The 86 acres of the Rock Creek Cemetery — one of the oldest in the area, dating back to 1719 — cover rolling hills and gentle slopes. If you’re a tombstone tourist, like I am, then this cemetery is a worthy day trip destination. The cemetery started as 100 acres of land donated by Colonel John Bradford in 1719 for a church and burial ground: St Paul’s Episcopal Church. (Nearby New Hampshire Avenue took up 14 of those acres.) Then, in 1840, an Act of Congress designated the grounds as a public cemetery for the city of Washington.
There are many interesting interments and tombstones inside this cemetery. Bonus for the taphophiliasts among us: it’s just across the street from another equally interesting cemetery. The U.S. Soldiers Home National Cemetery is one of the first national cemeteries to be created. Both are located in the Northeast neighborhood of Fort Totten in Washington DC.
Built in 1775, the episcopal church incorporated parts of an older church built in 1719.
The expanded cemetery is landscaped in the Victorian rural garden cemetery style: both a cemetery and a public park. Walking the grounds of this cemetery felt as if I were walking through an outside art museum. It really is a shame that more people don’t consider visiting cemeteries for the enjoyment of the outdoor space as well as to enjoy the sculpture.
Interesting Stones, Interesting Stories
There were contemporary stones that were striking, in particular the butterfly tombstone of Kerrice Lashe Lewis, who was tragically and horrifically murdered, first shot and then burned alive in the back trunk of her car, most likely a hate crime.
But I was also struck by the Colbert family tombstone, a bronze sculpture depicting a young woman pushing stone away to emerge fully, much as in death we push away our physical being to emerge as spirit.
And then there is the hopeful dove taking flight from the roiling waves of life, marking the resting place of George Koropoulos.
I definitely am that weird woman peering into all the mausoleums, hoping to catch a glimpse of the stained glass windows that usually adorn these places. I am sad the beauty of these windows is little appreciated by the inhabitants. But yes, yes, in fact, I’m always grateful when nothing else peers back at me!
The Mystery of the Hereafter
One of the best-hidden gems in the cemetery is the Adams Memorial in honor of a photographer. You’ll know you stumbled upon it when you see a circle of well-kept bushes. A small path leads inside the eerie memorial, sometimes mistakenly referred to as Grief, by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. While you’re there, perhaps sitting on the bench provided for quiet contemplation of the androgynous bronze sculpture and the mysteries of life and death, you’ll likely start experiencing feelings of despair. Or so goes the legend.
The memorial marks the graves of photographer Clover Hooper Adams and her husband, Henry Adams. The sculptor had called it The Mystery of the Hereafter and The Peace of God that Passeth Understanding. The sculpture captures Adam’s feelings about Clover’s tragic suicide and his grief.
Legends of hauntings abound over this particular sculpture: Clover’s presence is often felt there. There are even ghost sightings and similar feelings of despair at a replica of the statue called Black Aggie that was once located in Druid Ridge Cemetery in Baltimore.
Not far from the Adams Memorial is the Heurich mausoleum, decorated by four female figures at each corner of the mausoleum. The famed stained glass artist Tiffany created the window in the back of the mausoleum. The patriarch of the family, Christian Heurich (1842–1945), immigrated from Germany to the United States in 1866 and soon founded the Christian Heurich Brewing Company in DC, from which the family made its millions.
If you’re looking for a striking mausoleum, check out the door on the Sherwood mausoleum. This bronze, art deco sculpture depicts a figure opening — or perhaps just closing the door behind them. A mourner? One of the mausoleum’s occupants?
Getting there: Rock Creek Church Rd NW & Webster St NW, Washington, DC
Hours: 8 a.m. – 6 p.m., daily
Website: Rock Creek Cemetery
Looking for other tombstone tourism? Check out other cemeteries MidAtlantic Daytrips has visited.