WASHINGTON — He had bounded, tongue lolling, past chalk-white headstones and weathered obelisks and poked his snout into the pool of still water on Mausoleum Row. But when he came at twilight to Congressional Cemetery’s south end, a lonely bottomland packed with the remains of dead children, even Oliver the dog slowed his gait to a contemplative stroll.
“It just makes me really happy to be able to see him run around like this,” said Claudia Rauch, a 36-year-old resident who works in marketing. “My mom’s from New Orleans, and there’s just sort of a tradition there of cemeteries being really cool places.”
Rauch and her brindle lab mix had just been admitted to what in recent years has become one of Washington’s most exclusive clubs: Congressional Cemetery’s K9 Corps, a group of about 600 people and 770 dogs with privileges to freely roam the cemetery’s 35 acres. The pair had come off a waiting list of 500 with an average wait time of three to four years.
Congressional Cemetery was established in 1807 on the west bank of the Anacostia River. Its permanent occupants – including J. Edgar Hoover, Marion Barry and Vice President Elbridge Gerry, namesake of gerrymandering – lack the luster of the presidents and astronauts buried five miles away at Arlington National Cemetery.
But if it is still not a top-tier destination for the dead, Congressional has become fashionable among the dog-loving living to an extent its founders could not have dreamed.
In a city where a booming economy and population have brought demographic changes, it is perhaps a sign of changing tastes that the K9 Corps has instituted a $75 wait-list fee to thin out applicants while some elite social clubs of old Washington are atrophying.
Once admitted, members pay between $285 and $385 annually, depending on how many dogs they own and must periodically volunteer, said Paul Williams, president of the Association for the Preservation of Historic Congressional Cemetery.
“I can walk my dog here at 7 o’clock at night, in the dark, and I feel perfectly safe,” said Susan Urahn, 60, a member of the K9 Corps who serves on the cemetery’s board. “I mean, where can you do that?”
Some of these dog walkers, like parents who apply to ultra-competitive preschools before their children are born, have reserved spots before adopting a dog. Such was the strategy for Brynn Barnett, who anticipated how her neighborhood cemetery would eventually appeal to her Cavachon, Harley.
“I knew I was getting a dog,” said Barnett, who joined in 2011. “I didn’t want to miss my opportunity, so I went ahead and signed up.”
Today, facing extended waits, applicants sometimes opt to repeatedly pay a $10 entrance fee that allows nonmember dogs access for the day.
These hopeful souls can be found wandering in the gloaming at Congressional Cemetery, following the flitting shapes of dogs between the cenotaphs, unsure of how much longer they must dwell in wait-list limbo.
“I get the feeling we didn’t make it this year,” Wes Ammerman, a 29-year-old employee of a health-care consulting firm, said as Skylla, his Australian Cattle Dog mix, padded into the darkness ahead. “My last hope was that it maybe got sent to our spam filter if they emailed me.”
This month, K9 Corps members – including a few fresh off the wait list – were gathering in the cemetery chapel for their annual orientation session.
The crowd, ranging from lower-to-late middle age, was what one might expect at an independent film festival or farm-to-table restaurant; the agenda included vaccination rules and protocols for reporting dogfights.
K9 Corps Committee head Stephen Brennwald, a criminal defense lawyer, admonished the crowd to play it straight on the latter front. “I tell my clients, ‘Just tell the truth,’ ” Brennwald said. “Tell the truth, tell us what you know about it and we will be fair.”
The K9 Corps originated in the late 1970s, when a small group of residents began walking their dogs as a kind of informal citizens’ patrol in what was then a derelict property owned by Christ Church, Williams said. The church still owns the cemetery, which is managed by the nonprofit.
The group began tending grave sites and donating money for the cemetery’s upkeep. But it has only been over the past several years that its popularity exploded.
Other offbeat initiatives have been launched to gin up interest in Congressional Cemetery, such as an on-site beekeeping operation that generates the “Rest in Bees” line of honey and a “Notes from the Crypt” series of chamber music concerts.
But the dog club is the most prominent – and lucrative – component of the cemetery’s renaissance. Last year, club dues and wait-list fees totaled $216,000, nearly one-quarter of the cemetery’s annual revenue and almost as much as was brought in by the sale of grave plots.
Williams said cemetery caretakers from across the country approach him at industry conferences, perplexed and fascinated by the unusual coexistence of dogs and the dead.
“They’re initially very skeptical. They’re like, ‘We ban dogs. We don’t even allow photographs. No way,’ ” Williams said. “And then they see the finances, and their heads start spinning.”
The arrangement at Congressional Cemetery could scarcely have been foreseen by our ancestors, who took a very different view of graveyard propriety, according to Raymond Coppinger, a professor emeritus of biology at Hampshire College who has studied the evolution and history of domestic dogs.
Indeed, some aspects of burial rituals were probably developed to prevent canine scavengers from digging up and feasting on corpses, thus impeding the passage of the deceased into the afterlife, Coppinger said.
“The reason our religious ancestors had us buried six feet underground, and put us in vaults or boxes, is so that dogs couldn’t eat us,” he said. “They’re famous all over the world for eating dead bodies.”
The fear of being eaten by dogs is something of a fixation in ancient literature: Priam, king of Troy, spends many lines of the Iliad giving vent in vivid terms to anxieties about being devoured by his pets when his city falls to the Greeks.
“Homer was obsessed with dogs,” Coppinger said.
More than 3,000 years later, some still side with the blind bard in disapproving of dogs on the loose near our mortal remains. Even leashed dogs are banned from 300-year-old Rock Creek Cemetery in Petworth, cemetery manager Carlton Carpenter said.
“Do you want somebody’s dogs to do their business on the graves of your children or parents? Because that’s what’s unfortunately happening, or being allowed to happen,” said Joe Davis, national spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, which last year weighed in on a successful push to ban dogs from Rhode Island’s veterans cemetery. “It comes down to judgment. It comes down to character.”
Even at dog-friendly Congressional Cemetery, rules are in place to preserve its identity as hallowed ground. Humans must pick up after their pets. Balls and Frisbees are not allowed. Since 2015, when several dogs romped through a memorial service, animals have been barred entry during funerals.
“It’s not a dog park. It’s a cemetery,” Barnett said.
The K9 Corp’s four-legged members sometimes seem alert to that reality. As Rauch and Oliver walked past the section of Congressional known informally as “Babyland” – where children who died during the 1918 influenza pandemic were buried – the dog stopped to survey the grave markers, his form silhouetted by the winter skyline’s burnt-orange glow.
But memento mori have little hold on the mind of an unleashed canine, and Oliver soon loped into the next field, stopping to lift a hind leg along the way.