More people are alive now than ever before, and yet the dead still outnumber the living. Many, perhaps most, of those dead are buried beneath our feet. It is unclear whether there are more interments than inhabitants in all of New York City, but it seems at least possible, considering that over five million people are buried in Queens—over twice that borough’s population. Calvary Cemetery alone holds three million bodies, making it the largest cemetery in the country.
Queens became an epicenter for burials in the 19th century, when land scarcity in Manhattan led citizens to look further afield. The state government took a cue from Pere Lachaise, the magnificent Parisian cemetery located far outside the city center. They eventually decided to convert barren and useland land near the Queens-Brooklyn border into an array of cemeteries. According to Keith Williams, bodies in Manhattan were disentered in the dead of night, to be ferried over to their new home across the river; and many were doubtless destroyed in the process.
The city was badly in need of a park around this time. Neither Central Park nor Prospect Park would be open until the 1870s. It was partly for this reason that the beautiful Green-Wood cemetery, which opened in 1838, became so popular. Indeed, the cemetery was such an attractive place to stroll about that, by the 1860s, it had scarcely fewer visitors than Niagara Falls. Though mostly neglected by tourists nowadays, it is still a lovely respite from the noise of city life, not to mention a repository of the city’s history.
I visited the cemetery on a scorching day in August. The air was humid and heavy. My clothes were soaked through with sweat, and the sun beat down harshly in the open space of the cemetery. Autumn or spring is preferable. I entered through the monumental neo-gothic gate at 25th street—a delightful work of architectural exuberance by Richard Upjohn, one of the founders of the American Institute of Architects.
Once inside, the cemetery is as rustic and attractive as a park, with roads winding through grass lawns and scattered trees. The tombstones are distributed somewhat sparsely and unevenly in this immense green space. The majority are simple graves, no more than a foot or two tall, with some more imposing obelisks thrown in. Here and there one finds a statue, in bronze or stone, and some of the wealthier families have their mausoleums built into hillsides. Near the entrance at 25th street is one of the original ponds; and nearby is the cemetery chapel, a noble structure modeled after the work of Christopher Wren. Even more beautiful, perhaps, than the cemetery itself is the view that it provides, with several vantage points offering an excellent look at the Manhattan skyline beyond the river.
Green-Wood Cemetery holds over 560,000 “permanent residents” (as the website calls them) and a great many of them are famous. Indeed, a list of the prominent burials in the cemetery reads like a who’s who of notable 19th century New Yorkers. We have Henry Ward Beecher (1813 – 1887), a preacher who during his lifetime was among the most famous men in America. Brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe (the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin), Henry was himself an abolitionist and later on a champion of women’s suffrage. However, his immaculate image became somewhat tarnished during a highly publicized adultery trial.
Another dead titan from this age is William M. Tweed (1823 – 1878), known as “Boss” Tweed, the corrupt and powerful leader of Tammany Hall. After years of stealing millions of taxpayer money, he was exposed and thrown into prison. On the stand, with nothing to lose, his confessions shocked the nation. He hoped for an early release; but that was not to be. Tweed did manage to escape custody once, sneaking across the Atlantic aboard a Spanish vessel; but he was apprehended in Vigo, Spain, by the local police (who had nothing other than a rough sketch to go on). He eventually died in an American jail.
Green-Wood cemetery, though never affiliated with any religion, has prided itself through the years on its respectability, prohibiting all executed criminals, and all who died in jail, from burial within its esteemed grounds. But Tweed, never one to play by the rules, posthumously circumvented this rule and found himself underground for the long sleep.
To discuss all of the notable people sunken in the dirt would take me from now until my own funeral. But I might mention two great musical giants to be found there, Leonard Bernstein (1918 – 1990), most famous for West Side Story, and Elliot Carter (1908 – 2012), one of the pre-eminent American composers of the last century, who lived all of 103 years. Yet another of the cemetery’s residents may have had a greater influence on music than either of these composers: Henry Steinway (1817 – 1871), founder of Steinway & Sons. His son, William (1835 – 1896), is there too, who played an important role in the development of Queens. In fact, the 7 train stills runs under the East River in the so-called Steinway tunnel, which William commissioned for his own shipping and transportation.
We may also find some men of the Revolutionary era, such as William Livingston (1723 – 1790), a New Jersey governor who signed the Declaration of Independence, and DeWitt Clinton (1769 – 1828), New York governor who oversaw the building of the Erie Canal. Indeed, the cemetery itself has a deep connection to the Revolutionary War, since it occupied a sight of a major engagement in the Battle of Brooklyn during the opening stages of the war—when invading redcoats routed Washington’s ragtag army, in a colossal defeat for the rebels.
But the cemetery is not just a collection of famous bodies. A more somber monument is that raised to the victims of the Brooklyn Theater Fire, a conflagration which killed nearly 300 people in 1876. Of the victims, some 100 whose bodies were scorched beyond identification were interred in a common grave here, marked by an obelisk. About twice as many people died in this disaster as in the more famous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911. It was the third-deadliest fire in American history.
Even if you have no interest in the dead, Green-Wood is worth visiting for its greenery. In fact, Green-Wood is a notable arboretum, and its map also has the location of some notable trees—such as American Chestnuts and large Camperdown Elms. Life prospers where death appears to reign.
On that note, let us leave the Green-Wood cemetery and travel back across the East River, to Manhattan, and then onwards north to the Bronx. Here we will find another enormous and noteworthy cemetery: Woodlawn.
Opened during the Civil War, in 1863, this cemetery received some of bodies removed from overcrowded Manhattan. It has since grown to vast proportions, and is now the resting place of over 300,000 people. While not as inviting and park-like as Green-Wood, and while not providing such an excellent view of Manhattan, the cemetery is quite attractive in its own right. What is more, Greenwood is the final resting place of some of the most iconic figures in American history.
I visited on a cold winter day, last January, with my father. My priority was to see the tomb of Herman Melville (1819 – 1891). It is a simple and indeed humble tombstone, with nothing but an empty scroll of paper as decoration. This was surprising to me. For my money, Moby Dick is the Great American Novel, and Melville our greatest novelist. Yet Melville himself died in relative obscurity. After early success writing potboiler seafaring novels, Melville’s reputation sank once he turned to more serious work; and starting with Moby Dick, he was a critical and financial failure. It was only some decades after his death that his star began to rise again. For any struggling writers (such as myself) his story provides a depressing truth, slightly tempered by the hope that posterity can be kinder than contemporaries.
My father’s hero is also in this same cemetery: Miles Davis (1926 – 1991). A bass player and jazz lover, my dad has been talking to me about Miles Davis all my life, especially Davis’s landmark album, Kind of Blue; so it was gratifying for us both to finally visit him. Davis’s grave is a large tombstone, so highly polished as to be almost mirror-like. The first two measures of one of Davis’s compositions, “Solar,” are inscribed on the tombstone. Curiously, Davis is referred to as “Sir,” which as I learned was because he was inducted into the Order of Malta (in a ceremony in the Alhambra in Granada).
It would be hard to name a musician so influential in the history of jazz. Yet there is one buried right next to Davis: the Edward Kennedy Ellington, better known as “Duke” (1899 – 1974). Ellington has a claim to being the supreme composer of jazz tunes—many of which have become standards in the repertoire—and, indeed, I think he can be justly considered one of the master composers in any genre of the last century, for his music went far beyond the conventional boundaries. His grave is a small plaque in the ground, set before a large tree and flanked by two stone crosses.
Nearby, up the hill, is the conspicuous grave of Illinois Jacquet (1922 – 2004), an important saxophonist; and not too far off lies Coleman Hawkins (1904 – 1969), another great saxophone player, and further on Max Roach (1924 – 2007), the great bebop drummer. Woodlawn does not, however, cater solely to jazz musicians. Also interred is Irving Berlin (1888 – 1989), the Russian-born Jewish composer who helped to define American music, all while being unable to read music and only being able to play in the key of F sharp. Even if you know nothing of Berlin, chances are you can sing at least one of his songs.
Two major figures from the history of New York City are also here in Woodlawn. Fiorello La Guardia (1882 – 1947), the short Italian sometimes called the “Little Flower” who was arguably the city’s most influential mayor. He sits under an elegant tombstone, which states simply: “Statesman, Humanitarian.” Buried within the community mausoleum is someone perhaps even more influential in the city’s history, Robert Moses (1888 – 1981), the subject of the landmark biography The Power Broker. Moses was a power broker indeed, responsible for the building of parks, roads, public housing projects, and bridges. In the process, Moses displaced hundreds of thousands of the poor and destroyed whole communities. He died with his reputation in tatters, yet having fundamentally shaped New York in the twentieth century.
Woodlawn, too, is an arboretum, with some beautiful trees on its grounds. Unfortunately for me, January was not the best time to appreciate this. Nor was the bracing breeze of that January day any more pleasant than the oppressing heat and humidity of the day in August when I visited Green-Wood.
In spite of this, I greatly loved my visits to these two resting grounds. Indeed, cemeteries are some of my favorite places. They are storehouses of history, and sites of homage to those who have shaped our world. They are also places of peace, an escape from the bustle of the surrounding city, providing us a space to contemplate how our own lives might be remembered. I recommend a visit.