WASHINGTON — If the world wasn't in a global pandemic, one might be able to shelter from the sweltering hot District sun in one of the many air-conditioned museums downtown. Now the Congressional Cemetery is offering a cool solution of their own: guided virtual tours and history lessons live from the grounds, but in the comfort of your air-conditioned home.
The cemetery, which was established back in 1807, offers free virtual tours of the 34-acre grounds every Saturday at 11 a.m. The one-hour guided tour includes historical commentary and a thorough walk-through of the grounds that is home to over 90 senators and House members.
In-person tours would usually have started in April, but the cemetery took a month to navigate how to continue opening while social distance requirements and restrictions proved challenging, launching the virtual tours in May.
It's something that Sarah Kirspel, Director of Program and Events at the cemetery, knows well. Kirspel started back in November pre-pandemic, but her background in park services helped give her the idea to offer a contactless way to share the history online.
"I came from a background in parks, and I knew a lot of parks and places were beginning to transition to virtual tours and I knew that was something that was possible," she said. "But it hadn't been done here before, so I was grateful everyone was willing to give it a try."
The tour guides, called docents, come from all walks of life. Some are volunteers, others, like a professor from Annapolis and a chief military historian for the US Army, have been studying this stuff their whole lives.
"You don't have to be experienced," Kirspel said, adding that the grounds will provide training and some history lessons. "You just have to love the cemetery."
The unifying tie for the docents is some sort of connection to the cemetery -- some have been involved in the popular K9 corps dog walking program or even have relatives buried on the grounds.
"There were many comments from people just being so excited to see the cemetery even though they aren't allowed in and we were able to reach people who don't live in the area anymore but may still have a connection to the grounds --whether it's buried relatives or past experiences," Kirspel said.
"People in the comments of these lives will say 'oh there's my great-grandfather!' or 'oh I haven't been there in a while, the cemetery looks so much better in the 80's, the last time I was there!" she added. "So we decided to improve our tech and keep them going."
"It definitely wasn't perfect," Kirspel said, noting the first tour was an experiment involving an iPhone camera, some binder clips to mount and some shoddy audio. "But I think we really reached people."
Each tour is unique, with docents taking cues from commenters and injecting their own spin on the tour. Some commenters request certain stops -- the original FBI director J. Edgar Hoover's grave is among the most popular. Other tours focus on time to field questions, such as explaining gravestone markers or telling the thousands of stories inside the park.
The virtual tours allow the historical cemetery a chance to connect with those unable to visit the park, not just because of the pandemic, but also because they live out of the area.
The face-to-face group dynamic has been a bit of a learning curve for the guides. "The hardest part is no-one is there to laugh at your jokes!" Kirspel said.
"It's a hidden gem, for sure. It's not one of those big places you think of immediately when you think of DC - like the Smithsonians or the monuments," Kirpsel said, adding that she's seen high turnout on the lives than what would normally be an in-person group in July.
While the District continues to monitor reopening, Kirspel said the grounds are dipping their toes into restarting in-person tours on Sundays only. The groups would be socially distant with up to nine people and a guide -- and she says slots are going quickly.
Most of all, Kirspel is just excited to continue sharing the behind the scenes and history found in, around and under the park.
"One day we will have a tour and the next a funeral, so I get to be apart of both processes and it keeps me nimble for how everything works " she said cheerfully. "To me it doesn't really feel like work, it just feels like being able to tell some really cool stories."
For a full schedule of the tours and a link to watch online, check the Congressional Cemetery website.
Those interested in doing a socially-distant Sunday tour must reserve a spot ahead of time online.