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The brick burial tombs, like the Causten Vault pictured below, at Congressional cemetery represent an important part of America’s heritage – the burial practices of 19th Century high society. From about 1810 to 1870, Congressional was one of the places where high society strutted their stuff. The brick tombs were an announcement about social standing that set a standard that most folks could only envy.
Some 150 years later these structures are showing their age and the Association is committed to preserving them as best we can. At one time there were at least 60 such structures, now there are 40, suggesting a 30% loss of historic elements of the grounds and city history. Congressional Cemetery has several types of tombs, each type requiring a different approach to repair and restoration.
Tracking Who's in There
The vast majority of people get buried in the ground with not even a headstone to mark their passage to the next world. A sizable number do have gravestones or other markers to note their names and dates. A very small number build structures to house their remains, structures that are very expensive and intended to herald the attainment of high stature in society. The names of Congressional Cemetery's burial structures reads like the high society pages of 19th Century DC: Coombe, Blagdon, Winter, Wainwright, Watterston, and Coyle to name a few.
In the 19th Century family vaults were used as temporary morgues for neighbors and friends, as well as family. It was not uncommon for a family vault to have a number of comings and goings over time. Because various cemetery activities were recorded in different ledgers and books, it is not always immediately clear who or how many folks were placed in and remained in the family vaults.
The practice of using family vaults as community morgues with less-than-stellar record keeping makes archival work all the more important. By carefully combining the information of different original source documents, archivists can determine how many individuals should be in each vault and who they were.
Types of Burial Structures
The mausoleum is a familiar cemetery structure, although in size they can range from a small 10' x12' shed to a large building housing thousands of niches in a cathedral like setting. The front often has an ornamental pediment across the top with columns adorning the entryway. Congressional Cemetery has 17 mausolea. Inside our mausolea are shelves into which caskets were placed and then sealed with brick and marble plaques.
However, the more common burial structure at Congressional is the brick vault. Several brick vaults line the ceremonial slate walkway from the main pedestrian gate to the Public Vault. These classical structures establish the architectural language of the cemetery. The several variations on this theme become apparent only when one can see inside the locked doors and gates. Although the terminology for burial structure architecture is somewhat murky, at Congressional we've settled on a few standard usages.
The mausolea are completely above ground structures with flat roofs and squared interiors. A tomb is a room wholey underground used for the placement of boxes of human remains. At Congressional, the tombs are topped by large squared columns of stone with hidden entryways, such as the Wirt and Hyatt Tombs. A vault is a vaulted brick structure sunk three to four feet into the ground. Entry is gained by a door or gate at the top of a set of stone steps (generally but not in all cases). The W.G. White and Causten Vaults are good examples. There are also vaulted structures built at ground level like the Blagdon, and vaults built completely below ground level like the Macomb. In addition, there are many underground brick boxes large enough for one casket, often covered with a large six foot sheet of marble.
There is surprisingly quite a lot of variation in the interior design of burial chambers. The oldest burial vaults were designed as open rooms four steps below ground level covered by a vaulted ceiling. Caskets were simply laid on the floor and stacked as more the family or friends were laid to rest. Over time the boxes would deteriorate and crumble to the floor, as intended. Newer tombs added shelves upon which the coffins would be placed. Eventually the shelves were divided into crypts. Crypts would be bricked in after a casket pacement, followed by the attachment of a marble plaque noting the name of the deceased.
This plan creates problems for restoration efforts. It’s difficult to do interior repair work when the floor is covered, wall to wall, in advanced decomposed coffin debris. If the structure is to be saved, the interior work must get accomplished. That means cleaning the interior so that the masons and restorers can do their work. It also allows the Association to restore dignity to the remains of those interred in the tomb by gathering the remains into suitable receptacles.
Although the cemetery management has the ultimate authority to repair structures on its property, respect for the deceased and their familes demands that when removing remains from a tomb, every effort is made to contact descendants to notify them of the coming work. The age and conditions of the 150 plus year old tombs at Congressional make these removals far more like archeological projects than construction projects. If the structures are to be saved, the remains must be moved to allow conservationists access to the interior, when needed, to complete the work.
Where wooden coffins and caskets have deteriorated with time, the remains are not readily transportable. Cleaning burial chambers is not for the faint of heart. The work of Mother Nature, while always fascinating, is not always pleasant to see. Fortunately, Congressional Cemetery has an on-going relationship with the Smithsonian Institution Museum of Natural History. Doug Owsley and his team from the Department of Anthropology often assist the Association in historic preservation work by handling the human remains aspect of the job.
Restoration of the old tombs is more than just simply repointing the occasional loose exterior brick. The doors, surrounds, facades, and the vaulted roof itself must be inspected and repaired. Furthermore, as befitting a professional operation, the Association is committed to the highest standards of restoration work. History, archives, architecture, archeology, anthropology, photography, masonry, landscaping, and fundraising all come into play. Restoration is complicated work.
Stone and brick are permeable substances. As hard as they may seem, stone and brick do absorb moisture. Plus they expand and contract with temperature changes. With all this activity going on, it's important that the mortar, the stuff holding the stone and brick together, be moving at the same pace as the stone and brick. When they don't move together, the bond between them fails or the brick begins to crumble under the strain. In either case, the stability of the whole structure becomes questionable. Getting the mortar right is a high priority in historic preservation.
Much of the work involves repointing the mortars. Mortar joints are raked, by hand preferably, to a depth of two times the width of the joint. The new mortar compound is mixed based on the chemical composition analysis of the old mortar. Often the mortars available were made up of the local riverbed sand and crushed lime. Repointed joints must be kept within certain ranges of heath and cold, wet and dryness, to ensure a proper chemical reaction solidifying the mortar and the bond to the stone or brick.
Sandstone or marble capstones are often repaired with patches of compounds that mimic the original stone or with 'dutchmen' replacements. The compounds must be applied at the right temperature and humidity levels. Dutchmen are carved within a razor's width to ensure a permanent fitting.
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