06 Jul 2011

Five Questions: Congressional Cemetery Manager Alan Davis

photo courtesy of Alan Davis

One of my favorite parts of having been a dog owner on Capitol Hill was spending a considerable amount of time in Congressional Cemetery.  It felt very Victorian –hanging out, poop bag in hand, J. Edgar underfoot.  People would gasp when you explained exactly how the cemetery embraced the Canine Corps in the early 90s. Oher than the eerie windows of the DC Jail, today’s visitor sees little that echoes the total state of disrepair the property had fallen into when it was placed on the National Historic Trusts’ List of Most Endangered Properties.  Thanks to tireless volunteers, and funds from federal and private grants, as well as membership dues from the pooches, the property has reclaimed its restful air.  Alan Davis, cemetery manager, thinks it’s also a pretty amazing place to work.

How long have you been the manager of the cemetery?

I have been the Manager of Congressional Cemetery since December 2008.

How often are there burials at Congressional Cemetery? Have they trended up or down in the last 10 years?

Congressional Cemetery held steady with about 15 burials per year over most of the past two decades.  In fiscal Year 2010 we conducted 30 interments — I use the word “interments” as opposed to burials because it covers the entire range to include inurnments etc.  There is definitely an upward trend not only in interments, but also in site sales.  In the past, individuals came to the cemetery only at a time of need –i.e, when a death had occurred– to make arrangements.  Now we prearrange more burials, where individuals are able to come and sit down, talk and tour the Cemetery and pick out the type of interment option that they desire.

The cemetery was once on the National Historic Trusts’ list of endangered historic sites.  There have been tons of improvements to the grounds in the last 5 years. What’s on the horizon?

Our road construction is 90 percent complete.  We are in the midst of a canopy restoration program, where we removed dead and decaying trees, and we planted 58 new trees.  We will continue this trend [during the] next planting season.  As far as beautification of the grounds, in the past we only allowed for in-ground burial and in-ground inurnment.  Recently we began installing and selling Cremation Benches at select eye-catching locations in the Cemetery.  We also have plans to offer a modern family Mausoleum, as well as refurbish the lone empty Family Mausoleum that we have available on the grounds.  Lastly, plans are on the drawing board for distinctive-looking Columbarium walls in the lower portion of the cemetery, which will give patrons and consumers more interment options.

What does a cemetery manager do?

The Job of cemetery manager can vary from one institution to another, however the basic are the same.  As cemetery manager I am responsible for the general upkeep of the cemetery, overseeing the paid staff and grounds personnel and volunteers.  Managing the process for burials and interments, that includes scheduling openings and closings with outside vendors, installing headstones, identifying and escorting family members or tourists to gravesites; and just as importantly, identifying and selling interment rights.

I’ve seen green burials advertised in your marketing materials. What’s that and how popular are green burials?

Green burials are the “back to the future” method of burials.  A modern burial consists of expensive manufactured coffins of varying materials, heavy concrete vaults and outer burial containers, as well as costly headstones.  In addition the preparation of the body (embalming) at the funeral home can –depending upon the level of service– also be quite costly.  Note that embalming and the employment of chemicals and preservatives can also add additional cost burdens.  Embalming is not required by law in any jurisdiction in the US, and the only purpose for embalming is to preserve a body for a viewing.  Consequently when an individual is embalmed and buried, you are in effect burying environmentally unsound chemicals in the ground. Green Burial dispenses with the need for all of that.  The body cannot be embalmed; the coffin or container must be biodegradable; and there can be no expensive headstone. Some locations allow for burial in a shroud — Congressional Cemetery requires wood or wicker caskets. We will offer a centrally located marker with the names of descendants etched in it.

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