The Presbyterian Cemetery and Columbarium in Alexandria has had a good relationship with dog-walkers for years. The cemetery embraced its popularity as a place for neighbors to exercise their dogs, a situation cemetery superintendent David Heiby describes as a “win-win”: Dog-owners would serve as a kind of on-site security, alerting him to problems like a broken water main, and many of them donated to the cemetery. Some even volunteered their labor during upgrades.
Then came Covid-19. With widespread regional closures of parks and dog parks, word got out about Presbyterian’s open-dog-door policy. On Sundays, Heiby says, he’d see 40, 50, even 60 dogs at a time. “The unfortunate reality is the cemetery can’t handle that kind of volume,” Heiby says. He saw Maryland and DC license plates among the dog-walkers’ cars, and when he tried to encourage social distancing by stationing himself along the path and reminding people to stay six feet apart, people would yell back angrily at him. After he asked one particularly disruptive family to leave, they returned and threatened to have him arrested. Walkers and cyclists crowded the cemetery’s paths. He saw some people bathing in the facility’s water spigots.
So last Monday, the cemetery announced on Facebook that it would limit vehicle access. It didn’t solve the problem. “It’s like, okay, enough is enough,” Heiby says. “This thing brought out the worst and best of people.” So last Thursday, the cemetery announced it would close to all but burials and visits to loved ones, which must take place by appointment now.
Heiby says he’s sad about the closure: “I enjoy interacting with the people, their dogs,” he says. He likes the history groups that come through. A local dog-walking group he’s in touch with has been supportive of the closure. The cemetery will take this time to make some upgrades and replant grass, he says. He’s thinking of reopening the cemetery for Mother’s Day, a popular day to visit loved ones. But when it was open to all, he says, it just became “gobsmacked with people.” He hopes to open when the crisis eases, but for now, he says, “We have to make adjustments.”