An Insider’s Guide to Green-Wood Cemetery: “Come Visit While You Can Still Leave”

Photos by Jane Bruce

Jeff Richman asked me to meet him at the Gothic arches—two impressive brownstone structures depicting biblical scenes that serve as the gateway to Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, and which look like they were plucked directly from the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. By the arches, the din of the city streets fades into the chirping of birds, and even the air smells fresher. “It’s a whole different world here,” Richman explains proudly.

Richman is the cemetery’s historian, a role he’s pulled into the twenty-first century by not only researching the cemetery and its half million “residents,” but also by actively blogging about his findings, hunting down relics via the web, working with restoration teams, managing a number of volunteers, and helping to create both the phone apps and the fun programming that make Green-Wood more than just a final resting place.

“One of the remarkable things about Green-Wood Cemetery is that you can enjoy it on so many levels,” he says. “We were just certified as an arboretum within the last month, and we have 8,000 trees. We have gardens. We have sculpture. We have nesting birds. And just peace and quiet. It’s a great place for people to enjoy at whatever level they’re interested.”

We look out at some rolling grassy hills, dotted by tombstones and towering trees. A woman sits reading on a set of stone stairs. “People are amazed,” he continues. “They come in out of Brooklyn, and it really is a green oasis in the middle of an urban setting, and so you don’t have to take many steps into the cemetery to be in a totally different environment.” Two cars pass through the gates and proceed slowly down the road, turning out of sight around a corner. Richman points up at the arches: “They purposely built those gates at the front so that when you came through there, you would be leaving behind your worldly concerns.”

“Now,” he says, “what did you come here to see?”

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When it was founded in 1838, Green-Wood was one of the trailblazers of the “rural” cemetery movement, which was a break from the idea that the deceased’s body had to be buried on the grounds of a church or meetinghouse, or within the church itself. “It was slow catching on,” says Richman, “and they wanted to figure out a way to just get people in to see how beautiful the place is.”

Someone came up with the idea of moving DeWitt Clinton’s body to the cemetery—he had been a politician, naturalist, and “was still the most revered of New Yorkers”—plus hiring a sculptor to do a magnificent cast bronze piece. It worked: People began to flock to the cemetery to visit Clinton. “By the 1850s, this is the second most popular tourist attraction in America after Niagara Falls,” says Richman. Half a million people were coming through the arches every year, and thus the cemetery began to acquire a certain prestige. “When people came to visit New York—Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, the King of Hawaii—they made sure that they came out to Green-Wood Cemetery,” adds Richman.

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One hundred and seventy seven years later, the cemetery serves as the final resting place for American greats like Leonard Bernstein, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Horace Greeley, Samuel F.B. Morse, Henry Steinway, and William Magear “Boss” Tweed, as well as many, many more famous, wealthy, not-so-wealthy, and not-so-famous people, including 5,000 soldiers from the Civil War (a large percentage of whom are buried in unmarked graves). The two most visited? I ask. “Bernstein and Basquiat,” answers Richman. “There’s sort of an age-cultural divide over the two of them.”

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Along our tour, Richman seems to know the story behind every grave, mausoleum, sculpture, and obelisk, plus the intricate details about the families that own them. “We have something here at the cemetery that we call, ‘obelisk envy,’ he explains with a laugh. “We have two brothers—two Schermerhorn brothers—who bought mausolea right next to each other. Peter wanted the world to know that he had done better than Abraham, so his is a little bit bigger.” The story goes that when Peter’s obelisk was installed, it was billed as the “seventh largest obelisk” in the world.

As we drive down the quiet roads, we only occasionally pass a visitor or another car (the cemetery allows cars, but doesn’t allow dog walking, bicycling, or picnicking), and the grounds seems to stretch out infinitely. “It’s about a mile across by a mile across, and 478 acres, and so Prospect Park is a little over 500 acres, and Central Park is a little over 800 acres,” says Richman. “We are certainly comparable.” Yet, because of their popularity, both Central Park and Prospect Park feel smaller. It’s impossible to spend more than five minutes in each without running into a person. At Green-Wood, the opposite is true, if you don’t count the dead.

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My visit was supposed to have been a pilgrimage of sorts to some of the most famous graves, but I find out that this is not like Père Lachaise Cemetery, where Chopin is just around the corner from Jim Morrison and a stone’s throw from Oscar Wilde. Everyone is scattered over too great a distance to really cover in an hour or two by car (the two hour walking tour covers “about a tenth” of the cemetery), so Richman is more than happy to take me to a few names while pointing out the sights along the way: There’s the best marble sculpture; there’s the newest bronze sculpture; there’s an amazing example of Beaux-Arts architecture; here’s where the Battle of Brooklyn was fought.

I learn that there was “a real Egyptian revival-revival in the first half of the 19th century,” where “you were not just an American, where America had existed for one hundred years, but you were part of a 5,000 year flow of history.” For example, the obelisk was “co-opted into a Christian imagery of resurrection and a finger pointing towards heaven.” I learn that the shrouds and shrouded urns stand for the resurrection and that the globes symbolize eternity. Richman adds a story about Henry Chadwick, the father of American baseball, who is also buried at the cemetery: “He has a globe on top of his stone, and the globe has laces carved into it like a baseball.” I learn that marble was popular in the early part of the 19th century, but that it ultimately reacts with the acid rain to destroy the engraving.

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In fact, Richman tells me a dozen-odd such stories and facts, and patiently answers over fifty questions. He genuinely loves to talk about the place and knows how to keep it interesting. Are there ghosts? (“There may be.”) Who was the first to be buried here? (“A family—some of them are removals from Manhattan.”) Do you still have burials? (“We average six or seven burials a day, six days a week.”) Are there rules about walking on graves directly? (“If we didn’t do that, as much as we would not like to do that, then we could never do tours of the cemetery.”) Does the cemetery maintain every single grave? (“The cemetery is not technically responsible for maintaining graves, but we do a lot of it.”) Would you like to be buried here? (“Actually, I do have a gravestone here.”)

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We even make a quick stop at the catacombs, which Richman unlocks with a key. Behind the gate, the space consists of a group of thirty vaults—fifteen on the left, fifteen on the right—that were carved out of a “a gravel pit that was left here by nature” after the cemetery mined all of the gravel to lay out the roads. Richman calls it an “apartment house” to give me a living-world marker for the type of place that this is, and leads the way, pointing out burial traditions (like the southern Italian framed photographs) and a vault belonging to a Daughters of the American Revolution family.

“I’d say that this is a middle-class apartment type of house for burials,” says Richman, “and for people who were interested in the above-ground burial but did not want to lay out the money to build a mausoleum into the hillside or to build a free-standing mausoleum.” One of those benefits, eerily enough, was a guarantee that you would not be buried alive.

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By the end of the tour, Richman drives me back to the arches, past the mid-sized chapel that, like the rest of the cemetery, is more than what it seems at first: “When it was originally built, it was very much focused on funerals, but since we restored it in around 2000, we’ve expanded what can be done in there. We do exhibitions, such as the Civil Wars Stories exhibition that is going on in there. We do dances in there. We do weddings in there. We show movies in there. And so, it gets a lot more varied use.”

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“So, what do you think?” asks Richman. “Are you going to come back?” I think so, I say. The past two hours have been sunny, quiet, and peaceful. Besides, as Richman’s informal motto about Green-Wood goes, its always best to “come to visit while you still can leave.”

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