City Of The Dead: Green-Wood

Photos by Grant Willing

Dead city-dwellers used to be buried in small graveyards near churches. But as metropolitan populations exploded at the beginning of the 19th century, overpopulating burial grounds and creating potentially hazardous environmental conditions, urban planners had a new idea: What if the dead were buried instead in landscaped lots at the edge of town? The “rural cemetery” was born, and one of the earliest examples is our own Green-Wood Cemetery, which, when it opened in 1838, sat not in the middle of bustling Sunset Park as it does today but on the outskirts of Brooklyn’s northern center. (This is back when present-day Red Hook was literally “South Brooklyn.”) The development of Prospect Park was still 30 years away and, without open spaces like we have today, Brooklynites used Green-Wood for recreation instead. During the 1860s, half a million visitors strolled the grounds each year, taking in its manicured scenery, its awesome sculptures and mausoleums. Green-Wood was a destination.

And anyone who was anyone in 19th-century New York had to be buried there, including Henry “Piano Man” Steinway, Samuel Morse (of the eponymous code), Horace “Go West” Greeley, Peter Cooper, Boss Tweed, and both Currier and Ives—not to mention various ballplayers, congressmen, senators, poets, jurists, artists, soldiers, and a handful of Roosevelts. In the early 20th century, Charles Ebbets (for whom the ball field was named), F.A.O. Schwartz and Louis Comfort Tiffany were laid to rest there. In modern times, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Leonard Bernstein and Fred Ebb became residents. About 600,000 bodies in total occupy Green-Wood’s 478 acres; roughly as many people live in Wyoming.

Today, we no longer tend to our own dead: they die in hospitals; the bodies are stored in morgues, embalmed and sculpted by professionals, then buried in cemeteries or incinerated at crematories. As such, we’ve become more alienated from the process of death and thus more afraid of it. Accordingly, the cemetery’s image has transformed, too—what had once been peaceful and pretty became creepy and possibly dangerous. That’s where zombies come from! Green-Wood has struggled in recent years with how to adapt to this shift in perception. In 2003, it erred when it planned free screenings of horror movies at its chapel—an idea it later killed after much public criticism. But the cemetery seemed on the right track this year when it let a theater company use the grounds as the set for an adaptation of Edgar Lee Master’s Spoon River Anthology, a free-verse collection of posthumous confessions. The event perfectly encapsulated the contradictory conceptions of Green-Wood, and cemeteries in general: it was at once beautiful and spooky, sweet and unnerving.

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