The Keeper of Congressional Cemetery

Julia Edwards

After House Majority Leader Hale Boggs, D-La., went down in a plane crash with Rep. Nick Begich, D-Alaska, in 1972, the Boggs family chose the run-down Congressional Cemetery two miles from the Capitol as the site for his empty grave. Today, the long skirts of his granddaughter Rebecca Roberts graze its stone when she leads tours around the now-refurbished cemetery.

Roberts was only 2 years old when the tragedy struck, but she knows the story well. Rescue teams gave up their search for Boggs and Begich after 39 days of traversing the Alaskan wilderness.

Her grandmother, Lindy Boggs, won her husband’s seat in Congress and served until retiring in 1990. One of her first triumphs as a member was getting appropriations for a tombstone that honors her husband on one side and Begich on the other. The stone is made in the style of markers used to honor members of Congress from 1807 to 1877, when it was harder to return their bodies to their home districts. The stones eventually fell out of fashion, as did burials in the cemetery located next to the Anacostia River just south of Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium.

According to Roberts, one legislator in the 19th century said: “The idea of being buried under one of those stones brings a new horror to death.”

After 1877, Congress stopped appropriating money for the cemetery, and without maintenance, the resting place of former members and other notable Americans fell into disrepair. Tombs cracked and sank into the earth. The crack-cocaine epidemic of the 1980s festered inside the gates after dark. And, according to Preservation magazine, satanic worshipers broke into tombs to steal remains.

The Boggs-Begich stone was nearly 30 years old when its surroundings improved. A group of neighbors along Potomac Ave. in Southeast Washington formed a volunteer group to keep watch, raise money, and maintain the grounds. One motivation: their pets. Even with overgrown grass and shady nighttime transactions, neighbors saw the potential of the cemetery as a place to let their dogs run free.

The first volunteers would take turns picking up hypodermic needles each morning to keep paws safe. Now, there’s not so much as a blade of long grass or waste from a dog to be found. Each dog-walker pays a yearly fee and takes turns watching the gate to be sure only members—known by special tags on their dogs’ collars—walk their pets there.

Roberts’s organization, the Association for the Preservation of Historic Congressional Cemetery, had struggled to find such eager volunteers since its establishment in 1976. The two groups now work hand in hand: The dog-walkers keep the cemetery clean, and the preservation association takes care of repairs and tells the stories of its famous residents.

During a recent fundraiser, Roberts walked backward through the cemetery with a cocktail in hand, not missing a chance to tell the tale of a single character buried there—both famous and infamous.

Among the tour’s most interesting stops:

  • The family plot of the Hoover family, including J. Edgar;
  • The vault that once held Dolley Madison while her son was gambling away the money meant to bring her back to her rightful resting place at Montpelier, the family estate in Virginia;
  • The grave of Anne Royall, a 19th-century feminist journalist who allegedly sat on John Quincy Adams’s clothes during his daily dip in the Potomac River until he granted her an interview;
  • The unmarked burial site of one of John Wilkes Booth’s coconspirators in the assassination of President Lincoln; and
  • The grave of John Philip Sousa, composer of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Roberts comes from a long line of Washington power players. Her mother is Cokie Roberts, longtime political analyst for National Public Radio, and her father is veteran journalist Steven V. Roberts. Her uncle, Tommy Boggs, is one of Washington’s top lobbyists.

Roberts herself was a science reporter for NPR in Washington and San Francisco. She still fills in as a substitute anchor, but her time is largely occupied by the cemetery and working on her master’s degree in forensic anthropology. Roberts said her interests are not as disparate as they seem.

“I think there’s a lot of science that science reporters would rather be doing than talking about,” she said.

Her degree in forensic anthropology will help her make sense of the lives led by the deceased people she will study, much like her job at the cemetery.

“It’s about telling human stories,” Roberts said.