When Washington Irving published “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” in 1820, he forever blessed—or cursed—my hometown, turning a modest cemetery in an otherwise unremarkable village in the Hudson Valley into a tourist attraction. Maybe he knew this himself, for he chose to get himself buried in that cemetery, which has since grown to a sprawling size and has gained other prestigious bodies.
One of my cousins told me and my brother, when we were both young and impressionable, that you should hold your breath when driving past a cemetery so that you don’t breathe in the evil spirits. Neither of us were superstitious enough to believe that, but it made for a fun game in otherwise boring car rides. Yet holding my breath for the entirety of the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, as we drove down Route 9, was always a painful challenge. The cemetery is vast—or, at least, it felt vast as I turned red, and then purple, and then blue.
Every year around Halloween, when the fall foliage is at its most vibrant—“It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen,” said a friend from Spain who saw the New York foliage for the first time—this normally sleepy town is overrun with tourists from the city, all of them to see this famous cemetery. The cemetery is a ten-minute walk from the Philipse Manor station on the Hudson Line, making it an easy trip for urbanites. There are free tours in the morning and evening, and on the weekends there are souvenir shops set up at the entrance. In the fall, closer to Halloween, you can buy freshly grilled sausages and drink mulled wine as you inspect the burials. They lock the gates at 4:30 pm daily.
The Sleepy Hollow Cemetery is sandwiched between Route 9, where cars continually buzz by, and the Croton Aqueduct, a trail that runs through the Rockefeller State Park preserve. The cemetery was built around, but is not affiliated with, the historic Old Dutch Church. This is a lovely stone and wooden structure, built in the 1700s near a pre-existent graveyard. The burial grounds of this church, going back to the Dutch ownership of New York, must be one of the oldest in the country. There are still tombstones written in Dutch on the property; and over the years, trees have grown up and nearly engulfed graves within their trunks. The Reformed Church of the Tarrytowns still holds services in the church every Sunday, where the congregation sits on its lovely wooden pews.
The Sleepy Hollow Cemetery itself was established much later than the church, in 1849, and is non-denominational. The website says that Washington Irving had a hand in its creation, or at least its conception. The size of the cemetery is about 90 acres. Thirty-nine thousand people are buried there, about twice as many as the current populations of Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow combined. As an old brochure put it, the cemetery is a veritable city of the dead. And it is still growing. Across a wooden bridge that spans the babbling Pocantico River are the recent burials, where funerals and mourners are most often seen, and where construction equipment still busily digs new graves.
This wooden bridge, pretty and quaint with tree-trunk guardrails, is often mistaken for the bridge from Irving’s legend; but it did not exist in his day. The real location of that bridge is near the Old Dutch Church, where a sign marks its former location. Nowadays the Pocantico River is spanned by a monstrous concrete bridge in that place, which allows the busy Route 9 to cross over the water unimpeded.
When I was in high school, a friend of mine told me that his father, who worked for the cemetery, found the body of a young man who hung himself from the wooden bridge. Indeed, for many years, in the water underneath that bridge a stone plaque was clearly visible—although unreadable—which seemed to confirm the story. But now the plaque is gone—did it get washed away?—and I can’t find any information about the suicide online, which makes me wonder if the story was true.
The Sleepy Hollow Cemetery is not a somber place. It is as beautiful and inviting as the finest park. I was surprised to learn that, in Spain, cemeteries have no greenery within; they are stone courtyards where bodies are interred in granite shelves and tombs. Our cemetery is almost as heavily wooded as the forest nearby, full of cedars, sycamores, and oaks, European beeches with scarlet leaves, and tiny Japanese maples whose seeds have blown into the park next door and begun to grow in the wild. There are so many bushes and ferns that the cemetery has become very popular with the local deer, who slip in through a hole in the chain-link fence. Once, in the dead of winter, I even surprised a couple of coyotes stalking around the graves, who promptly retreated to the forest.
The graves and mausoleums of the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery only add to its beauty. It is as much a statue garden as a graveyard. The monument to John Hudson Hall (1818 – 1891)—about whom I can’t find a thing—was, according to this site, crafted by the famous Beaux-Arts sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens; and indeed it does have a striking resemblance to one of his works, Amor Caritas. I am inclined to believe that the famous sculptor was involved, considering the extreme fineness and delicacy of the angel’s robe.
The monument to Owen Jones (died 1884), a successful dry-goods dealer in the 19th century, features a life-sized and lifelike statue of the late merchant. Somewhat nearby is a monument to Edwin Lister (1829 – 1889), who owned a fertilizer company. Lister’s monument has a stately bust of the deceased entrepreneur, and an excellent statue of a mournful woman eternally leaning on the grave.
These monuments reminds me of the Pyramid of Cestius in Rome. That pyramid is the pharonic mausoleum of a rich Roman aristocrat, which coincidentally stands near the simple graves of John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley—just as Jones’s and Lister’s graves stand near the simple graves of more famous men. It seems there are two ways of making one’s tomb a visiting place: accomplish something great, or invest in an elaborate monument.
The only statue to be marked on the official map (available for free at the entrance) is the so-called “Bronze Lady.” It is a twice-life-size statue of a seated woman. Her eyes are sad and downcast as she looks mournfully at the mausoleum in front of her. This is the tomb of Samuel Thomas (1840 – 1903), a relatively obscure Civil War General. The sculpture is a work of Andrew O’Connor, Jr., a sculptor of considerable reputation in his day. According to the inscription at its base, it was smelted in Paris by a famous company, the Rudier Foundry, which also made works for Auguste Rodin.
This statue was the subject of a New York Times article called “The Other Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” and deservedly so. For several generations now, local kids have been telling ghost stories about the metal woman, reporting that the statue cries and weeps at night. Even when I was in high school, a whole century after the statue was installed, kids told stories about it. The story I was told was that, if you snuck into the graveyard at midnight, spit in her eye, spun around three times, and then looked into the little hole in the mausoleum door, you would be blinded for life. I never tried the experiment, although I have looked through the hole in daylight and wasn’t able to make out anything in the pitch darkness of the tomb. The legends are still going strong, if I can judge by the coins that are frequently deposited on her laps.
At least one more general is buried in the cemetery: Daniel Delavan (1757 – 1835). His military service goes back even further, to the American War of Independence. His actions in that war may not have been remarkable—since I can’t find anything about him—but his grave certainly is. A near life-size statue stands atop a large pillar, tall enough to be seen from my neighbor’s backyard. This pillar is surrounded by still more figures, including a moving sculpture of an angel cradling a crucifix. You can tell how old these statues are at a glance, since they’re so weather-beaten and eroded from the rains and years.
Accompanying its two generals, the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery has a Revolutionary and a Civil War Memorial. The former is rather simple—it was erected long after the war concluded—and consists of a small stone obelisk with the names of the soldiers inscribed. The Civil War Memorial is more impressive, with a bronze statue (now carbonated and green) of a Northern soldier, striding with his musket and bayonet over a platform that bears the names of the fallen buried there. Cemeteries and wars march side by side.
A review of the surnames of the burials here gives a taste of the ethnic makeup of the town in days gone by: Foster, Grave, Heartt, Knower, Bull, Clark, Coffin, Underhill, Newman, Newton, Small, Risk, Hackett, Hyatt. Apparently English was the dominant group—something that is certainly not true nowadays. Most graves have scant information about the people they mark. A name, a birth year, and a death year are the only facts that endure in the stone. There are some exceptions to this. One is the grave of Frederick Trevor Hill (1866 – 1933), which is an attractive plaque installed into a rocky outcrop, that informs us that he served on the American Expeditionary Force during World War I.
The Sleepy Hollow Cemetery is a sea of names, read and soon forgotten. But several famous names stick out. Washington Irving is, of course, the most famous denizen of the cemetery. His tombstone is simplicity itself, a rectangular slab with a rounded top. If flags were not flanking his grave, most visitors would probably walk right by it. A family man in life and in death—he supported his brother and his nieces when they fell on hard times—Irving is buried in a family plot. As the first internationally famous American author, his funeral was a national event. It was the subject of a Harper’s Magazine cover. So many people crowded into the Christ Episcopal Church for the event that they feared the floorboards would break.
After Washington Irving, the most notable person buried in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery is Andrew Carnegie (1835 – 1919). Carnegie was apparently confident of immortality, since he did not create an ornate tomb for himself. His grave is a cross, about six feet high, isolated in a little grove. The cross is decorated in patterns that remind me of the Book of Kells. In the little footpath to the grave, there’s a plaque with a small portrait of Carnegie, as well as a list of the institutions he founded.
Carnegie was certainly an inspiring philanthropist, eventually donating 90% of his wealth to various charities. And he had the means to do it. Carnegie was one of the richest Americans who ever lived—and thus one of the richest people in history. A hugely admirable man, Carnegie’s reputation was slightly tarnished by his support of Henry Clay Frick (of the beautiful gallery in New York City) in Frick’s attempt to break the power of the unions in Homestead, Pennsylvania—a conflict which culminated in the death of seven strikers and three strike-breakers.
It is somewhat ironic, then, that the famous union organizer, Samuel Gompers (1850 – 1924), is buried about one hundred feet away. His grave embodies the principles of his life. Even more simple than Carnegie’s, it is a plain gray tombstone. He is not buried in a family plot; the tombstone is set amidst other burials. And it was not paid for by himself or his heirs, but by the union he helped to establish: the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Gompers was a labor organizer, who helped to join the competing guilds and small craft unions into a powerful organization, and his grave is a fitting tribute to his commitment to his fellows.
Up the hill from Gompers and Carnegie is a decidedly immodest tomb: that of William Rockefeller (1841 – 1922). William was the younger brother of the richer and more famous John D. Rockefeller. Notwithstanding his role as second fiddle, he was still fabulously wealthy, since he co-founded Standard Oil with John. William’s tomb is a massive white mausoleum, at least twice as large as the next biggest in the cemetery. The urge that actuated pharaohs to build the pyramids—the urge to monumental immortality—seems to re-emerge whenever wealth is concentrated into the hands of few, powerful men. William Rockefeller’s former residence overlooking the Hudson, Rockwood Hall, is now a State Park. The massive mansion has been torn down, but the stone walls and groundwork remain, and the view is worth the millions he must have paid for it.
Also among the opulent captains of industry buried in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery is Walter Chrysler (1875 – 1940). His mausoleum is a kind of neo-Roman structure with Doric columns in front. The mausoleum is located at the very end of the cemetery, its entrance turned away from the road. I must admit that this tomb always strikes me as ugly. Although it emulates a noble Roman temple, it is clearly machine-made, with inhumanly sharp angles; and the gray concrete used in the building is drab and unattractive, especially when compared with the marble originals. My father, a longtime resident of the town, admitted the other day that he has never visited the cemetery. Considering that he is a big fan of Chrysler cars, perhaps he ought to come and give homage.
Near the gap in the chain-link fence, used by deer, coyotes, and the occasional human to pass from the cemetery to the Old Croton Aqueduct, is buried Elizabeth Arden (1878 – 1966), the famous cosmetic entrepreneur and founder of the eponymous makeup company. Arden’s grave is astonishingly modest—so much so that it is very easy not to notice it. She is buried under a tombstone with the name “Graham,” which is her real name (“Elizabeth Arden” is a pseudonym). Looking down at the little plaque, it is hard to believe that, at one time, she was one of the richest women in the world.
A short ways away is the last grave identified on the cemetery map, that of the Helmsleys. Harry Helmsley (1909 – 1997) was yet another fabulously wealthy man, a prominent real-estate owner in New York City whose company once owned the Empire State Building. His wealth notwithstanding, he is nowadays primarily remembered for his second wife, Leona Helmsley (1920 – 2007), the famous “Queen of Mean.” Leona was a sort of proto Donald Trump—a quick-mouthed, tyrannical, arrogant, proudly rich New York real-estate baroness, who is remembered for saying “We don’t pay taxes; only the little people pay taxes.” This quote was brought to the public’s attention during a trial for tax evasion, which resulted in her conviction and imprisonment for 19 months (the rich always get light sentences, mysteriously).
The Helmsleys’ mausoleum is very similar to Chrysler’s—a Roman inspiration—except that it is slightly bigger. I find this tomb almost equally unattractive; but if you walk up to the door and peer through, you can see a lovely stained-glass window on the other side of the structure, with an image of the Manhattan skyline illuminated in the darkness of the tomb.
As you can see from these examples, the tombs we build for ourselves can say a lot about our values. Our graves and mausoleums represent our stance on posterity. Carnegie wanted to be remembered for his charity; Rockefeller, Chrysler, and Helmsley for their power and wealth. Gompers apparently paid little heed to his grave, perhaps feeling that his work was more important than his immortal reputation. For many of us, I suspect, our anxieties about our posthumous reputation stems from anxieties about the ultimate value of our work. Compare, for example, the tombs of Owen Jones and Washington Irving. The dry-goods dealer invests enough money to preserve his likeness for future generations, while the lionized writer can rest easy in under a plain headstone.
To the eyes of a cold logician, graveyards are nonsensical places. Why invest precious space and hard-earned money on a stone over a dead body? Why place bodies in expensive coffins that delay decomposition? Surely, it would be more sensible to bury our dead in unmarked mass graves, just like they do on Hart Island, and let them return their nutrients to the soil. Why build a monument or preserve a dead man’s name? The dead can make no use of their reputations; they are deaf to the tears of their relatives, and are well beyond caring whether they are remembered or not.
But I suspect that few among us could be so “sensible.” For death is not just a problem of logistics, expense, and disposal: it is an existential problem. Every culture that has ever thrived has had to confront the problem of death in some way. How can we reconcile human finitude with human striving? Why invest in the future if, inevitably, we won’t be a part of it? Death is traumatic, not just to friends and family but to communities. There must be communal rituals for death, acceptable stages of grief and routines of mourning, if a culture is to persist. These rituals allow the community to rally around the afflicted and to help pull them up, and allow the grief-stricken to put their pain in a wider context. Seen in this light, cemeteries are eminently sensible places.
Both Irving’s “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and the legends that grew up around the Bronze Lady illustrate something the anthropologist Victor Turner said about rituals. Rituals create what he called “liminal” spaces, spaces of transition and transgression, where boys can be girls and where social norms can be flouted, and where the living and the dead can mingle. These psychological “spaces” are essential for great transitions: from single to married, from boy to man, from living to dead. Cemeteries are an example of such liminal spaces, a meeting ground for this world and the next, which is why we call them “haunted.” Haunted places allow mourners to make “contact” with the deceased and then to retreat to their normal world. Cemeteries thus play an essential psychological and ritualistic role, essential to the community.
Yet there is an existential danger in death rituals, too. When there is a routine for death, it makes mortality easier to ignore and to push into the background. In a way, rituals remove some of the terror of death by depersonalizing it: every mourner and every funeral follows the same procedure, and every corpse is buried in the same ground. But death is always personal, and can never be routine. For every person is radically unique, and death will only visit you once. And as Heidegger reminded us, when death is ritualized, we risk forgetting that our lives are singular opportunities, limited and unrepeatable, and thus risk living inauthentically. In our quiet moments, most of us feel immortal; and with time stretched out indefinitely before us, there is little pressure to act on our deepest desires.
My own walks through the cemetery illustrates this double dilemma. Most of the time it is easy to forget that the names on the tombstones were, once, actual people, living and breathing, with their own ideas and perspectives and quirks, just as individual as I am. As a result, it is also easy to forget that, one day, I will be nothing more than a name on a tombstone—and maybe not even that. There is, to be sure, something positive in this forgetting. If we went around all day dreading our death, we would be miserable creatures; and if we were constantly obsessed with the potential death of our loved ones, we could hardly form any kind of relationship.
But we do need to be periodically reminded that life is limited, or we take things for granted. Real appreciation of life requires this delicate balance between awareness of our mortality and an absence of crippling dread. An occasional memento mori will suffice, I think, to prevent complacency.
Cemeteries accomplish both functions for us: they give us a place for our rituals, and they serve as perennial monuments of mortality. This was illustrated for me just the other day, as I strolled among the graves. I was drifting along when I noticed a tombstone with toy cars resting on its base. These were the same Hot Wheels that I used to play with as a kid. On the tombstone was a name, and below it the inscription “Beloved Uncle.”
Here was a private tragedy on public display, an uncle mourned by his nieces and nephews, children who lovingly placed these toys on his resting place. My insides twisted into a knot as I looked down on the grave. I felt pity, but also a twinge of dread—the flashing certainty that, one day, I would be a beloved somebody—or even an un-beloved somebody—and that this day might, for all I know, be soon.