Markers of a City's Past
150-Year-Old Cemetery Links Alexandria With Its Ancestors

By Jamie Stockwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 9, 2006; VA14

Much of Alexandria's history is recorded on 25 sloping acres tucked off King Street, just west of the Masonic Temple. Amid century-old oaks and meandering gravel paths are thousands of headstones that offer a peek into the city's rich past.

At Ivy Hill Cemetery, the markers are as diverse as the dead they honor, from Civil War soldiers who fought on opposite sides to Alexandrians who led simple, common lives, to the German-born rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, regarded by many as the father of the U.S. space program.

Here lie descendants of Thomas Jefferson; Bryan, the eighth Lord Fairfax; and Richard Bland Lee, the state's first congressman. There are slain police officers and firefighters, and members of some of the city's most noted families: Burkes and Carlins and Smoots. Christians rest alongside Jews.

In death, the everyday distinctions of race, class and religion disappear.

"It's where the rich and poor, and young and old, and famous and not-so-famous came together in the end," said Thomas C. Bowling, the cemetery's president.

Ivy Hill is marking its 150th anniversary this year with the creation of the Ivy Hill Cemetery Historical Preservation Society, to protect the cemetery's historical, artistic and ecological heritage, Bowling said.

Preserving the cemetery's history is important because the burial ground offers a fascinating view of Alexandria's past, he said.

When it was chartered in 1856 on an abandoned family farm on land owned by the District, far from the bustle of the growing port city of Alexandria, Ivy Hill marked a new era for cemeteries. Historically, the dead had been buried in backyard gardens or church lots in the center of sprawling towns. But people began looking to create more peaceful resting places where families could quietly visit their dead relatives, Bowling said.

A stroll though the cemetery offers a "who's who of early Alexandria," wrote city historians and sisters Virginia Sullivan Bruch and Josephine Sullivan in their 1982 book "Beneath the Oaks of Ivy Hill." "To walk through Ivy Hill is to study nature, to observe the seasons in all their beauty, as they change and pass," the sisters wrote. "It is to feel the continuity of life and our kinship with the past. It is also to study history, as one reflects on the generations that have come and gone, and the events of the times (in which they lived)."

When Ivy Hill was founded, a year after a tall stone obelisk was erected on the grounds as a memorial to seven city firefighters who had died a year earlier while fighting a massive blaze, it offered a spiritual respite from the cold, impersonal aspects of urban life.

At the time, families bought numerous plots so that members -- spouses, children, in-laws and grandparents -- could be buried together. Over time, as families became more scattered, fewer family plots were purchased. Spouses continued to be buried together, but children were mostly laid to rest elsewhere, Bowling said.

Until recently, he said.

"Now we're moving back to the old way, where plots for all members of a family are being sold," he said. "No one has a home anymore. These days they just have houses. People move around and trade up all the time and there's nothing that connects people anymore except cemeteries. So families are saying, 'I don't know where we'll go in this life, but in the end, let's end up together in the same space.' And there's just something really sweet about that."

Bowling's family joined a long line of Alexandrians who have cared for and supported the cemetery since its founding. After the Great Depression, when maintenance fell short, Arthur Herbert and Arthur Bryant took over and were later joined by Bowling's ancestors and others. Bowling began working at Ivy Hill 44 years ago, and although not all the employees are related, he said he considers it a family business.

Cemetery superintendent Scott Saltsgaver said that every day brings fresh surprises, such as the Germans who call about von Braun's burial site. Or the out-of-towners piecing together family trees who come in search of long-forgotten relatives.

"There's just something really special about working here. It's about helping people," Saltsgaver said. "But it's also about the personal connections you make every day. It's an intimate connection."

On a recent cold March morning, a harsh wind snapped to attention the five flags at the cemetery's entrance. Alexandria Fire Chief Gary A. Mesaris, his cheeks red from the chill, stood before the memorial, thinking about those who gave their lives.

"It's something I look at when I drive past on King Street, day or night," he said of the memorial and the cemetery. "It's such a tranquil, park-like setting, and it's such a contrast to what firefighters and medics do every day."

Every year the memorial is rededicated to the firefighters and to all who lost their lives fighting fires or on rescue missions nationwide. Paul Scaffido, a retired fire captain who spent 27 years with the city department, hasn't missed a ceremony in several years.

The cemetery's 150th anniversary observance began on Presidents' Day and concludes during Fire Prevention Week in October, when the annual memorial service and wreath-laying ceremony is held in honor of fallen firefighters.

"The cemetery and the anniversary of the fire fall within the same time frame, and it's just a beautiful place to walk around," Scaffido said. "My take on history is, you need to know where you are coming from to know where you're going."

According to the Web site of the Office of Historic Alexandria, 15 cemeteries remain in Old Town, with some above-ground evidence still existing. There are 23 other locations that are known or are thought to have been cemeteries.

Ivy Hill has thousands of people buried there and room for untold others, Bowling said. It is one of the few remaining independently owned cemeteries in the area, and plots sell mostly by word of mouth, he said.

Indeed, more people are opting for cremation, Saltsgaver said, a trend that has in many ways preserved the remaining plots on the cemetery's grounds. If families choose to bury an individual's ashes, that requires only about two feet of space. Of the approximately 100 burials every year, he said, about 30 involve cremated remains.

It doesn't matter whether a person is buried in an 8-foot-long ornate coffin or an urn, Saltsgaver said. Either way, scores of relatives and strangers each year are drawn to the cemetery for their own reasons, whether to study the city's cultural landscape or to remember loved ones.

"As we were reading the stones, we observed how many visitors came and went. Children, young adults, couples young and old, all . . . strolled through Ivy Hill and read the epitaphs," the Sullivan sisters wrote, noting that even in today's modern society we remain in many ways similar to our ancestors. "How akin we are to those . . . who . . . visited here generations ago! We are all drawn together by the common bond of mortality."

Ivy Hill is at 2823 King St. The grounds are open daily from sunrise to sunset. Jogging is prohibited between 8:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. Pets are not allowed, nor are recreational vehicles or equipment such as bikes, mopeds, skateboards and cross-country skis.

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