Preserving Our Nation's History at Christ Church

Contributing to the grace and beauty of Christ Church is its beautiful surrounding churchyard characterized by lush gardens and grave markers.

For the most part our oldest gravestones reflect the names of prosperous townspeople because the majority of common folk could not afford elaborate inscribed headstones. However, we do know that the majority of people buried in the churchyard were not wealthy. Some were destitute and most were white, but burial records show that 11 African-Americans were buried in Christ Church plots from 1788-1796. By 1796, 470 people were interred at Christ Church. How many found a resting-place here before and after those dates is not known because complete records do not exist. However, the best estimate taken from average annual deaths at the time, indicates that over 1,000 were interred in the approximately one half acre churchyard.

Burials were restricted to church members in 1807, and ceased with the adoption of a city ordinance effective in March 1809 banning all burials within the city limits. There are two instances of later interments in 1815, Peter Wise asked for and obtained permission to be interred in the churchyard next to his deceased wife. The last person to be buried within the confines of the churchyard was Charles Bennett, whose remains were belatedly interred in 1841. He died on April 24, 1839. Since he had left much of his wealth to the city of Alexandria and requested to be buried on the Christ Church grounds, the town council deferred to his wishes. A large obelisk was erected in his honor and his body was entombed within the monument in a vault. The obelisk monument stands in contrast to the earlier traditional stones. Although burials of human remains in caskets ended in 1809, interment of ashes is permitted in the historic cemetery.

The original dimensions of the Christ Church yard were much larger than the current land that exists within the confines of the existing wall. The deed included its boundary land, 23 feet on the northern side of what is now Cameron Street and further to the west of Columbus Street. In early days many interments were made on the north side, in grounds included in the Alexander grant. However, as church property shrank, those bodies were excavated and interred on church property. In the fall of 1795, the vestry ordered removal of the sexton's house and constructed a fence on the north side of the church that conformed to that on the southern side of Cameron Street. This required the church exhume the bodies from under the redrawn Cameron Street to within the boundaries of the Christ Church lot. This parcel was the subject of controversy until 1816 when the church yielded its claim.

Definition of the present churchyard began in 1828 with the construction of a brick and metal fence along the east border of the yard -- now Washington Street. A gate was also constructed at the center point of entry into the yard. Construction of the wall segments along Cameron Street on the north boundary and Columbus Street on the west were not completed until after the Civil War. Deterioration of the brick components of the wall has over the years led to its restoration beginning with the Washington Street edifice in 1998. Restoration of the Cameron Street segment was completed in 1999 and the Columbus Street portion in 2002. When burials in the immediate churchyard ended, an additional plot of land was acquired by Christ Church at nearby Wilkes Street in Alexandria for development as a cemetery. The Wilkes Street Cemetery, as it is known, has not been used for interments for many years. However, recent improvements in the property have opened the way for burials in the future.

Grave markers are not currently where they were originally placed. In the Civil War era, grave markers were removed and stacked along the north wall of the Parish House. Markers were moved again in 1987 during construction of the structure connecting the two parish halls. The Alexandria Gazette reported on June 3, 1987 that "archaeologists inspecting for grave sites in preparation for building of a new church parish hall were finding few remains or artifacts due to the acidity of the soil." Steve Shephard, of the Alexandria archaeological staff, "it is just a stain on the ground... as a light change in color... it is literally a case of dust to dust."

Christ Church thrived as the port of Alexandria prospered and expanded. Many of its members were wealthy and influential people. Prominent Alexandrians attended Christ Church, among them the first Lord Mayor William Ramsey and his wife; both were buried in the churchyard. Col. Philip Marsteller, one of George Washington's pallbearers is in the yard. He had a handsome table stone monument under an old sycamore near the west fence. It was carried off during the Civil War and hasn't been seen since. Today an unassuming bronze plaque has been laid near the original location. The pedestal stone of Jacob Reisler early occupant of the church graveyard was discovered inside the grave of Ann Warren. She was an actress from Baltimore who died in Alexandria in 1808. The inscription on the monument records her many virtues and states, that she was an 'ornament' of the American stage.

Walking east from the church, near the Washington Street side, there is an unpretentious mound covered with ivy. It is the final resting-place of Confederate prisoners of war. There is on the mound a stone slab at the base of which is a brass plaque. A tribute to the soldiers buried here is written on the brass plaque. The names of the men, the units they served in and the states they came from are listed on the stone.

It has been said that many of the grave markers have been taken from the churchyard and used as steps and walkways in front of Old Town residences.