery.
What brought all of you to the Congressional Cemetery?
Williams: I had worked for Dupont Main Streets and that job had a terminus. I knew it was ending. So I started looking for a job and found online that the cemetery needed an executive director, running a nonprofit, but also someone who had a historic preservation background, which is my background. I applied and didn’t really think much of it, but I went through the interview process with the whole board and they said, “You’re on.” I was new to cemetery operations, I had never run a cemetery, and we’re an active cemetery. That was a little bit of a challenge. I had to learn how to bury someone, basically. The nice part was I got to hire mostly all of my staff. The previous staff had been let go, so I was able to advertise and get the people in here that I wanted. That was about six years ago.
Pate: There was a listing on Moms on The Hill. At the time I was cooking and selling lunches and dinners through the listserv, so families would order meals and I would make them and delivery them. I was going through the listserv one day looking for an address and I saw the job opening. I was like, “Okay, I’m going to go back to that.” Went back to it and I noticed it was right across the street from where I was delivering this meal. I was like, “I don’t know if I want to work at a cemetery.” It was part time, so it wasn’t bad, I could do something else outside of doing the catering or delivering dinners. So I applied online and met with Paul two weeks later. He sent me home, I wasn’t sure if I was going to get the job, and then I got the call and he was like, “You’re on.”
Maloy: I moved to D.C. to go to grad school for museum studies, that was kind of where my life had taken me. Similarly, I was just looking for a job. I finished grad school and I was looking for something that was related. I started working here part time in the front office and luckily this job opened up, so I’ve been able to stay.
Since you didn’t have a background in running a cemetery, did joining one give you pause?
Williams: It didn’t. I knew of the Congressional Cemetery. I had been in it before and ironically, when I was in undergrad, we spent a semester in London and I fell in love with Highgate Cemetery. Even though I couldn’t afford it, I became a student member for $20 a year or something and I got their newsletter for the rest of my life. I’ve always had a fascination, I just never thought I’d end up running one.
Pate: I never would have thought that I was going to be in this type of job. I was raised basically in it, my grandfather ran the National Cemetery in Virginia, which was really crazy. Something weird happened… He dropped dead in front of me in the cemetery. Had a heart attack right in front of me after I got out of school one day. I was 13. I said that I would never go to cemetery. And now, I’m here and I’m five years in, so maybe this is where I’m supposed to be. Grandpa was like, “This is what you’re gonna do.”
Maloy: I don’t think I paused, necessarily. I was interested in it. But I definitely didn’t see any other job descriptions out there like this one. As any of us will tell you, there was a long list of things that were involved with the job and then at the very end it said “Other duties as assigned” and it really is that. So it was hard to explain to the people I graduated with. It wasn’t the logical choice, but it worked out.
What’s an average day like? What are your duties when you roll in?
Williams: It’s definitely different every day. That’s part of the reason I like it. When the phone rings at the cemetery, you never know who’s on the other end. It could be a boring sales call, it could be someone who just lost their spouse, their mother, their child. It could be someone who wants to do a really fun liquor based event in your cemetery. You just never know who’s gonna be on the line and what your conversations are going to be that day. I do more administrative, grant writing, personnel issues and some conferences, to try and tie us in with other cemeteries and professional organizations.
Is there a cemetery network?
Williams: There is. There’s a huge national conference called the ICCFA, the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association. They hold two conferences every year. One is exhibits and caskets and hearses and mausoleums and what not. All the stuff you can buy. And the other one, Crystal call tell you about it, is more sales focused to keep on all the trends and changes in the industry.
Does the industry change at the pace we’re familiar with in other industries? It seems like… How many different ways can you bury someone?
Williams: You’d be surprised…
Is there a lot to keep up with?
Pate: Yes and no. Once you know it, you know it. If someone comes up with something new, you just look into it and see if works for us. But there are a lot of different ways. Traditional burials, green burials, columbariums, ossuariums, so it just depends. Do they want to do scatter? It’s a lot.
Is there a trend that’s become more obvious in 2017 and 2018?
Pate: A lot more cremations. A lot of people are going towards cremations and green burials. That’s what’s really standing out right now. I’m not sure if it’s to save money, I really don’t know. Each family is different when it comes to what they want. A lot of people don’t have life insurance policies, don’t have insurance and it costs a lot to bury someone. Especially when you finish with the funeral home side, that’s thousands of dollars, and then you come to the cemetery side and that’s thousands of dollars. That’s a lot. So if they can be cremated for a $1000 and sit for a while, that’s what they’re doing. Or they’ll buy a bench or throw the ashes in there.
Is there a division between the people who run cemeteries and the people who run funeral homes?
Williams: Funeral homes are a little more traditional because they’ll try to sell you a casket. So they’ll put you down that route and say, “Mother would like this big mahogany casket or this ebony casket.” Like Crystal mentioned, they realize now that a lot of people are being cremated. So they’ll have a crematory service as part of the funeral home with urns and stuff like that in their chapel. They’re also realizing that a lot of people want green burials now too, so they’re trying to adapt pretty quickly. People might just want it as simple as being not embalmed in a wicker casket. So they’re having to change their traditional methods and find cemeteries that allow green burials, a lot of them won’t.
I was reading Mary Roach’s Stiff this year, and that came out in ’03, so it’s behind the curve with all that stuff. She talked a lot about green burials and how they’re not a thing yet.
Williams: We all read that book for book club.
Maloy: You can’t read it over lunch, that’s for sure.
Lauren, so can you tell me what you do on a day to day basis? You run the events, so that’s a little different.
Maloy: It is. Somewhat intentionally, I don’t deal with funerals as much as Crystal and Paul do. Obviously if they need help, because we’re a small staff we all help out. It’s the same thing with events. We put on bigger events and that requires all of us. There really isn’t any job that’s isolated. My day can be as simple as… Now I’m doing a lot of data entry for our dog program, which is tedious to say the least, or it could be as exciting as doing a fun program like one of our book clubs. Or working on our Halloween events. The day to day really varies. You’ll get a phone call and somebody wants to come by that day to do something. One day, when we had goats here in 2015, we came in and the goats had all escaped. So we had to go out in dress clothes and wrangle goats. It’s never what you think it’s going to be.
When you joined the cemetery, were the events as robust as they are now? Because, you guys do a lot. Especially in the summertime.
Maloy: They had a very curated program, but a lot of the events were smaller. So when Paul brought us all on he really wanted it to make a bigger impact overall, so we really started to think bigger as a staff. Thinking about events that bring in hundreds of people rather than 20-30 for a lecture. I think that’s what’s changed the most.
Williams: They’ve grown tremendously. We’ve gone from Ghosts and Goblets that had 60 people in attendance when we started, to Ghost and Goblets over two weekends that had 1700 people here. It’s grown exponentially under her leadership.
Is there a cemetery you folks look to for inspiration?
Maloy: I just presented on this, because there are a lot of historic cemeteries that are much bigger than this that have probably been in the game much longer than we have, with strong programming. So we like to say that they definitely took the lead. We all went and visited Laurel Hill, which is right outside Philadelphia, but we’ve also worked a little with Greenwood Cemetery in New York. And then we work very closely with Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta and they really helped inspire one of the biggest programs we have here. It’s called Capturing the Spirit of Oakland and ours is called Soul Strolls. We have this event called Ghosts and Goblets that was a big Halloween party and for a number of reasons we decided to move away from it. So we started looking at what other cemeteries are doing and they have this program that was essentially something we were already doing, these first person tours, but they really helped us flesh the program out. So it was nice to collaborate with them.
Is there an event you guys want to do, but haven’t managed to pull of yet?
Williams: I’d love to do a classic car show and mostly focus on hearses and funeral cars, but then any classic car could come. You could line the streets, we have plenty of room. That’s kind of on my wishlist.
Maloy: There’s a whole movement now about being more accepting of death overall. So I don’t know if you’re familiar with Caitlin Doughty?
Does she do the death cafe?
Maloy: No, but it’s similar. She’s all about the death positive movement, so she wrote this book called Smoke Gets In Your Eyes and it was about her experiences working in a crematorium. Anyway, they have this event that I would love to have here, just because I think there’s a real interest in it. We went to it when they had it at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia. I think something like that. We’ve had some little things, our book club reads a lot of books about death, but it’s something that people are really interested in and if we could get big names like Caitlin Doughty…
Williams: There’s that big event called White Night?
Oh yes, Nuit de Blanc.
Williams: We’ve kind of gone back and forth on that. Wouldn’t that be cool in a cemetery? Line the streets with thousands of people, but it makes us nervous because it’s so big.
Do you guys have a favorite spot in the cemetery?
Williams: Favorite monuments, definitely.
Pate: I have one, the 9/11 path. It’s so beautiful, it’s lined with trees, the breeze is amazing. Once you get all the way down by Barney Circle, there’s a bench down there you can sit on… There’s benches all the way through because of all the memorial benches, but there’s one particular bench all the way down at the end and it has a book inside. So you get to jot down some information, write you were here, things like that. I think that row is amazing.
Maloy: I would probably say our public vault. We use it a lot for events and it’s creepy and cool. It best sums up what we’re all about.
Williams: I’m a big architecture fan, so we have a mausoleum row. So there’s probably 25 mausoleums lined up right next to each other, all with different architecture. So that’s pretty cool. My favorite monument is a person who is still alive, which is a little unusual. He designed his own monument before he died, so it would be just how he wanted it. His name is Thomas Mann and he’s a librarian at the Library of Congress, so he did his monument in a square block, but he did his epitaph as the dewey decimal system, so it looks like a little card catalogue. It has his last name first, then a comma and his religion and a little bio of where he was born and what not. He even included a hole in the monument where the old rod used to go through the old card catalogues. Young kids don’t really get it, but middle aged people are like, “Oh, I remember that!” It’s really clever.
Is that common? People designing their graves before they die?
Williams: Yeah, it really is. You’ll see dozens of them out there.
Pate: Absolutely. A lot of people design their own memorial before they pass. They have it up and ready to go.
Williams: I think they do it so their kids don’t have to do it and they know it’s going to be done.
Pate: It’s a lot with the preplanning. They don’t want their kids to put up something they really don’t like. They want to put up what they want.
It seems like the funeral and cemetery community in D.C. has been having to deal with a lot of more modern problems recently. I know Rock Creek Cemetery is struggling with exorbitant fees surrounding their water bill and black funeral home owners are getting pushed out by gentrification, what are some of the more modern obstacles you guys face?
Williams: I’ve got issues with the water bill obviously. Ours is the same. In five years, ours has gone from about $300 a month to $3600 a month. We’ve gotten together with other cemeteries to fight the fees. They want to tax a big commercial rate for water runoff and A. We don’t have any water runoff, except for the gate house and B. We’re all green land in the middle of the city. We’re fighting hard to get an exemption to some of those fees… It’s brought us together with the other cemeteries, which is great.
The marketing you guys do is very clever and very tongue in cheek. Has there been any pushback on it?
Williams: Now and then [laughs]. But pretty rarely considering how much we put out there and how close we take it to that fine line. Once in a while, all that it takes is a little explanation and then people kind of get it. Or they come to a tour and they say, “Oh, now I get it… There’s people in the cemetery all the time, I’ve never seen it like this before.” We’re not like every other cemetery. Except for very very rare cases, they understand. We’ve had one protestor… Well two.
Maloy: We’d say that most people choose to be buried here now because of all the things that we do and because we take it a little less seriously. And take ourselves a little less seriously. I think people like that, that we’re not just a cemetery.
Do you think people are changing their expectations of cemeteries? Do you think young people are a little more chill about death? Or less chill?
Pate: More chill.
Maloy: Yeah, like I said, I think there’s just more curiosity now and more interest in all aspects of it. They like that it’s a little macabre and not what they would normally do with their day. That’s what gets people in the door. Then there will always been people who are offended by it, there’s just no getting around it. There will be some people who you just can’t change their mind, but we tell them that’s the way we’re going to stay relevant. At some point, and this is long, long in the future but we won’t have plots to sell anymore. This is a long ways away…
Pate: Yes, we have many many plots for sale now.
Maloy: But one day, and so there has to be a way for all historic cemeteries to stay relevant in their communities. So it’s good that people are more accepting,
Pate: It’s not so much the younger crowd, I feel, it’s the older crowd who are offended about the cemetery. When I say older, I mean 50 plus. It seems like the older people are more offended because of the way they were brought up and what they feel about the aspects of the final resting place for their family. They don’t think dogs should be running around, or we should be having events, or drinking, or doing any of that in the cemetery. People our age and younger are just like, “Hmm… Something hip, something different, something new.”
Yeah, as D.C. get’s lamer, you’ve carved out a little bastion of weird here.
Maloy: I like that.
Pate & Williams: Yeah!
What’s your favorite part of your job?
Maloy: For me, personally, it’s seeing these events kind of come to life and be here. Watching people who have never experienced our cemetery before really fall in love with it. I think, once people visit, it’s rare for them not to get hooked and come back again and again, or find a historical figure that they really want to research. For me, it’s watching people get hooked. Events is where that happens in the most immediate sense.
Pate: For me, it’s dealing with the families and being able to, in their time of grief, put somewhat of a smile on their face. Knowing that we have this part handled, and their family is going to be buried in this wonderful cemetery with people who are caring in the office and making sure that everything is going to be okay for them. I think that’s my favorite part. I like to make people happy and I think that’s why I also like to cook because I like to see a smile on people’s faces. I think I’m in the business to make people happy.
Williams: It’s remarkable. When you’re at a site sale at the time of need, like if they’re burying someone in a week, how many times I hear laughter come out of [Pate’s] office. It’s pretty cool.
What’s your favorite part then?
Williams: I like talking to people and touring people in the cemetery who have never been here before. Or lecturing about the cemetery, it’s history and how we raise money to other cemeteries. Just telling our story to other cemeteries who are curious at these conventions and lectures. They come to me and say, “How do you raise $200,000 with a dog program?” and I’m like, “Well, here’s how you can do it and you can scale it down to wherever your cemetery is,” or “Here’s how to convince the naysayers who say ‘No dogs in our cemetery ever'” Well, you can tell them it could be a third of their budget and they might change their minds.
I know for you guys, the dog program was a lot about deterring crime as well.
Williams: Absolutely. We were an abandoned cemetery in the 80’s and 90’s. It had hit hard times, the neighborhood wasn’t that great in the 70’s and 80’s… and the 90’s, frankly. The church couldn’t afford to do the maintenance, they were barely able to maintain their own church on 6th and G. So they just kind of closed the doors and said, “Call if you need a funeral.” It became overrun with prostitutes and weeds up to your neck, and drug dealers and shootings. It was bad news here. Trees falling over, tombstones falling over. The dog walkers are credited with taxing themselves. They would mow through the weeds to get to one site for a funeral. They raised a little money and taxed themselves $50 a year, or something, and it’s blossomed up to the program it is today. It was a big turnaround for us. The people who are all upset that we have dogs because they’re walking over grandma’s grave, we tell them that narrative. We also say that if it wasn’t for the dogs, it would be other native animals. You’d have deer running around tipping over headstones, you’d have red foxes running around doing their business and you’d have Canadian geese. So the dogs keep all that stuff at bay too.
Last question, do you all have a favorite epitaph?
Maloy: For the husband, it says “He died” and for the wife it says “She translated” and so you’re like, what is going on over there? But it turns out she was a believer in the spiritualist movement.
Williams: Mine is Leonard Matlovich, who was a Vietnam veteran. He came out on the cover of Time magazine in 1975. It said, “I am a homosexual” and he was in his air force uniform. So he was dishonorably discharged and spent the rest of his life fighting for LGBT rights in the military. He died in 1988 of AIDS and we were one of the few cemeteries that were accepting AIDS victims in the 80s and 90s. A lot of cemeteries and funeral homes wouldn’t accept them. So his epitaph very pointedly, because he wanted people to know, says “When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.” Even if you don’t know the story, you walk by and say, “I need to google Leonard Matlovich, what’s going on here?” He had no idea google would exist, but it’s still his story and his stone that’s going to be there for a thousand years.