News & Politics

Marion Barry Still Doesn’t Have a Gravestone

Photograph by Hong Le.

“Mayor for life” Marion Barry is proving to be just as popular in death. Barry, who passed away in November, lies on a hillside in Congressional Cemetery in a grave that draws a constant stream of mourners, despite the fact that it still lacks a headstone. The four-term mayor, five-time DC Council member, civil-rights leader, and convicted felon is commemorated by a small laminated card attached to a rusted metal stake.

Barry’s demise left his family unprepared. The former mayor had come to Congressional during a previous health scare to scope out burial plots but never put down a deposit. After he died, the decision fell to Cora Masters Barry, his long-estranged wife. Paul K. Williams, president of Congressional, pointed her to the section that the cemetery’s files said her late husband had preferred. It has also taken the family the better part of a year to design and buy a headstone.

No matter: Williams estimates that as many as 20 plots have sold on the strength of Hizzoner’s presence. One went to the Reverend Willie Wilson, the fiery preacher at Anacostia’s Union Temple Baptist Church who organized the motorcade to ferry Barry from federal prison in Pennsylvania back to the District upon his release in 1992. Says Williams: “Barry has generated a lot of business for us.”

Barry’s grave sits along a pathway that would follow 19th Street, Southeast, if it extended through the cemetery. According to Williams, Barry chose the spot for its view of Anacostia, the seat of his unflinching power base. Any farther down the hillside and visitors would look out at the DC Jail, not a vista Barry would have relished.

If you make a pilgrimage to Congressional, you won’t be alone. Among the 68,000 residents beckoning tourists and other visitors are 160 members of Congress, onetime FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, and several Native American chiefs. There are also ten other DC mayors, though Barry might question their standing, as all of them predated home rule.

Like Barry’s supporters, people tend to congregate near their heroes. Musicians seek to be laid to rest near John Philip Sousa’s memorial. Photographers nestle close to Civil War chronicler Mathew Brady. So-called Architects’ Row started with Robert Mills, designer of the Washington Monument. Mary Ann Hall, whose brothel near the US Capitol was a haven for DC’s influential in the mid-1800s, still draws mourners who toast her with Piper-Heidsieck, her favored Champagne.

Barry is a fitting addition to this company. But as a man of the people, his choice of cemetery has also signaled that the historic burial ground is accessible to all.

“People think you have to be rich or famous to be buried here,’’ Williams notes. “But all you have to be is dead.”

This article appears in our September 2015 issue of Washingtonian.