Photo illustration by Johansen Peralta
Jan 16, 2023
The death educator: Meet Green-Wood Cemetery’s Gabrielle Gatto
“We're chipping away at one of those last grand old taboos,” Gatto says on this episode of “Brooklyn Magazine: The Podcast”
We hate to break it to you, but someday — hopefully in the very distant future — you’re going to die. It’s an awkward thing for most of us, facing and accepting our mortality. But it’s not something we get to opt out of, unfortunately.
Fortunately, though, there are programs like the death education workshops at The Green-Wood Cemetery. Go to its website and you’ll be greeted with the message:
If a cemetery isn’t the perfect setting for a conversation about death, what is?
It doesn’t often come up too often in small talk—it’s one of the last great taboos. Here at Green-Wood, we aim to change that.
Almost equal in size to its neighbor Prospect Park and older than it by a generation, Green-Wood Cemetery sits in central Brooklyn, once considered the distant outskirts of the city, nestled between South Slope, Windsor Terrace, Kensington, Sunset Park and Borough Park. It is not just the home to some 600,000-plus permanent residents — a who’s who of 19th century icons and a few from the 20th — Green-Wood Cemetery is also a cultural beacon in the borough and host to concerts, tours, lectures, parrots, architectural wonders and a rich, vibrant, verdant living ecosystem.
Joining us on “Brooklyn Magazine: The Podcast” this week is Gabrielle Gatto, the coordinator of public programs for The Green-Wood Cemetery. Gatto is a death educator at the cemetery and a death doula. She thinks about death all the time. So today, that’s what we’re talking about. We get into death education — what it is and how it’s practiced at Green-Wood. We discuss trends in green burial and trends in burials across the board, some of the cultural offerings at the cemetery and what it’s founders would think about all the activity today.
We at Brooklyn Magazine Worldwide Headquarters have walked every inch of the cemetery, especially in the lockdown days, and we can’t say enough good things about the place. It is beautiful. It is grounding. It is meditative and it is fun to explore. So that’s what we’re going to do today with Gatto.
This interview has been edited for concision and clarity. You can listen to it in its entirety in the player above or wherever you get your podcasts.
You’re at Green-Wood Cemetery. You oversee death education. We’re going to start with that. What is death education? What is your mandate? What do you do?
My favorite question, especially at parties. If thanatology is the scientific study of death, biological, medical aspects of it. But death education is more of this umbrella term for studies and activities that explore the historical, cultural, and emotional aspects about understanding and accepting death, which I think is pretty cool because, for me, it’s getting comfortable with the uncomfortable truth, we’re all going to die.
What? Wait a second. All of us? How old is death education as a practice?
Oh, I think tale as old as time. But more formally, we saw a little bit more than a decade ago, the starts of the major death positive movement, especially here in America. As long as people have been practicing rituals, death education has been going on. But in a more modern context, I do think the pandemic was a huge catalyst for it to become more mainstream because it was very niche. It was there. It was on the internet. People were talking about it, but the pandemic just amplified those voices so much more. They became such amazing resources. Amy Cunningham is one of them. I like to call her the godmother of Grim Reaper gossip here in Brooklyn. She was one of the earlier voices to talk about anything from death preparedness to curating your own rituals.
It’s really about the demystification, the almost normalization of death, which has become very taboo in modern culture to address head on.
How do you become a death educator? What are your steps to this job? I’m guessing you didn’t see it on Craigslist.
No. Get a job at a cemetery a week before New York City lockdown in March 2020. That was my formula.
You anticipated one of my questions, but yeah, you started this job the week before lockdown, which is crazy. But you obviously had had experience beforehand.
Not an insane amount. In this weird, full circle moment, I took, pun intended, this life-changing class about death in college with Dr. Brad Petitfils about “Six Feet Under.” I just wanted to take it because I wanted to watch the show. But it was all about living with dying and rituals and things like that. So I had a background in it. Also, I had helped death doula some family members already. Then, once the pandemic hit, I pivoted from special events very quickly to taking phone calls in the admin office and working in the crematory. Then Green-Wood was like, “Do you want to learn more about this?” I got my certificate in thanatology. I’m a graduate of the Going with Grace End of Life training program, so I’m a death doula as well. But I think my biggest education is just being here every day.
I’ll get to the death doula because I did see that on your bio, which I think is a fascinating job, a fascinating calling. As a death educator, though, at the cemetery, what is your day-to-day like? I’m imagining you’re dealing with people who’ve lost loved ones. It’s a very delicate time in their lives. Or you’re talking to people about deaths and the practices around death and rituals. It’s an uncomfortable thing. You’re permanently in this awkward topic for most people, and you’re living it daily. What do you do on a daily basis?
It helps that I don’t find it to be awkward. On the human level, you just have to show people that you’re open to go there with them about it. On a daily basis, especially on a day we have a program, it’s all about framing the conversation. It depends what we’re doing that day. Death Cafe is a super informal space. I feed you. I get you tea. We sit in our modern chapel and talk European salon style. It’s in the spirit of that. That was Jon Underwood, the inventor of the Death Cafe, his intention, just to hang out and talk about it. Those are those informal spaces where people are a little bit more willing and ready.
Then we have some deeper topics that you do have to take a little time to frame the conversations. But on a daily basis at Green-Wood, when we’re not getting into a program, it can look like so many things. It can look like anticipating grabbing that tissue box from the office and running it over to the chapel, and also just offering resources, having a book in mind or something like that to be able to pass off to someone.
Well, especially during the pandemic, we wrote about this a bit, you were doing webinars or web classes about cremation, the history of cremation. You’re doing sessions on music and funerals and the role music plays. What are some of the more popular things that people are coming to you for? What are they looking for?
People are looking for one of three things, which is why we’ve developed sets of programs around this. You have the death practical, which is more like death preparedness. That’s Estate Planning 101 or how to fill out an advanced directive, things of that nature. Then we’ve got more workshops, so things that are bereavement-based things, about art. Segueing into that, being able to sit and make your own art about your grief afterwards. Then we have some more of the cultural programs where you learn about death from perspectives of different points in history or different cultures, which is my favorite to get into because I can see it reflected in the ground so much. For example, we did a program on Qingming. That was so neat because then, when Qingming came up, that time of year, I saw so many families here at the cemetery immersing and engaging in that ritual. I had a better understanding about it because we put on that program.
What is Qingming for the people who don’t know?
It is a holiday around the same time as Easter that is a celebration of ancestors. There’s a ritualistic burning of joss paper. Some people bring in these gorgeous, huge paper Ferraris or cell phones or houses, and burn them up as a way to honor their ancestors. It’s neat to learn about something like that in a program and then be able to see it reflected on the ground.
Granted, you’ve only been there since the onset of the pandemic, but do you find that people are being more mindful about end-of-life conversations today than they were a few years ago, pre-Covid? Do you have a sense of that trend line? I mean, you said yourself that, obviously, death was much more on our minds for that period of time. Is that going away a little bit, or do you find that that has stuck, that people are more open to talking about this and aware of it as a natural part of life, and we just have to embrace and face it?
I don’t think it’s going away, which is exciting. Death educators around the world are rejoicing. We’re chipping away at one of those last grand old taboos. So I think it’s here to stay. Especially with New York just became the sixth state to legalize N.O.R., which is natural organic reduction. That’s another more eco-friendly way for your final disposition. There’s a lot happening in the death care space that’s so noteworthy and big in our faces right now. So I think the conversations are just going to keep going.
That’s what I was asking. You anticipated my next question with N.O.R. Talk about current trends in burial. You guys, as far as I can tell, are at the cutting edge in what I’ve read in recent years. Talk about this green burial. Talk about what people are asking you about more now than they have been in years past?
Green burial, it’s pretty neat because you’re put in around four to five feet with the natural decomposers. A lot of microbial activity happening. A lot of people do like the idea of returning to the earth as they came. Here at Green-Wood, we’re implementing as many elements of green burial as possible. WWe’ve got a big project over at our Cedar Dell section that’s going to offer green burial and some scattering ground options for cremains. It’s all about being eco-friendly, but also engaging with the ritual a little bit more in a way that might feel truer to the individual. In terms of NOR, that’s really exciting. It’s also smaller carbon footprint, et cetera. Also, there’s some places [where] alkaline hydrolysis is legal, which is water cremation or aquamation.
You know what’s funny? There was a time cremation was this crazy, weird thing. You listen to the history of cremation, and it’s like a pair of bell bottoms. It’s in one year, out the other. But we have an idea in our head, especially if that’s how your family has done it. My family, it’s super crazy Italian-Americans, Brooklynites. You go to the funeral. You see them in the casket. You go to the cemetery. Then you go back to Uncle Tony’s for a good spread of meat and cheeses. But something happened that, for me personally, it turned it on its head when my grandfather wanted to be cremated. I was like, “What? Why? We don’t do that in our family. Why would you want that?”
I was under the assumption there’s no ritual with it, but there was. We just had the urn in the funeral home. We still went to the cemetery. We still had a eulogy and everything like that. But a lot of folks don’t realize that there’s other ways to do it. That’s what’s happening with these more eco-friendly options is people have no idea that it was even an option to begin with. When the N.O.R. thing came out in the newspapers, I was with my family. I see my Aunt Angela on the phone like, “What is this about?” I’m like, “I can tell you as the family resident death educator.”
Is that literally where you’re in the burlap sac? What are the steps of N.O.R.? How does that functionally work?
Similar to green burial, just instead of being in the ground, you’re going to be in a vessel and go through a little bit more of a man-helped process, so to speak. The microbes are getting at you. You’re in the alfalfa and the saw dust. Then you become compost.
Yeah. That’s pretty neat that this organic process was taken a little bit more inside to be able to offer it to more people in this bigger way, because space and land is also an issue, not just at cemeteries across America, but just Earth in general. So I’m glad that these alternatives are starting to come about, and people are changing their perspectives on them.
How many more new permanent residents can Green-Wood take on? I guess with green burial, it probably is less space consuming, but do you guys have a limit as to how many? You’re going to hit max capacity at a certain point?
Eventually. Sure. But right now, we’re doing pretty good with that. Something I learned when I first started working here is Green-Wood is always future forward, thinking ahead, which is why we’re having so many conversations about who we are as a cemetery in the future and who we are as a cultural institution. How can we make sure that this is still a space for all who come here, for it to be a place of memorialization, even if that looks different than how the founders intended back in 1838? It might look different, but this is still going to be a space for different methods of final disposition.
I’m glad you mentioned the founders because I was going to get to them. The founder was Henry Pierrepont? David Bates Douglass was the designer. I wonder what they would think of Green-Wood today. My understanding is that when it was built, it was really on the outskirts. It was close enough for a day trip from Manhattan, far enough away that they thought development would never encroach upon it. It was like the third rural cemetery as part of this movement in America to make cemeteries more naturalistic, bring them out of the cities, which were becoming increasingly urbanized, and the churchyards were being encroached upon. This was a new idea when they founded Green-Wood Cemetery. Can you talk a bit about them today and what they would make of what you guys are doing now? It’s completely got to be an alien idea to them, but talk about the history a little bit to the extent that you can.
I like to think they’re proud of us. I hope so. But I think that New York City is always evolving. Anyone, at any point of its birth, adolescence, and up to modern day right now, that was always factored in. That’s why even if monuments and development around the cemetery changed, these hills and slopes still give you access to a more Brooklyn past. But also, you still have these gorgeous landscapes that allow you to interact with the city and the space itself in different ways. So I think they would definitely walk in here and be like, “Wait. What?” But also, “Okay. I see what you did here. Maybe if I had this technology or these tools and resources, we’d make the same choices.”
Yeah. It’s interesting. The cemetery predates the public park system. It’s a generation older than Prospect Park, which is just down the road, or up the road. Before we were using tax dollars to pay for parks, these were the parks. The funds were raised through the selling of plots. What does that say about recreation at the time, I guess? I mean, that was really the first public park. Historically, what was the view of the cemetery when it was built? We’re talking 1838.
It was a place to be seen. Then it wasn’t for a really long time. You used to need a special car permit to come in here. The National Historic Landmark distinction came about, opened it to the public, and it started to come back into that a little bit, especially during the pandemic, where all of a sudden it was this other green space to be seen and interact and socialize. We had a group of 300 volunteers say, “Hey, I’m going to come help and let people know where the bathrooms are or where Boss Tweed’s grave is or what the rules and regulations are, how to interact with the space respectfully.” It’s funny because you look at the old postcards of the Victorian era, of people with their umbrellas walking down to one of our glacial ponds. It’s the same thing except it looks a little different. I think it’s more of a fusion of those two things. It’s this active cemetery that is this place for rituals and ceremonies and farewells, but it’s also a place to be in nature and hang out with friends and take a really serene walk.
The ecosystem is so varied. The plant life is so lush. It’s funny. It’s a place of so much life. It’s literally a graveyard, but it’s a place of vibrancy and life. Then you’re adding events and concerts to that on top of it. How do you think about programming in the cemetery?
I’m really happy we do it. This is what’s wild. I tell this to everyone. There’s something for everyone here. If you want to wake up at 6 a.m. and go bird watching, we’ve got Birding in Peace. Great.
You got parrots, right? There are the parrots of Green-Wood Cemetery.
In our beloved arch. They’re so cute. Sometimes they distract me from my work, but I’m glad they’re there. Walking tours, trolley tours, concerts in the catacombs, dance performances in Cedar Dell, death education, horticulture. There’s just something for everyone here. If you’re interested in history, we’ve got self-guided tours, too. It just doesn’t end.
You mentioned a couple of the plots. There’s so many amazing plots, from the Civil War Soldiers’ Monument on Battle Hill. There’s the sculpture of Minerva, who’s waving at Statue of Liberty. Artist William Holbrook Beard, who’s got that big bear on his tombstone. There’s a tombstone telling people to have an egg cream on it. What are some of your favorites? If you were going to give a tour of the cemetery to someone who’s never been before, maybe someone listening has never been, who’s like, “I’m going to go to Green-Wood Cemetery,” how do you take them through it?
We’re pretty massive. We’re 478 acres. I work here, and I get lost. But getting lost at Green-Wood definitely means finding and discovering things, like stumbling upon the grave of Susan Smith McKinney Steward, who was the first female Black doctor in New York State. You might be like me, who trips over a bunch of paintbrushes strewn across the ground, and look up and realize you’re at Jean-Michel Basquiat’s final resting place. One time someone was like, “Yeah, there was this mini baseball field around a monument. It was so kooky and cool.” I was like, “Henry Chadwick, father of baseball.” But my absolute all-time favorite is Charles Feltman, the inventor of the hotdog. What a gorgeous mausoleum. I definitely would take people to those.
What does it look like?
There are these six gorgeous sculptures of women, beautiful columns, a huge angel at the top. It’s just this massive, beautiful thing to look at near our Fort Hamilton entrance. Everyone always gets a kick out of the hotdog thing.
You mentioned Basquiat. What’s remarkable to me is that two of the maybe biggest 20th century names buried in Green-Wood are Basquiat and Leonard Bernstein, both of whom have probably the more unassuming headstones in the cemetery. You’ve got these super ornate, elaborate mausoleums, and then you’ve got these two giants of the 20th century who’ve got these just little square markers. What does a person’s plot say about them to you when you’re walking around?
I talk about this in our death education programs a lot because that happens all the time. I’m at Basquiat’s grave, and someone is confused. They’re like, “Where is it? Where am I?” They’re looking for as big of a monument or mausoleum as some of our other permanent residents. It is a story in of itself about the history of how we take care of our dead or what finances do at the end of life. It’s also what was popular at the time. It’s sometimes about that. You start to realize, “Oh, okay. The mausoleums that are in the hillsides, I see these are all around the same dates, or obelisks were super popular.” You know what’s funny? You could see who was trying to one up each other in the obelisk arena if you look at the dates on the monument. It’s interesting.
Compensating for much?
It informs the landscape. I understand why, especially back in the day, people were so worried, or not even worried, just thoughtful about what their legacy in stone was, and if that mattered to them or not. There are some of our permanent residents here that didn’t care as much. They just wanted to be here. A humble little death.
It is the great equalizer. You guys are on Lenape land. The history of the cemetery, at least the grounds, it was obviously pivotal in the Revolutionary War and all that. How do you honor the people who were in the area before and used the land before the colonists arrived?
We talk about this a lot. Our education team does such a great job, especially when students come in here. Doha May is one of our more famous residents that we educate folks about, but no matter what, in all of our programming, we always have a nod to that fact. Same to our permanent residents. We always want to make sure we nod to them before we start a concert in the catacombs or something of that nature, because the only reason we’re here and able to be a cultural institution is the people that came before us on this land.
Talk about being a death doula. What does that mean? What do you do? I have two kids. We had a doula for each. She fell asleep. It was 3 a.m. But we had a doula. What does a death doula do? I mean, my understanding is you’re making the transition as peaceful as possible, as natural as possible. What does that look like? You said you did it for your own family members.
Death doulas, opposite of birth doulas, yada, yada, yada. But the neat thing about them is they’re somebody you want on your end-of-life team. It could look different for every single death doula. I offer a lot of life consulting in terms of up to a year after death. What do you need to be looking at? How do you close accounts? Things like that. Then, before as well: advanced directives, estate planning. So many people don’t realize they have agency to make a playlist for their funeral or engage with the ritual in some more thoughtful ways. It could be anywhere from helping the person die to helping that person with their legacy work before they die.
So it’s both admin work and actual care.
Absolutely. It could be best described for these purposes as non-medical palliative care. Folks can hire a death doula to help their own family or to help themselves, or a combination of both. It’s great because there is such a beautiful network of death doulas in New York City, but also across the country, that specialize in different areas. You have people that are really great at helping with legacy work. There are people that specialize in helping queer bodies and the LGBTQIA+ community pass the way they want to. They’re this part of end-of-life care that can be so much more personal than all of the other avenues and areas in which we are holding hands with death in. I think it’s more of the spiritual aspects that death doulas get to help and engage with, but sometimes, also, a death doula is just coming in for some respite care, doing the dishes so you could sit with your loved one.
My Uncle Vinny, he was captain of Engine 235 in Bed-Stuy, and he died in 9/11-related cancer. He died in his living room. He was the first person to show me that dying could really be this gorgeous thing. He had shown us all of these options of getting an advanced directive ready, meeting with an estate planner, knowing that he wanted to watch “The Godfather” one last time with all of us with his fedora on as he finally revealed the family sauce recipe. That was the whole thing. He showed us how to do that. We had some really amazing folks come in and do the dishes and make the schedule of everyone that wanted to see him in his final days and make sure the logistics were running, and then helping the transition when he did die. I was so grateful for that. That’s why I continued to try and tell people that support, this can look so many different ways. Death doulas can be anything from the person helping with the dishes to the person being there at the bedside, doing the washing of the body after, anything like that.
Do you think about your own time? Do you think about what you’re going to do for yourself? You’re young. This is obviously not going to happen for a long, long time, but do you think about what you want for yourself at end of life?
Oh, absolutely. You know what’s funny, though? Because so much is changing right now, I change my mind every day. That’s why some great advice a death doula will always give you is keep a book, keep a binder, write down those things. It could be, no pun intended, a living document about your death. At any age, you should be doing this. I had a conversation with my father recently. We had gone to a funeral, and a friend of ours who never wore a suit was in a suit in his casket. Afterwards, we went home, and I was like, “That guy was always in a sweatshirt. It was so funny to see him in a suit.” My dad’s a plumber, super blue-collar guy, and I was like, “What do you want?” He was like, “Oh, totally put me in my Levi’s and my work shirt.” It opened up this conversation where I was like, “This is the outfit I want to wear. This is what I envision.”
Well, what is it?
Okay. Not going to lie. I also want to be in Levi’s, some silly, punny shirt that makes someone laugh. Definitely death-related, just so everyone could have a last laugh while they see me for the final time. It’s little things like filling out my advanced directive. I would love N.O.R., especially that it’s legal in New York now. I’ve always thought about returning to the soil.
Is it expensive? I mean, I would imagine that the costs, once you get to a highly specified type of burial, start to climb?
A lot of these eco-friendly options are more affordable, but it depends how you put it all together. We’ve got green burial options here that will look a little different than other people. Other people might choose less of the frills of it and more of bare bones options. But I think overall what we’re seeing in the death care space is a general nod to things that are more affordable and things that are more eco-friendly.
You mentioned your upbringing in an Italian family. I’m guessing Catholic. What do they think of what you do? Were you a macabre child growing up? Did this come as a surprise to them? Are they all on board?
I’m really lucky. I’m an only child from a crazy large Italian family. I can do no wrong. Just kidding.
Lucky. Can’t say that myself.
I think it was definitely a weird shock because I came to the cemetery to work in special events. My background is in film. I was a New Yorker in the south for way too long. I was living out the real life of Mona Lisa Vito from “My Cousin Vinny.” I was cosplaying as Marisa Tomei.
What were you doing in the south?
I was at the New Orleans Film Society working in film. Honestly, my Uncle Vinny died, and I said, “All right. I’m ready to make my New York return.” I remember calling my mom one day. I was like, “All right. I’m answering the phones in the crematory today.” She was like, “All right. That’s different.” It definitely was, but it led me down this path. All I want to do now is talk about death, because I promise you, the more you talk about death, the more you’re going to make thoughtful choices in your life, the more you’re going to be more thoughtful and have this elevated perspective that you never even thought you could have.
I love that. That’s a great place to end. What do you want to leave listeners with?
I’m really excited. We did this “A Day in the Life” series. The first one we did was “A Day in the Life of a Death Doula.” It was virtual because it was at the height of things. I had Covid while I was hosting.
I felt a lot better once I saw 200 people were tuned in to get death-y with me. Then the next one we did was “A Day in the Life of a Mortuary Science Student,” in person. Totally filled our modern chapel. A story to leave us all on, too, is that night a parent came up to me and said, “My son was so interested in this and wants to really come into this career field. I didn’t get it. I didn’t know how to support him. I didn’t understand it. Now, after coming to this, I feel empowered to support him, and I understand why he’s so excited about this.”
In the spirit of that, we’re continuing the series. In the spring and summer, we’re going to have “A Day in the Life of a Green-Wood Employee.” You’re going to hear from our gravediggers, our crematory operators, people on our horticulture team, and our admin offices, really, everyone that makes this place work. I’m really excited to share that with everyone in person. We’ll also do “A Day in the Life of a Mortuary Makeup Artist.” As you asked me earlier, I definitely want to make sure I have my signature purple lipstick on. Need to make sure I trust the person applying it.
There are people who actually live in the cemetery. Where do you live? You’re in Brooklyn. You were born in Brooklyn. Grew up in Long Island. Did I get that right?
I’m from Long Island. I’m in Crown Heights.
When you’re not going to the cemetery, what are you doing?
Oh, this is such a wonderfully embarrassing but also true statement: I am going to experimental operas about mourning and death. I am writing spoken word poems about death and dating. I am going on a really nice long run in Prospect Park, contemplating my own death.
You said dating. Are you dating? What is dating like when the conversation of what you do for a living comes up and the fact that you think about this all the time?
Oh, it’s great. I mean, I get this look a lot where people are like, “Death scares me.” I’m like, “Well, I’m here to talk to you about it. One of my new rules is if you can’t talk about death, you can’t date me.”
Well, that makes sense.
It’s a really cool thing to hear perspectives from people, especially when I’m like, “Oh, I work at a cemetery.” They’re like, “Wait. What?” And you’re like, “It’s not as goth-y as you think. It’s actually this place that’s alive with turtles and birds and so many rich stories of Brooklyn’s history.”
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