1887: Col. Jehiel Brooks had died the previous year and his 200+ acres of land had been sold. The first subdivision, named simply “Brookland,” was in the process of being platted. As the surveyors were laying out the roads, they stumbled upon something surprising. Near the intersection of what would be Monroe and 12th Streets, some graves were discovered beneath the pine and cedar trees.
They had not been well-tended. There were three large stone slabs overgrown with weeds, the corners broken on one of them. It looked like they once had rested on short sandstone and brick pillars, but those had long since disappeared. The inscriptions on the slabs were still legible. One of them read:
David Burnes, Esq
City of Washington
The 8th of May, 1800,
Aged 60 years, 2 months and 24 days.
The other two were Burnes’s wife, Anne, who died in 1807, and his son John, who died at the age of 20 in 1792.
If any of those surveyors recognized the name of David Burnes they would have been even more surprised. Burnes was one of the original landholders of what would become Washington, D.C. His home was right where Tiber Creek met the Potomac, very near today’s 17th Street and Constitution Avenue. When George Washington began discussions with the landowners to create the capital city, he got to know David Burnes well, referring to him as “obstinate.” That wasn’t a surprise, Burnes was in a strong negotiating position. His 700 acre farm was centrally located and essential to the new city.
When I first moved to Brookland I quickly noticed how many cemeteries there seemed to be in our vicinity. As it turns out, of the 22 existing cemeteries within the District of Columbia borders, twelve are still active, and seven of those are located within two miles of us.
Of course there were once many more burial grounds in the city, in churchyards, family plots, community cemeteries, and municipal grounds. They were usually crowded and not well-tended, and many conducted their burials chronologically, separating family members from each other. Those criticisms, along with growing fears of disease due to unhealthy conditions, caused legislation to be introduced in 1852 that forbade new cemeteries within the Federal City -- the highly-populated area south of Florida Avenue, between the two rivers and east of Rock Creek. All new cemeteries in the District were consigned to Washington County, which included the area that would become Brookland.
That change coincided with the rise of the Rural Cemetery Movement, which promoted cemeteries as places of well-landscaped beauty and tranquility, with appealing views and walking paths for contemplation. The first rural cemetery in Washington was Oak Hill in Georgetown, which opened in 1849. Soon after came Glenwood on Lincoln Avenue (now Lincoln Road) in 1853. Others began to sprout up, Prospect Hill and Mount Olivet in 1858, and St. Mary’s in 1875. As downtown development increased, so did pressure on the old cemeteries to sell their valuable land. To do so, many began to reinter their graves in the new cemeteries in Washington County.