Five Historic Cemeteries

Five Historic Cemeteries

These graveyards offers deathly curiosities and a taste of the macabre

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Oak Hill Cemetery in Washington, D.C., is the burial spot for many notable Washingtonians.

The Mount Olivet Cemetery in Frederick, Maryland, seems an unlikely spot for a vocabulary lesson, especially after dark. But that’s where I learned about taphophobia—the fear of being buried alive—from historian Chris Hough, who leads nighttime tours of the cemetery with a swinging lantern in hand. During the Victorian era, Hough explained, people were sometimes buried with a cord inside their caskets as a safeguard in case they weren’t really dead. If they happened to wake up, they could pull on the cord to ring a small bell hanging above their grave. The practice may have given rise to the expressions “dead ringer” and “saved by the bell.”

Old cemeteries are steeped in history of all kinds, from the colorful to the solemn—especially in Maryland and Virginia, where you can find the final resting places of presidents and spies, war heroes and assassins. The fall is prime time for visiting, as many cemeteries offer special tours around Halloween.

Christ Church Cemetery

Alexandria, Virginia

Although a thousand people lie buried around Christ Church, only a few dozen tombstones stand in the historic graveyard today, beckoning passersby to read their fading letters. Why the discrepancy? Many of those buried here could not afford a marker. It’s also believed that some gravestones were stolen and used to pave the walkways of houses in Old Town.

The tombstones make for fascinating, if brief, reading. George Mumford’s slate marker states that he died in 1773; his birthplace is given as “New London in the Colony of Connecticut.” A macabre poem marks the final resting place of Sarah Wrenn, who died in 1792: “All you who come my grave to see, As I am now you soon will be. Prepare and turn to God in time, For I was taken in my prime.”

The headstone for actress Anne Warren, who died a decade later in 1808, strikes a much less dour note. Part of the long inscription reads, “By her loss the American stage has been deprived of one of its Brightest Ornaments. The unrivalled excellence of theatrical talents was surpassed by the mighty virtues and accomplishments which adorned her private life.”

While you’re visiting the graveyard, step inside the church itself for a quick tour. Both George Washington and Robert E. Lee attended services here, and tour docents will let you sit in George Washington’s former box pew.

Christ Church Cemetery
118 N. Washington St., Alexandria; 703-836-5258,  

Open during daylight hours, with free tours of the historic church available Monday-Saturday 9 a.m.-4 p.m., and Sunday 2-4 p.m. Gift shop is open Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m.-4 p.m., and Sunday 9 a.m.-noon.

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Oak Hill Cemetery

Washington, D.C

The tombstones of Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery read like a Who’s Who of early Washington. That’s no accident. When philanthropist and art collector William Corcoran founded Oak Hill in 1849, a movement to create garden-like cemeteries with winding paths and expansive views was sweeping the country, and Oak Hill soon became a fashionable place to be buried. James Renwick, architect of the Smithsonian Castle, was even hired to design the cemetery’s miniature Gothic chapel.

When Abraham and Mary Lincoln’s son Willie died of typhoid in 1862, his prayer service was held in the chapel and his casket was temporarily placed in the Carroll family mausoleum at Oak Hill (William Carroll was then clerk of the U.S. Supreme Court) before it was returned to Springfield, Illinois.

During the Civil War, Lincoln would occasionally sit in a rocking chair in front of Willie’s resting place, looking out over Rock Creek below. (Ironically, Jefferson Davis’ son was buried in Oak Hill around the same time, although Davis was unable to visit during the war.) Other Civil War notables interred here include Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and attorney Frederick Aiken, who defended Mary Surratt at her trial for aiding and abetting in Lincoln’s assassination. Aiken’s tombstone is inscribed with the elegant opening words of his defense. (The 2011 film The Conspirator focused on Aiken’s role in the trial, with James McAvoy starring as the young attorney).

The most romantic story in Oak Hill may belong to Union Gen. Joseph Willard and his wife, Antonia Ford Willard, a Confederate spy. It’s said that she and the general fell in love while he was escorting her to prison. The two were married in 1864, after which Willard returned to the family business, D.C.’s Willard Hotel.  

Their son, Joseph E. Willard, served as U.S. ambassador to Spain and is also buried in Oak Hill, where his grave is marked with an Augustus Saint-Gaudens sculpture of an angel. The artwork, valued at over $100,000, was stolen from the cemetery in 1985. After an article about the theft appeared in The New York Times, the sculpture was recovered by police and returned to Oak Hill in 1986.

Oak Hill Cemetery
3001 R St. NW, Washington, D.C.; 202-337-2835,

Open Saturdays 11 a.m.-4 p.m., Sundays 1-4 p.m., and weekdays 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Cars allowed weekdays only (no holidays) on cemetery grounds. A large printed map (usually available at the entrance for $3) is handy for touring the cemetery, although you can also find a map on the website. There are no formal tours, but the historic chapel is often open to visitors on weekends.

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