Dust to Dust: A Guide to Green Burials at Congressional Cemetery Part Four

Over the course of the next few weeks, Congressional Cemetery will be sharing information about green burials and the funeral industry’s role in the sustainability movement. The fourth section, Part Four, discusses vegetation and pest management.

Vegetation and Pest Management

Aerating the soil after digging a grave and the nutrients released through the decomposition of the body can promote plant growth above the grave after a fresh burial. The surface soil, or humus layer, in forested and grassy areas can be removed in [mostly] intact sections and later replaced. This can reduce any damage to both the surrounding root systems and microbial colonies, while also encouraging healthy plant growth post-burial. Planting trees and shrubs is the most effective way to mitigate the potential uptake of decomposition materials. Tree roots can incorporate any viruses, bacteria, and heavy metals from the soil and store them in the woody plant tissue without causing any harm to the tree or surrounding soil. Additionally, tree roots can draw water up from the soil, which can lower the water table.

Groundskeepers and lawn mowers are at risk of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease and several other respiratory and neurological diseases through exposure to toxic pesticides and herbicides. Rotational grazing by sheep or goats has proven to be a successful technique at controlling weed and invasive species growth. At Congressional Cemetery, we have used goats to help remove weeds and invasive species, and we have plans to continue this practice in the future. We also do not use pesticides or herbicides due to the health risks the harsh chemicals have on dogs and humans alike. Using a brush hog, mowing the lawn, or undergoing prescribed burns are also used at green cemeteries to help control invasive species and weed growth.


A goat maintaining the grounds at Congressional Cemetery.

Creating an Integrated Pest Management system can be used to prioritize threats and ensure balance amongst the vegetation in cemeteries since green cemeteries strive to emphasize and restore the natural biodiversity. The Green Burial Council requires that a certified natural burial ground has an implemented Integrated Pest Management system in place that must be designed, operated, and maintained to create a naturalistic appearance of the landscape based on the strategic use of plants and materials native to the region and by adhering to localized patterns of landscape. Non-native and invasive plants will likely require a long-term management plan. Invasive species are a global concern and can have detrimental effects on ecosystem processes because they can transport diseases, interfere with natural reproductive processes, and damage other plant and animal species’ habitats. It is essential for green cemeteries to develop a monitoring and creating a regional-specific mapping plan that is compatible with catchment areas, feeding and watering routes, vegetation communities, soils, transitional zones, and travel corridors. The most effective way for green cemeteries to control unwanted animal species, including deer, groundhogs, and squirrels, is through modifying their habitat by making the area unappealing to the specific species. Other management options include using non-damaging traps and relocation systems, utilizing natural repellents such as chili peppers, using glue traps that can be dissolved in vegetable oil, the use of sonic nets, and fencing.


Webster, Lee, ed. Changing Landscapes: Exploring the Growth of Ethical, Compassionate, and Environmentally Sustainable Green Funeral Service. Green Burial Council International.

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Dust to Dust: A Guide to Green Burials at Congressional Cemetery Part Three

Over the course of the next few weeks, Congressional Cemetery will be sharing information about green burials and the funeral industry’s role in the sustainability movement. The third section, Part Three, focuses on burial containers.

Burial Containers

 One character defining feature of green burials includes the use of biodegradable caskets, urns, and shrouds. These can be made locally, which can result in a smaller carbon footprint. Additionally, coffins that are made exclusively out of a simple biodegradable wood from a renewable resource, such as pine, or the use of a cloth shroud can have financial benefits. Locally sourced wood is more sustainable because the wood does not have to be imported, which saves energy and reduces our carbon footprint because less fuel is used to transport the wood. Using locally crafted wood also financially supports local communities and craftsmen. Sometimes, people make their own caskets. For example, cardboard caskets or caskets made out of recycled paper are able to be used at some green burial grounds, including at Congressional Cemetery, as long as the caskets are sturdy enough to support the weight of the corpse. Some people choose to purchase carbon credits to offset the environmental effects of the selected container.

Forgoing a concrete vault is an opportunity to be more sustainable for coffin burials. A concrete vault is used to help maintain a level ground for mowing, minimize soil settlement, and prevent the grave from collapsing. Instead of using a concrete vault, extra dirt can be placed on top of the ground to help level out the soil, which makes lawn mowing easier and quicker. While concrete is made from natural resources, the mining, manufacturing, and transporting of concrete can result in environmental harm due to carbon emissions and because the production of concrete requires a lot of energy. Additionally, vaults create a barrier between the casket and the earth, which can extend the amount of time it takes for a body to decompose. While some people have expressed concerns about the health ramifications of forgoing the use of a concrete vault, there has been no evidence of any negative health consequences for coffin burials that do not have a vault. Additionally, green burial cemeteries undergo scientific tests and enforce parameters to ensure that water sources and surrounding infrastructure do not get contaminated. The soil itself also serves as a natural filter. On the other hand, cement is impermeable, and cement vaults were never intended to contain germs or chemicals.

Some people choose to minimize the use of heavy equipment, such as metal lowering devices. Bodies can be lowered to the ground through the use of straps or ropes, instead of using heavy equipment.

In a true green burial, casket and urn decorations should be biodegradable. Additionally, caskets should not be coated in polyurethane or stained with any petroleum-based product. The preferred natural darkening agent is linseed oil.

In a green burial, emphasis is placed on shrouds, urns, and caskets that are plant-based, recycled, natural, animal, or made out of unfired earthen materials. This includes the shell, liner, adornments, fasteners, and handles. Consumers should be mindful of finishes and adhesives on coffins and urns that can introduce toxic by-products into the ground. Many of these finishes and adhesives contain plastics, acrylics, and other synthetic polymeric materials. Look for products that have some form of green certification that backs up the claim to very that the product is truly environmentally friendly. Be mindful of greenwashing, which can have false misrepresentation or contain misleading information to consumers. The Green Burial Council created a verifiable set of eco-standards for cemetery operators, funeral homes, and product manufacturers. Material data sheets and life cycle analysis can also be used to verify the environmental benefits of various products.


The diagram illustrates the difference between a conventional coffin burial and a green coffin burial. Image courtesy of “Green Burial.” A Sacred Moment. Accessed September 28, 2017. https://www.asacredmoment.com/green-burial/.


Webster, Lee, ed. Changing Landscapes: Exploring the Growth of Ethical, Compassionate, and Environmentally Sustainable Green Funeral Service. Green Burial Council International.

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Dust to Dust: A Guide to Green Burials at Congressional Cemetery Part Two

Over the course of the next few weeks, Congressional Cemetery will be sharing information about green burials and the funeral industry’s role in the sustainability movement. The second section, Part Two, focuses on embalming and preserving a corpse.

Preserving a Corpse/Embalming

Embalming is used as a way for a corpse to be prepared by chemicals in order for a body to be preserved for extended viewing. The practice of embalming became popular during the Civil War, and it has been popular ever since. Surprisingly, embalming has not changed much over the past 100 years, and toxic chemicals, such as heavy metals and formaldehyde-based solutions, are still major components of the embalming practice. Many people are unaware that embalming is not required by law anywhere in the United States. Furthermore, all bodies eventually decompose after death, regardless of whether the body has been embalmed or not. With that being said, many people still choose to embalm their loved one’s body for viewing.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has identified formaldehyde, a main chemical used in embalming, as a human carcinogen that is dangerous to people. For example, inhaling formaldehyde can increase a person’s risk for myeloid leukemia and Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS), which is especially dangerous for employees who work in funeral homes. There are also concerns about the neurological and respiratory consequences of formaldehyde-based chemicals. Embalming fluids also contain phenols, methanol, and dyes. The strength of embalming fluid varies in strength from 5 percent to 50 percent, and the embalming fluid is typically introduced into the vascular system of the deceased person. In addition to embalming fluids, there are also topical sprays, gels, and powders that can are used to preserve a corpse.

Many embalming chemical companies have created formaldehyde-free fluids that can be utilized to preserve the body, which are both safer for employees who work in funeral homes and ultimately safer and better for the environment. Additionally, ‘green’ or eco-embalming fluid not only still preserves and disinfects the body, but it also helps clear discoloration of the corpse. The objective of eco-embalming is to delay the body’s natural decay process, not to stop it. Eco-embalming solutions have low fuming properties, but note that many of these embalming fluids are still toxic. There is only one embalming chemical company, The Champion Chemical Company, that produces a non-toxic embalming fluid, powder, and spray, which is approved by the Green Burial Council. The chemical, called the Enigma Eco-embalming chemical, is relatively safe to use and emits a vanilla or clove odor. The Enigma Eco-embalming fluid contains vanillic aldehyde, guaiacol, eugenol, and propylene glycol. Eco-embalming chemicals do not make the deceased body as rigid as traditional formaldehyde-based solutions, allowing families to keep the remains in an acceptable state for viewing for 2-3 days. An added benefit of using Eco-embalming fluid is that the chemicals will have a minimal impact on the earth.

There are other alternatives that can be used to help preserve the body. The National Home Funeral Alliance recommends the use of polymer refrigerants due to their long life, reusability, lack of off-gassing and condensation, size versatility, and ease of activation and use. The polymer refrigerant sheets can stay effective for up to 3-4 hours once activated. When the body cools, the time of effectiveness extends to the extent where the use of polymer refrigerants is no longer required.

Dry ice, the solid form of carbon dioxide, can also be used to help cool and preserve the body. An advantage of using dry ice is that it can reach a lower temperature than water ice and does not leave any residue. However, dry ice is extremely cold and sublimates into carbon dioxide gas. Dry ice should also not be handled without the use of protective gloves. While carbon dioxide is not toxic, it can build up pressure and change the chemistry of the air so there is a lower percentage of oxygen in the room. The body absorbs most of the cooling from the dry ice during the first day of use, so dry ice does not necessarily always need to be used on the second day. However, dry ice will likely need to be used on the third day.

An Australian company has created a nontoxic, FDA-approved product called Techni-ice, which is reusable, safe to use at home, and will not emit any carbon dioxide.

Other alternatives include: opening windows, relying on refrigeration, or using air conditioning to preserve the body. The temperature required to keep a body from decaying above ground for three days before a burial is 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Before the Civil War, people used the colder temperatures to help preserve the body after death. An extra benefit for these alternatives is that these options are generally less expensive than embalming.


Webster, Lee, ed. Changing Landscapes: Exploring the Growth of Ethical, Compassionate, and Environmentally Sustainable Green Funeral Service. Green Burial Council International.

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Dust to Dust: A Guide to Green Burials at Congressional Cemetery Part One

Over the course of the next few weeks, Congressional Cemetery will be sharing information about green burials and the funeral industry’s role in the sustainability movement. The first section, Part One, serves as an introduction to the topic.

Each year in the United States, 22,500 traditional cemeteries put the following into the ground:

  • 827,060 gallons of embalming fluid
  • 30-plus million board feet of hardwoods
  • 90,272 tons of steel
  • 1,636,000 tons of reinforced concrete
  • 14,000 tons of steel
  • 2,7000 tons of copper and bronze

Furthermore, a typical ten-acre American cemetery has enough casket wood to make forty houses, at least nine hundred tons of steel from caskets and casket hardware, twenty thousand tons of vault concrete, and enough embalming fluid to fill a small swimming pool. Since Congressional Cemetery is composed of roughly 35 acres, take those numbers and multiple them by 3.5 to understand approximately how much wood, steel, concrete, and embalming fluid is under the ground at Congressional Cemetery.

Conventional burials, which typically include: preserving a corpse through the practice of embalming, public viewing at a funeral home, transporting a corpse to a funeral home and a cemetery, and a casket burial, have numerous lasting negative effects on the environment. For instance, greenhouse gas emissions are produced by the use, manufacture, and transportation of embalming fluids, caskets, grave liners, and the frequent mowing of cemetery lawns. Metal caskets are a major concern in acidic soils due to the threat of leaching heavy metals, specifically iron, copper, lead, and zinc, into the surrounding ground and water sources. Wood caskets often consist of preservatives, varnishes, and sealants, many of which contain arsenic and other harmful chemicals. Vaults made out of concrete, fiberglass, and asphalt, all of which are pollutants, also off-gas and leach pollutants. Furthermore, the harvesting, manufacturing, processing, and transportation of casket and vault materials also contribute to high energy use.

The process of cremation, which is becoming increasingly popular in the United States, is considered to be not as harmful for the environment when compared to conventional burials. Cremated remains, or “cremains,” are bones that have been processed into tiny particles after cremation. The process of cremation removes organic matter and bacteria from the bone, thus stopping the body’s natural decomposition process. Ultimately, bones become stabilized and do not change when the cremains are scattered.

Cremations release greenhouse gasses and other toxic chemicals into the environment. For instance, each cremation releases between .8 and 5.9 grams of mercury per cremated body. This totals to between 1,000 to 7,800 pounds of mercury released annually in the U.S. 75% of this mercury goes into the air and the remaining 25% of the mercury settles into the ground and water sources. Cremated remains consist of elements essential for plant and microbial life, including: nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, calcium, magnesium, sulfur, and sodium. However, there is no probiotic potential for any of the elements in cremains due to high levels of sodium and a high alkaline pH of 11.8. Additionally, the average cremation uses 28 gallons of fuel to burn a single body, which emits about 540 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. A person could drive about 4,800 miles on the same amount of energy that it takes to cremate one person. Essentially, the chemical properties of cremains can minimize or prevent the natural nutrients found in bones from becoming active in the environment because ashes in their natural form are toxic to plants. Despite the environmental consequences of cremations, the Green Burial Council still recognizes cremation as a green burial option.

In the U.S., we have a growing consciousness about the importance of living sustainably and making environmentally friendly decisions. But what about after life?

Do not fear—green burials are here! While there is a limited number of green cemeteries in the United States, we are proud that Congressional Cemetery is an active green cemetery.

But what exactly is a green cemetery? A green cemetery is a cemetery that allows green burials. The main objective of a green cemetery is to create an environment that appears and functions like a natural environment. Green burials have many characteristics including: disposing of a corpse without using formaldehyde-based embalming; foregoing the use of environmentally harmful concrete burial vaults; utilizing a locally sourced and biodegradable shroud (a cloth used to wrap around a corpse), casket or urn; minimizing heavy and large equipment for burial and landscaping; reducing the use of gas-powered equipment, such as lawn mowers, fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides; encouraging native plant growth; using natural means of weed and pest control, such as the use of goats or burning; and maintaining a gravesite that is marked with an engraved fieldstone or no stone at all. Some green cemeteries let native plants grow freely in the field to reduce the amount of fossil fuels required for mowing and maintaining the lawn. Regardless, with green burials, people tend to make efforts to plant native species that capture carbon and beautify the surrounding landscape. It is important to note that each individual cemetery decides where they are on the spectrum of “green,” and no two “green” cemeteries are alike.

There are three main types of green cemeteries. A hybrid cemetery is part of an existing cemetery that scatters green burials amongst other burials or a cemetery that dedicates a section solely to green burials. Hybrid cemeteries offer the option of burial without the need for a vault, a vault lid, concrete box, slab, or partitioned liner. Additionally, hybrid cemeteries do not require embalming and allow for an array of eco-friendly burial containers. Congressional Cemetery is an example of a hybrid cemetery because we have green burials scattered throughout the cemetery.

Congressional Cemetery is an active hybrid cemetery, where green burials and conventional burials are scattered throughout the cemetery.

The second type of green cemetery is a natural cemetery, which is a new cemetery that exclusively utilizes and enforces green burial principles. Natural cemeteries typically take on two forms: an open grassed or wildflower meadow, and a woodland. Full body burials are recommended to take place only in a meadow or open grass setting because full body burials can be detrimental to the health and longevity of the trees and plants in woodland settings. Natural cemeteries require the implementation of energy-conserving practices, minimize waste, and do not require the use of toxic chemicals. Natural cemeteries do not allow the use of vaults, vault lids, concrete boxes, slabs, or liners. Furthermore, natural cemeteries prohibit the burial of people who have been embalmed and do not allow burial containers that are not made from natural or plant-based materials.


Photograph of a stone and burial in a natural cemetery. Photograph courtesey of: “Natural Burials: Questions & Burial Options.” BurialPlanning.com: The National Network of Cemeteries & Burial Lots. Accessed September 28, 2017. http://www.burialplanning.com/burial-types/natural-burials/.

The third type of green cemetery is the conservation cemetery, which a cemetery that teams up with land trusts and nature preserves to preserve the land from other types of development. A conservation cemetery must protect an area of land specifically for conservation, and it must include a conservation organization that possesses a conservation easement or has deed restrictions enforced.

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Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery is an example of a conservation cemetery. Photograph courtsey of: “Prairie Oaks Memorial Eco Gardens Offers Green Burials.” Whats New This Month from Natural Awakenings. Accessed September 28, 2017. http://www.natwincities.com/Twin-Cities/February-2014/Prairie-Oaks-Memorial-Eco-Gardens-Offers-Green-Burials/.

In a 2014 poll conducted by the Green Burial Council, 72% of families who choose a green burial were satisfied with their decision to undergo a green burial for their loved one.

Selected Glossary:

  • Conservation Burial Grounds: A type of cemetery that is established in conjunction with a conservation organization and protects the land through deed restrictions or conservation easements
  • Conventional Cemetery: A cemetery that requires the use of a concrete or fiberglass grave liner and a hard-bottom casket
  • Cremation: The process of reducing a corpse to bone fragments and ashes through the use of high heat
  • Ecologically Appropriate Features: natural elements of the landscape, including: rocks, water features, native vegetation, and un-vegetated ground
  • Embalming: the process of removing blood and other bodily fluids from a corpse and inserting preservatives, surfactants, solvents, and coloration to slow decomposition and improve the look of a corpse for up to two weeks; organs are pierced and drained of fluid using a sharp tool (trocar) and waste is typically disposed of in a standard septic system or a municipal wastewater treatment plant
  • Embalming Fluid: a combination of chemicals including benzene, methanol, ethyl, alcohol, ethylene glycol, and formaldehyde.
  • Fieldstone: a naturally formed stone harvested from the earth, which can be engraved or left in its natural form
  • Green Burial: a burial system that allows full-body internment into the ground in a way that does not stop or inhibit the decomposition and decay process
  • Green Funeral: requires the use of nontoxic preservation techniques and organic materials that have minimal carbon footprints.
  • Green embalming/Professional Green Body Preparation: prioritizes non-invasive, natural means of cleaning and preparing the body for burial, sometimes with public visitations of un-embalmed bodies; a biodegradable, non-toxic, non-carcinogenic, and formaldehyde-free alternative to conventional embalming fluid
  • Green burial: full body internment into the ground in a way that promotes natural decomposition; three major character defining features include: absence of a vault, non-toxic preparation of the body, and use of containers made of organic materials.
  • Greenwashing: the act of deceptively marketing goods or services by hiding negative consequences the good or service has on the environment.
  • Hybrid Burial Ground: a conventional cemetery that offers the same aspects of a green burial throughout the cemetery or in a designated section
  • Integrated Pest Management System: a system where biological, cultural, mechanical, chemical, and physical factors are analyzed to create a long-term pest management plan that minimizes danger to people, property, and the environment
  • Invasive Plants: plant species that can damage native plants and change the surrounding ecological balance because they aggressively adapt to the environment or reproduce excessively
  • Life Cycle Analysis: the evaluation of the potential environmental impacts a particular product, process, or service has during its lifespan, including its extraction, production, manufacturing, distribution, consumption, and disposal
  • Life Cycle Costing: the evaluation of the economic possibilities of a product, good, service, or system over their useful lives by analyzing the costs of operation and maintenance
  • Meadow Burial: Burial in a field, where grasses are allowed to freely grow and the lawn is rarely mowed
  • Natural Burial Grounds: a cemetery that offers the character defining features of a burial ground and enforces protocols that conserve energy, minimize waste, and do not require the use of toxic chemicals
  • Natural Viewing: the viewing of an un-embalmed body
  • Restoration Ecology: the practice of renewing, restoring, or assisting in the recovery and management of degraded, deteriorated, destroyed, or damaged ecosystems or habitats
  • Restored Green Cemetery: an unused cemetery that has been purchased, deeded, gifted, or transferred to be repurposed through green burial
  • Shroud: fabric or cloth that is wrapped around a corpse for burial
  • Woodland Burial: a burial that occurs in a forest amongst the trees

Webster, Lee, ed. Changing Landscapes: Exploring the Growth of Ethical, Compassionate, and Environmentally Sustainable Green Funeral Service. Green Burial Council International.

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Adopt-a-Plot Program at Congressional Cemetery

The Adopt-a-Plot Program plays a key role in the preservation and beautification of Congressional Cemetery. Our program provides individuals, groups, organizations, and companies with the opportunity to play an important and active role in preserving, enhancing, and maintaining Congressional Cemetery’s landscape and grounds.

The objective of our Adopt-a-Plot program to get members of the local community in involved in efforts to revitalize and enhance the numerous cultural and historic resources found in the cemetery, restore the beauty of the grounds, and preserve the landscape for future generations.

Members of the Adopt-a-Plot program will be assigned a family plot to tend to throughout the year. The plots available to be adopted range in size from about ten square feet to up to five hundred square feet. Each of the plots that are available to be adopted are surrounded with a stone coping or a metal fence. If you wish to adopt a plot that does not have stone coping or a fence, then you are responsible for providing metal edging or a small fence to put around the plot to minimize damage to your adopted plot from the lawn mowers and dog walkers.

Volunteers will have access to a variety of gardening tools, water, mulch, and top soil. Our program is fairly flexible, but we ask that you do not plant any vines, invasive species, vegetables, fruits, or trees in the plot that you adopt. Additionally, we ask that no chemicals be used in your adopted plot except when the cemetery is closed to dogs on Saturdays from 10-3.

Please consider attending our Adopt-a-Plot Happy Hour event scheduled for September 28 from 6-8 to learn more about our Adopt-a-Plot program. If you wish to become involved in our Adopt-a-Plot program, please email Kymberly Mattern at kmattern@congressionalcemetery.org.



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A Runner’s Perspective: Dead Man’s Run

We could go on and on about why you should run Dead Man’s Run, a race which is now in its SEVENTH year. Caps lock because we can’t believe it either. But if you won’t take our word for it, we hope you listen to one of our veteran runners, Catherine Collins. She’s been running the race for five years and is of course registered for our 2017 run on October 7th. If you’d rather hear Catherine talk about Dead Man’s Run in person, she’ll be at the Pacers Clarendon Day Run chatting it up about how awesome DMR is. But if an evening 5k with beer, pretzels, and costumes in an actual historic cemetery doesn’t sound cool enough to you, well, we give up. For those of you on the fence, read below, and register today!

Congressional Cemetery Facebook page front page_Oct 3 2015_2

Catherine (#133) running her first Dead Man’s Run, as featured on our Facebook page.

How did you first hear about Dead Man’s Run?  I think I saw an announcement or something for it, but I remember thinking “OMG that is really cool, I totally gotta do it!”

 When was your first DMR? How many have you run?  My first one was in 2012, which I believe was year two of the run.  I have run in 5 races, with 2017 being my 6th.  🙂

All bibs

She saved all her bibs! Officially our favorite DMR runner.

 Costume or no costume?  My first year I ran it I didn’t have a costume ready and then the following year I wore the run t-shirt from 2012 and now I feel it’s a good luck charm and I love wearing it every year.  I would love to do a costume, but I am just not that coordinated to put together an outfit for the fun.  I have added kitten ears, devil ears, or glow sticks to try to add a little something, but I always know I have to work this around the t-shirt.


Catherine on the left.

 What’s your favorite costume that you’ve seen at a Dead Man’s Run?  I think the best was in 2014 when there was a man dressed as the Washington Monument under construction with lights!  He was in front of me in the race and he had cut out a small piece in the back, from the huge piece of cardboard he was wearing, so that his feet could move. However he kept hitting the cardboard with feet. I have always wondered if the 5k was the first time he tried the cardboard out or was there a practice run.


Yep, one of the best costumes ever!

 What’s your favorite part of this race, and what would you tell people who are considering running it?  There are so many reasons why I love this race.  Everyone’s attitude is amazing and they are there to have fun and be a little scared.  I love all the great costume ideas people come up and additionally the race route is great.  You get to run in the cemetery as well as along the Anacostia trail, plus the DJ is great and after the run you grab your pretzel, beer or water and have a little dance.

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Adventurer, Veteran, Secret Service Chief, Interrogator, and More: The Surprisingly Exciting Life of Col. William P. Wood

As I flipped through file folder upon file folder of mere death certificates and lengthy, obscure family histories, my eyes were immediately drawn in by an obituary sub-headline in one file: “LIFE A CONTINUOUS MELODRAMA.” The man behind the melodrama? Colonel William P. Wood, the rather multifaceted first chief of the Secret Service. While Wood isn’t exactly a household name, this seemingly somewhat salacious obituary, as much as I hate to admit it, pulled me in to inspect this character more than I probably would have otherwise. Another file in his folder described his life as being “the stuff of adventure books,” and it certainly wasn’t wrong. A brief run-down of his resume, according to his files, includes the following descriptors: Mexican war veteran, filibustero, ex-Catholic and Know-Nothing nativist, anti-slavery Unionist, friend of the Secretary of War, extractor of confessions of Lincoln’s assassination conspirators, first chief of the Secret Service, supposed survivor of assassination attempts, and counterfeit buster extraordinaire. Some of these titles and their descriptions in his obituaries seemed so ridiculous to me that I made it my mission to fact-check, and while some of these claims, like that he drilled men for John Brown’s raid and that he helped “hundreds” escape on the Underground Railroad, remain somewhat unsubstantiated, it’s clear that this man probably saw more action than Daniel Craig in a typical Bond movie.


A portrait from his file here at HCC.

Born in Alexandria, Virginia in 1820, Wood’s life reads like a condensed lesson in history from the Antebellum period through the early Gilded Age. He was still on the younger side at the onset of the Mexican War, in which he found himself in the command of the General Samuel H. Walker, Texas ranger (my unfamiliarity with the plotlines of popular Western TV shows led me to conduct a quick internet search to see if this is the same “Walker, Texas Ranger” that I’ve heard referenced before, and I was slightly dismayed that it wasn’t). Moving on from the Mexican War, Wood’s obituaries make some fascinating claims about his later semi-military adventures. Supposedly, Wood took part in William Walker’s filibuster expedition to Nicaragua in 1855. For those of you who are wondering why securing a legislative filibuster would require a vacation to Nicaragua, “filibuster,” at the time, referred to men who engaged in extralegal attempts at seizing Latin American and Caribbean territory in violation of neutrality laws. These men, their name deriving from the Spanish “filibustero” describing pirates, were almost universally acquitted by sympathetic juries despite the clearly dubious legality of their little adventures.


Colorized portrait of Walker, filibustero and rather flagrant outlaw.

Filibustering expeditions were the natural result of a popular cult of Manifest Destiny; men like Walker felt that they not only had a right to enter these sovereign countries and independently wage war, but also the responsibility for the greater cause of American expansion. Filibustering was, in many respects, intimately tied to the Southern cause in the years leading up to the Civil War. Pro-slavery groups like the Knights of the Golden Circle praised extralegal expansionism as a tactic to obtain more territory below the Missouri Compromise line of 36’30.’’ They knew that Southern expansion would result in the addition of more slave states and, of course, more representation of slaveholding interests in Congress. Moreover, some historians have argued that the country’s handling of filibustering contributed to the South’s decision to secede, as a preponderance of southerners saw President Pierce’s refusal to support an expedition by Narciso Lopez as a direct attack on slave interests.

With all of these filibustering facts taken into account, Wood’s supposed participation in this expedition makes his future activities and alignment with antislavery causes somewhat baffling. Perhaps he was just going through a brief political phase or simply desired adventure, because the Evening Star obituary also claims that Wood assisted in drilling John Brown’s men in preparation for his ill-fated raid on Harper’s Ferry, using tactical knowledge from the Mexican War. It claims that he could have possibly gone on to lead the raid, but he eventually opposed Brown’s plans, considering the scant likelihood that they would succeed. The obituary also claims he was active on the Underground Railroad at this time, helping “hundreds” escape northwards. While that number may certainly be inflated, there’s little doubt that he did participate on the Railroad, as his future endeavors in the Lincoln Administration demonstrate a clear devotion to the Unionist cause.

John Brown

A really impressive beard, ft. abolitionist hero John Brown, who Wood supposedly aided in military training.

Walker’s civilian life in DC leading up the Civil War features some similarly interesting contradictions, and his prewar experiences helped him to forge some of the connections that were key to his later successes in government. Supposedly, Walker was squarely affiliated with the “American Parties” in the years of their strength in the 1850s – otherwise known as the parties of the “Know-Nothings.” Reportedly born a Catholic, he distanced himself from his birth religion and embraced the nativist, anti-immigrant movement. The American Parties themselves are full of contradictions and conundrums, which certainly shortened their shelf-life as a viable political movement. Know-Nothingism drew supporters from both pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions, stitching them together with the common thread of a different breed of bigotry: xenophobia and anti-Catholicism.

The American Party behaved bizarrely, to say the least, when it came to national elections; it nominated Millard Fillmore for president despite his not aligning with their views, not expressing any desire to run, and not even being in the country at the time of his nomination. While Walker’s involvement in the Know-Nothing movement may not seem too contradictory on its face due to its significant anti-slavery contingency, figures like Lincoln, his future boss, recognized the philosophical incongruences. While he never publicly called the American Parties out, Lincoln once revealed his opinions in a private letter, stating that he did not understand how one could recognize the oppression of blacks in America but still seek to oppress foreigners and Catholics.

Nevertheless, Wood found employment in the Lincoln administration during the Civil War. His friendship with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, supposedly forged in the DC legal world, led Wood to his place as superintendent of the Old Capitol prison in Washington, DC. This prison was primarily full of all kinds of Confederate conspirators, from spies to blockade runners, and there he honed the interrogation tactics that would serve him well in his future career in the Secret Service. During the Civil War, Wood engaged in several dangerous activities at his own risk, including supposedly frequently disguising himself or allowing himself to be captured behind enemy lines to visit Union prisoners of war and deliver them Confederate currency and supplies. Another obituary claimed that he would oftentimes cross the Potomac with a group of scouts and set off a hail of bullets to deter Confederate encroachment towards DC. Whether these events are exaggerated or not, it’s clear that Wood was willing to put his life on the line to serve the administration – a trait that would make him a prime candidate for leading the Secret Service.

When the Secret Service was organized under the auspices of the Treasury Department, Lincoln chose Wood to lead its charge against counterfeiters and swindlers. While in modern times the Secret Service is primarily recognized for its bodyguard duties, its role in financial crimes, still extant to this day, was much larger in the 19th century. At the helm of the Secret Service, Wood successfully put the kibosh on some of the most successful counterfeiting schemes of his day; he was responsible for stopping William Brockway, a former chemistry student with copious knowledge on how to fake government bonds. Wood is also known for having secured documents needed to break the Credit Mobilier scandal, the infamous case of railroad-related graft that spawned the creation of modern insider-trading laws. His investigative work didn’t stop with financial crimes and counterfeit operations; Wood used his interrogation skills to extract confessions from Dr. Mudd, Mary Surratt, and Lewis Payne, infamous characters in Lincoln’s assassination.


Infamous (and somewhat scary looking) counterfeiter Brockway

While his track record in fighting financial crime was nearly impeccable, this did not lead to his own financial success; at his death, he was essentially impoverished, locked in a feud with Congress over rewards he was owed for his law enforcement operations.  Wood died on March 23, 1903, and was subsequently buried at Congressional Cemetery. His penury meant that he was stuck with a rather indistinguishable grave for a lengthy amount of time; his original grave marker simply included his last name. In 2001, members of the Secret Service banded together to ensure Wood could receive more appropriate honors for his service to the government and to the formation of the modern Secret Service. This led to a memorial ceremony, featuring the attendance of 5 former heads of the Secret Service as well as many active members, in which a newer, more distinctive headstone was dedicated.

wood gravestone

Wood’s newer headstone.

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Not Written in Stone or Bone

The staff here often refer to cemeteries as outdoor museums. Our “collection” on the grounds consists of over 14,000 headstones, each one in need of proper care and conservation, and each one has a written story to tell. Some stories are more detailed than others, but every headstone is a historical record that memorializes the interred individuals.

But what about the people who left their mark on Congressional Cemetery who are not memorialized in stone? The archives are full of people – both alive and dead – whose transient visits to the Cemetery are impossible to detect on the landscape. But, such is the power of place, and the importance of historical archives. It is more difficult to detect the unseen stories here because there are so many visible, tangible markers for past people and events. But by looking closely at the interment records, newspaper articles, and letters, it’s possible to peel back another layer of the past and discover a new dimension of Congressional Cemetery.


The Public Vault in happier times.

As any historic interpreter worth their salt will tell you, though, empty spaces can still speak volumes about the past.  We use our Public Vault quite often here for tours, cocktail parties, and lectures. Although the musty interior lends a definitively creepy vibe to our events, it’s still difficult to envision the hundreds of human remains that utilized the vault as a hotel room before heading to their permanent destinations, often to a grave in HCC. As is oft-recited on our tours, three presidents spent time in our Public Vault: Zachary Taylor, John Quincy Adams, and William Henry Harrison – who actually spent more time in the Public Vault than in the office of the President (yes, that’s one of our very favorite nerdy jokes here). But someone we really feel we can stake a claim to? Dolley Madison, former First Lady and widow of President James Madison. She spent over two years in the Public Vault before heading to the vault across the way, the Causten Vault, for nearly six years. Looking through HCC records, staff also discovered that Dolley had another First Lady join her in the Causten Vault for a few months – Lousia Adams, wife of John Quincy Adams.

Dolley and Louisa: friends in death?

The Public Vault records boast an impressive roster of names that often seem lifted from a U.S. History textbook, and it makes sense that a certain degree of pomp and circumstance accompanied them on their journey to the receiving vault. Congressional Cemetery was the final destination for numerous grand funeral processions in antebellum Washington, DC. The cenotaphs that dot the landscape mark and memorialize only a fraction of the Congressmen, Presidents, and other influential individuals who were a part of the funeral processions that ended here. Abraham Lincoln was a part of many funeral processions when he was both a Representative and President. Most notably, Lincoln was noted as the “Chief Mourner” for the women who perished in the Washington Arsenal explosion in 1864. But the list of pallbearers for national funerals is also impressive: the likes of Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John C. Calhoun show up on the list. Moreover, a few of the participants in the funeral processions would end up later being buried in the Cemetery, including Joseph Gales, owner of the National Intelligencer, a publication which recorded the details of many of these funeral processions.


Funeral Order of Procession for John Quincy Adams.

So what, you might say? Important dead people stayed at the cemetery for a bit, and more important people accompanied them on their journey. It might seem to be a natural fit and progression for a national cemetery to host impressive historical figures such as Lincoln and Dolley during funerals and in preparation for burials. But every once in a while something pops up in the records about Congressional Cemetery that has nothing to do with death. One of the more salacious historical happenstances is the affair between Philip Barton Key and Teresa Sickles, which tragically ended with Teresa’s husband, Dan Sickles, murdering Key. Key, whose father penned “The Star Spangled Banner,” was a notorious womanizer, but was a widower when he managed to woo Teresa Sickles. They conducted their affair all over the city of Washington, including Teresa’s home. But most notably, for this article anyways, they also frequented burial grounds for their illicit liaisons, including the cemetery on the east side of the city – Congressional Cemetery. Court records detailed the testimony of Teresa Sickles’ coachmen, who noted that “they would walk down the grounds out of my sight, and be away an hour or an hour and a half.”  Take from that what you will, of course.


The murder of Philip Barton Key – which did NOT happen at HCC.

These might all seem to be disparate and unrelated anecdotes, and perhaps they are. Congressional Cemetery’s history is overwhelming enough when you just take into account the thousands of interments here, much less any tangential history that happened to brush by during the Cemetery’s 210-year stretch. But there’s something to be said for attempting to understand and reconcile the history that is not inscribed on the monuments. This hallowed ground has been trodden by presidents and generals, scoundrels and statesmen, and these are only a few of the stories that pepper the landscape of our records and imaginations. The significance of Congressional Cemetery is much more than what is clearly visible. It has been touched by thousands of people, and will continue to be experienced and influenced for years to come. Within the course of a single year this Cemetery witnesses a multitude of events: daily dog walks, marriage proposals, runs, and of course, funerals. Through our records we get a glimpse of the past events that have shaped Congressional Cemetery, and they influence the way in which we view the present. We’re each a part of Congressional Cemetery’s story.

–Lauren Maloy, Program Director

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Adam Gurowski: A Polish Eccentric and Lincoln’s Intellectual Foe

When President Abraham Lincoln told his bodyguard about whom he feared potentially assassinating him the most, it wasn’t the disgruntled, Confederate-sympathizing actor John Wilkes Booth. Rather, it was a somewhat bizarre Polish man who had renounced his old citizenship, became a spokesman for tsarist autocracy in Russia, and ultimately moved to the United States and became an aggressive champion of the Radical Republican cause. This man was none other than Count Adam Gurowski, who calls Historic Congressional Cemetery his permanent home.


Count Adam Gurowski.

Gurowski was well-known in Washington for his bizarre behavior and strong convictions. According to LeRoy H. Fischer, he once held a DC firefighting brigade at gunpoint to get them to do their job faster; moreover, he challenged a Harvard professor to a duel early in his American career over a Hungarian history factoid, seemingly an overreaction to such a small conflict. While many who knew him well, such as Walt Whitman, considered him to be all bark and no bite, Lincoln was nevertheless discomfited by his eccentric airs. Beyond his personality, Gurowski’s frequent letters to Lincoln, in which he appoints himself as an advisor and rails about the administration’s missteps, and his vehement criticism of the administration in his infamous Diary publications certainly did not help his case. While Gurowski was ultimately more of an embarrassment than a threat, his behavior has led some to christen him “Lincoln’s Gadfly.”

Born in Poland to a noble family in 1805, he displayed a proclivity for political provocation early on in his life; a Russian duke had him expelled from his secondary school for displays of Polish nationalism. Despite this blip on his educational timeline, he went on to become a student of Hegel. Soon after, he returned to Poland and became involved in an uprising against Russian influence in the 1830s. While his importance within this movement has been a matter of debate among scholars, it was enough for the tsar to sentence him to death and confiscate his land while he was in Paris. This began a chain reaction of ideological transformations, though whether they were for protection from punishment or out of genuine conviction is difficult to prove. Gurowski abruptly declared that he was no longer Polish, publishing a pro-Russia tract won him favor in Nicholas I’s court. Now pardoned, he served as an advisor to the tsar on the Russification of Poland before yet again becoming disgruntled and leaving for Prussia. Ultimately, his dissatisfaction on the continent led him to the final leg in his migratory journey in 1849, to the United States.


A depiction of a young Gurowski, sans mutton chops.

Gurowski had incorrectly surmised that his previous experience teaching at Universities in Europe would make him a candidate for a professorship at Harvard. Gurowski soon found himself writing for the New York Tribune, owned by eccentric future presidential candidate Horace Greeley. From his post at the Tribune, Gurowski furiously attacked politicians such as Daniel Webster for holding conservative or moderate positions on slavery. In the meantime, he continued publishing pamphlets and tracts promoting pro-Russia sentiment during the Crimean War. Moreover, one of Gurowski’s most infamous acts at the Tribune included censoring anti-Russian content out of pieces by Marx and Engels; Marx himself referred to Gurowski as an agent of the tsar on more than one occasion. His continual support for the Russian state, despite his intellectual and personal falling out with Nicholas I’s regime, has led some scholars to conclude that his adoption of fervent Pan-Slavism was always more out of conviction than self-preservation.

Before too long, Gurowski found work in DC under Seward in the State Department, scanning European newspapers for articles of interest to the Lincoln administration. Ultimately, when he Published the first installment of his Diary, a series of tracts on his political opinions in which he served up biting criticism of the administration, Seward fired him and very publicly sued him for libel. While the libel case was ultimately dismissed, it further fueled Gurowski’s disgruntlement, leading to the publication of two more venomous Diary installments. As Gurowski’s political views continued shifting away from autocracy, his views on slavery became even more negative. Intellectually, Gurowski viewed America as the instigator of a new epoch in world history. He believed America would upend the trend of various uniform ethno-states replacing each other as world leaders with a new, multi-ethnic and multi-religious civilization, built on free enterprise and liberty – an impossible task to fulfill if an entire race was still oppressed.


A modern-day cover of a Gurowski Diary Installment.

Gurowski began arguing openly with politicians about slavery more and more: in his book America and Europe, an entire chapter was devoted to the evils of slavery, and his 1860 book Slavery in History posited that domestic slavery always led to the demise of the civilizations it infected. His abolitionist convictions led him to attempt to jump into action right away at the beginning of the Civil War: he was one of the first men to join an emergency battalion stitched together to defend DC against a potential Confederate attack, and he tried to convince Secretary of War Stanton to arm blacks before the administration was ready to do so.

While his early agitation in 1861 led General in Chief Winfield Scott and Seward to chide him, his anti-slavery activism would only increase throughout the course of the war; this led him to his most famous project, his advisory letters addressed directly to President Lincoln himself. These letters largely fell in line with the policy goals of Radical Republicans in Congress, who objected to Lincoln’s moderate approach to abolition, hesitancy about Confederate property confiscation, conservative generalship under the likes of McClellan and Halleck, and approach to Reconstruction. He continually trashed Secretary of State Seward, his former boss who sued him, even sending a letter on this topic to Lincoln’s wife: in one letter, he went as far as to claim that “Mr. Seward is held in utter contempt by…European diplomacy,” going on to characterize the official as a flip-flopper.  He also claimed in another that General McClellan, distrusted by Radicals for his cautiousness on the battlefield, was a “half ass traitor” whose generalship was contributing to the ruin of America. He continually attempted to persuade Lincoln to take to the field in command of his troops and create a European-style staff of military advisors that he, of course, wanted to be a member of.


Gurowski’s favorite “half-ass traitor” and a frequent target of his writing.

While it is unclear whether or not any of these letters actually made their way to the President’s desk, and Gurowski was certainly not unique in sending frequent unsolicited advice to the administration, his letters truly stand out because of their eccentric tone and the unique background of the man who wrote them. Lincoln would have no reason to desire to read Gurowski’s letters, especially as Gurowski became more venomous in his public attacks on the President: after the Battle of Fredericksburg, Gurowski said of Lincoln that “you cannot fill his small but empty skull with brains; and when in the animal and human body the brains are wanting, or soft or diseased the whole boy suffers or is paralyzed, so with the nation.” Despite Gurowski’s inability to actually affect war policy, his letters certainly enliven the memory of this bizarre figure in Washington history, whose funeral here in 1866 was said by Whitman to feature the presence of all prominent Radical figures in DC. He is buried in the family plot of Washington socialite Fannie Eames, who always welcomed Gurowski into her parlor for discussion with other Radical guests such as Charles Sumner and Julia Ward Howe and are said to have cared for him in his dying days.


Gurowski’s resting place, in the Eames family plot.


Fischer, LeRoy H. “Adam Gurowski and the American Civil War: A Radical’s Record.” Bulletin of the Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences in America 1, no. 3 (April 1943): 474-88.

Fischer, LeRoy H. “Lincoln’s Gadfly – Adam Gurowski.” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review 36, no. 3 (Dec 1949): 415-434.

Liguori, Sister M. “The Pole Who Wrote to Lincoln.” Polish American Studies 10, no. 1-2 (January – June 1953): 1-12.

Walicki, Andrzej. “Adam Gurowski: Polish Nationalism, Russian Panslavism and American Manifest Destiny.” The Russian Review 38, no. 1 (Jan 1979): 1-26.

Wieczerzak, Joseph W. “Review: SOME FRIENDLY SWIPES AT ‘LINCOLN’S GADFLY’: Lincoln’s Gadfly, Adam Gurowski, (Winner of the $5,000 Literary Award of the War Library and Museum and the Pennsylvania Commandery of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States) by LeRoy H. Fischer.” The Polish Review 10, no. 1 (Winter 1965), 90-98.

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And You Thought I Was Done with Introductions: Meet Our New Grounds Conservation Manager, Kymberly Mattern

Now that our previous Grounds Conservation Manager, Daniel Holcombe, has moved on to a new job, it’s time to welcome our new one, Kymberly Mattern! This Northern Virginia native recently moved back to the region upon completing her graduate studies. She studied History and Women’s and Gender Studies at Juniata College, which she described as a “really, really, really” small school in central Pennsylvania, before going on to receive a joint MS in Historic Preservation from Clemson and College of Charleston in May.  It was great to sit down and talk with not only a colleague, but also a fellow history lover, and I’m excited to share with you what she had to say.


Kymberly Mattern.

Kymberly has had quite a bit of experience in the field so far. Over the course of Summer 2016, she had an internship with United Building Envelope Restoration (or “UBER” – not to be confused with the ride-sharing app, as I briefly did when she first mentioned it), in which she did restoration work on Lorton Reformatory. Any of you reading from Fairfax County probably know exactly where she was working: it’s the historically-significant former Laurel Hill prison, where women protesting for political rights were jailed. Kymberly did a lot of hands-on work in this adaptive reuse project, laying bricks and pointing mortar and identifying areas that needed further restoration work, among other tasks.

Another past project she was excited to talk about was work she did on the Fireproof Building in Charleston as part of an advanced conservation class. She gave me quite a fun fact about the building that ties into DC history: it was built by Robert Mills, who designed the Washington Monument and is buried here in Congressional Cemetery! On this project, Kymberly worked with brownstone – an uncommon treat to work with in the South – and also was responsible for testing a chemical product’s effectiveness at removing stucco. These experiences have further solidified her interest in preservation, and we can’t wait to see how they translate into her work at the Cemetery.

fireproof bulding

The Fireproof Building, image courtesy of nps.gov.

Kymberly was led to this position at the Cemetery by her long-held interests. She described her high school-self as loving both houses and history, and historic preservation was the perfect avenue to combine her love for the built environment and for the historic. Moreover, for her, it’s more than just a preservation job; she’s always been interested in cemeteries, places where she can wander around and look at stones, imagining people’s lives and what their experiences must have been like. There’s also an element of empathy to her love for working in a cemetery. She told me that oftentimes, there isn’t really anyone around to take care of peoples’ old stones, and she sees her work as an opportunity to preserve the memories of those whose memories risk being lost. Finally, she stated that it’s not that often that people with a deep interest in cemeteries stumble into an actual job in a historic cemetery and that they often only get to volunteer. For Kymberly, it seems like this makes the job even more of a unique opportunity!


Kymberly in action, with Air Force volunteers working to reset a stone.

As she takes over as Grounds Conservation Manager, Kymberly hopes to focus mostly on restoring stones and structures; while she will also do some of the landscaping work, she expressed that she hopes to focus more on the built aspects of the Cemetery. Ultimately, she’s looking forward to uncovering more of the history of the people in the cemetery and events that people are associated with. I’ll leave you all with a quote from our interview that I think perfectly sums up why all of us at the Cemetery are so excited and passionate about our work: “There are 65,000-plus people commemorated out there, and every single person has a story to tell.” I look forward to seeing what Kymberly can do to help uncover these stories. As usual, if there’s anything you want to hear about in the near future, please don’t hesitate to comment!

-Katelyn Belz, Programming, Writing, and Research Intern


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