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A Walk Through Congressional Cemetery
Comments () | Published May 19, 2011

Just when it seems the cemetery has crossed over into absurd symbolism, you come across the inscription on the headstone of William Miller, age one year, four months: PARENTS, FOR ME DO NOT LAMENT. I WAS NOT YOURS, BUT ONLY LENT.

Tom Lantos, who died three years ago, is one of the most recent members of Congress to be buried at the cemetery.

Representing San Francisco, he was pro-choice, pro–gay rights, creator of human-rights committees, an advocate for international justice—he was also the only Holocaust survivor to serve in Congress.

Then there’s Leonard Matlovich, the first openly gay serviceman, buried in a hollow beneath a cherry tree. When he came out of the closet in 1975, it was a national news story, covered by the networks, trumpeted on the cover of Time. He was discharged from the Air Force and later died of AIDS. Matlovich designed his tombstone, which reads: WHEN I WAS IN THE MILITARY THEY GAVE ME A MEDAL FOR KILLING TWO MEN AND A DISCHARGE FOR LOVING ONE.

Perhaps what’s most striking about Matlovich’s resting place is the gravestones nearby: They have dates of birth but not of death. These stones are placeholders for men and women young and healthy who want to spend their eternal rest next to their hero.

Also near Matlovich is the grave of Clyde Tolson, J. Edgar Hoover’s longtime companion. Tolson’s family didn’t want him next to Hoover and insisted on a spot 30 yards down the hill from him. Matlovich took the one next to him.

Lieutenant Dan Choi, the outspoken gay serviceman who became the face of the push to end the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, came by early in the morning on Veterans Day last year to pay his respects. He spent the better part of an hour cleaning off Matlovich’s grave. Then he went to the White House to get arrested. A month later, “don’t ask, don’t tell” was on its way to history.

Thirteen Native American tribes have members buried here, more than in any other place in the world.

“This one is beautiful. Taza, Cochise’s son,” says Terri Maxfield, the cemetery’s office manager, when I visit Congressional again. Maxfield leads me to a grave fronted by a carved head with features reminiscent of a sphinx, elegant and lonely, near a towering evergreen.

We walk across a ridge. “And here is Push-Ma-Ta-Ha, a Choctaw Indian who came to Washington in the 1820s seeking the debt owed to his nation by the government,” Maxfield says. The gravestone notes that Push-Ma-Ta-Ha’s deathbed wish was that the “big guns be fired over me.” The wish was granted. The debt was not paid.

Here is Scarlet Crow. Kidnapped and murdered.

Yellow Wolf—died a month after meeting Mary Lincoln.

Peter P. Pitchlynn, chief of the Choctaw nation, of whom Charles Dickens said in 1841: “He was a remarkably handsome man, as stately and complete a gentleman of nature’s making as ever I beheld.” Pitchlynn pressed for Choctaw claims for decades, with almost no success.

Maxfield tells me she moved to Washington a few years ago and was blindsided by the pace: “You get to thinking politics is the only thing that matters. And then you come here to the cemetery. And there’s something . . . .” She trails off. We’re looking down the hill, over the grave of Push-Ma-Ta-Ha, and past him, at Matlovich’s memorial under a cherry tree.

“Honor,” Maxfield says. “That’s what this place has. It honors people. Even those who had everything taken away from them.”

The flat unbroken rows, the long planed fields, the burial ground as museum—with the same rules not to run, touch, or talk too loudly. Arlington National Cemetery changed everything, Maxfield says. Before it opened in 1864, cemeteries were places where families gathered to play and picnic and toast the departed. Death was a little less scary, a little more part of life.

Congressional Cemetery was built along this older, friendlier model. Burial plots are for sale, Maxfield adds, a thousand of them.

Next: Last lessons from the Congressional cemetery

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Posted at 10:05 AM/ET, 05/19/2011 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles