Yet another Petworth funeral home is set to be converted to dwellings, news which naturally makes you wonder if you’d be comfortable living in a former mortuary. We’re all enlightened people here, but at some point you’re going to be lying in bed at night and, while Netflix is buffering, it will suddenly occur to you that you’re lying in the exact spot where they used to drain gallons of blood from dead bodies. Is it superstitious to think that that sort of thing might leave a mark, metaphysical or otherwise?
The idea isn’t unprecedented. H Street institution Rock and Roll Hotel is in the former Robert O. Freeman funeral home, and many employees believe the place is haunted. Supposedly, the owner first toured the unrenovated site on a sweltering summer day, and claimed he passed through inexplicable pockets of freezing air. The bar’s kitchen is the former embalming room (does this mean all the hummus plates I’ve eaten there were contaminated with ectoplasm?), and the platform for displaying dead bodies is still intact, under the stage. (Good lord, do you WANT the place to be haunted?!) Employees describe hearing voices, footsteps, strange noises, sensations of being watched, and inexplicable “presences.” A Maryland-based ghost hunter visited the place and said she sensed over 40 spirits there, including one who warned her about a “Peeping Tom” ghost, which I guess would explain the feelings of being watched. (I mean, if you believe in ghosts.) Of course, we all know that in 2017, starting rumors that your bar is haunted is one of the best and cheapest possible ways of whipping up buzz. Sure, let’s go with that.
Of course, some people in DC are already living in former funeral homes. The Lionshead condos, in Park View, are built from the former Austin Royster funeral home, and the former Frazier’s funeral home, at Florida and Rhode Island Avenues NW, have been dwellings since 2014. No stories about hauntings at either building have leaked out, though possibly that’s because the phantoms threatened the tenants to keep quiet or prepare to wake up to the cold grip of invisible fingers on their throats. But then maybe the entire premise of “dead bodies on premises = future haunting” is squeamish and misguided. Entire swaths of the city, especially the older sections, are built on top of former cemeteries. And we’re not just talking about an occasional finger bone here and there. One stretch of Q Street NW in Georgetown is basically one big boneyard. Virtually every time construction workers put a shovel to dirt, they come up with human remains; one man went to expand his basement and discovered nine (nine!) skeletons. According to the logic of leading parapsychologists, by which I mean the hosts of “Ghost Hunters,” which I watch late at night while high, this block should be one big ghost convention. But nothing.
If you want to know the really uncomfortable truth, virtually every house in DC older than, say, 1940, has been chock full o’ corpses over the years. Funeral homes are a relatively recent development; for most of the District’s history, people had funerals in their own homes. (One house, at Belmont and 20th NW had four in a decade, and this may not have been an unusual pace.) The dead – and unembalmed – bodies were displayed right in the living room, before being hastily transported to the cemetery for burial. Many rowhomes on the east coast even have “coffin corners” built into the walls, which are indentations that make it easier for the pallbearers to maneuver the coffin around narrow hallways and staircases. Home funerals were just as grisly as you might imagine; one anecdote from the era has a boy having to prepare his own father’s body for display, cutting a hole in his heel and draining out his blood. Odds are, virtually every rowhouse in Shaw has hosted a few home funerals, not to mention the DIY bathtub embalmings. We’ve come a long way. When you think about it like that, we’re all living in a former funeral home. Sweet dreams!