July 19, 1807
First Senator Buried in Congressional Cemetery
In life, Connecticut Senator Uriah Tracy was known as a witty and compelling speaker, a forceful leader of the Federalist Party. In death, he acquired the dubious distinction of becoming the first senator to be buried in Congressional Cemetery.
The 30-acre graveyard, overlooking the banks of the Anacostia River, dates from the early 1800s when Washington's Christ Church set aside plots within its cemetery for members of Congress who died in office. Some members were permanently interred there, starting with the 55-year-old Tracy following his death on July 19, 1807. For others, it served only as a temporary resting place until the seasons changed and the dirt roads home became passable. The distinguished Capitol architect Benjamin Latrobe designed massive square memorials—or cenotaphs (literally: empty tomb)—in memory of each deceased incumbent member. By 1877, more than 150 of these stout monuments dotted the burial ground, although only 80 bodies actually rested beneath them. Latrobe had wanted them built of marble, but Congress chose to save money by using sandstone. As the sandstone monuments discolored and deteriorated, Senator George Hoar of Massachusetts exclaimed that the mere sight of them added a "new terror to death." About that time, Congress chose to stop erecting cenotaphs.
Perhaps the most notable among the cemetery's 60,000 residents is Elbridge Gerry, signer of the Declaration of Independence, delegate to the Constitutional Convention, House member, and vice president under James Madison. Gerry became seriously ill late in 1814 as a result of the burdens of the War of 1812 and, according to a biographer, his "relentless socializing." On November 23, determined to preside over the Senate, he set out for the Capitol, but suffered a fatal stroke on the way.
Near Vice President Gerry's monument is the grave of Samuel Otis, the first secretary of the Senate, who died in office after 25 years of never missing a day on the job. Not far from Otis is the tomb of Isaac Bassett, one of the Senate's first pages, who came to the Senate as a boy in 1831 and remained until 1895, an elderly white-bearded doorkeeper. Several members of the press have joined this congressional gathering, including the first photojournalist, Mathew Brady, and one of the first women journalists in Washington, Anne Royall.
With the establishment of Arlington Cemetery after the Civil War, Congressional Cemetery yielded its active role as the chief national burying ground.
Johnson, Abby Arthur. “‘The Memory of the Community’: A Photographic Album of Congressional Cemetery.” Washington History 4 (Spring/Summer 1992): 26-45.