Holy Rood Cemetery was established by Holy Trinity Catholic Church in 1832, and it shows its age. Many monuments are worn to the point of illegibility, and many others still are cracked and tumbling. Here, the Virgin Mother is fallen, a feeble attempt made at her restoration to grace belays the general indifference of her caretakers. There, a crucifix is split into pieces, a literal bifurcation reflecting the fractured nature of Christianity itself.
Toward the back, gravestones are literally propped up with wooden planks. This is likely the work of some good Samaritan, a passerby just trying to do the right thing. These implicit good intentions stand in marked contrast to a pair of empty, shattered crypts. The precision with which certain portions remain intact while others lay strewn about in worn pieces lends their destruction the chilling appearance of deliberation. A burial vault hidden in the hillside near the cemetery’s front stands empty, its contents removed against a similar fate.
Overgrown grass and untamed shrubs say everything about the current caretaker’s approach to this neglected, tumbledown place. That current caretaker? Georgetown University, which assumed responsibility for the cemetery through some fluke of parochial restructuring back in the 1940s. To be fair, the university is not in the resource-intensive business of cemetery maintenance… By all accounts, Georgetown would prefer either to disinter those buried here and redevelop the land or to simply turn it over to the modern day parish at Holy Trinity, if the diocese would accept the financial burden themselves. So far, both alternatives seem to be non-starters.
Buried here are those who fought in the Civil War, many prominent Georgetown merchants, at least one Revolutionary War veteran, and some 900 slaves, interred in unmarked graves near the northwest corner of the grounds. A father and his three children play soccer here, kicking the dirt playfully, blissfully ignorant of the burden of American sin that lies just below their feet. It’s a nice Sunday, and the only reason I know why that grassy corner seems so empty is because I took time to research it before I arrived. If you wandered in, you’d never know there had been slaves here. But that’s the way we like the shameful parts of our history, isn’t it? Out of sight.
How long is a cemetery meant to last anyway? At what point of removal from the present does a cemetery become an archaeological site? Or just a tarnished and faded historical marker in some grassy park? Racial symbolism aside, maybe that father and his kids have the right idea – the gradual reclamation of this space through amnesia. Some of the burials at Holy Rood are comparatively recent – I spotted one or two that took place in the 1970s – but the vast majority date from a century or so before that. The living have little personal connection to those buried here.
Certainly, no one needs to actively destroy a cemetery, but maybe letting wind and weather have their slow way on the graves of the past is as fitting a tribute as any. There’s a poetry in that which will stir you quite ably to reflection on the world and your place in it. I defy you to be similarly moved in the well-manicured Oak Hill down the street – but you’ll need to bring your wallet for admission to take that dare. The silent folks at Holy Rood won’t charge you anything for their enlightened company.
“When he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.”
DCinruins Volume 3: Daylight Underground published by Insignificant Press.