Going to visit the graves of three deceased relatives wasn’t exactly a fun time for me as a child. It was a familial duty to be performed a few times every year, on special holidays and anniversaries. Still, my parents tried to make it a less unpleasant task. After laying down fresh flowers and tidying up the plot of my maternal grandparents and an aunt, we would go to one of the ponds and stop for a while so that I could watch the swans, Canada geese, and mallard ducks glide by on the still water or take a nap on the shore, with their heads twisted onto their backs in what looked like a terribly uncomfortable position. Decades later, I still like to watch these waterfowl when I visit Green-Wood Cemetery, but now I’m also on the hunt for so many other things.
It seems improbable today that these 478 acres in the heart of Brooklyn are reserved as a green space, especially amid all the rampant construction surrounding it that is making developers rich and homeowners indebted. But when Green-Wood Cemetery was founded in 1838, things looked a little more pastoral here, and it hardly seemed out of place. In fact, the then-independent city was largely rural, and the cemetery was conceived to relieve the overcrowding in church graveyards.
Within its black wrought-iron fence that runs around the entire border of the cemetery, roughly 600,000 people lie, hopefully, in peace. But there’s plenty of life here, too, including more than 8,000 trees, a zoo-like assortment of small mammals, and a wide variety of birds, including the monk parakeets (accidental escapees from Argentina) that have made their home in the massive Gothic entrance gate that’s spooky enough to serve as the setting for a Halloween horror flick yet beautiful enough for these squawking creatures to establish residency here. Most visitors will enter Green-Wood through this impressive gate, designated a New York City landmark in 1966. Designed by the incomparable Richard Upjohn, the gate has marked the cemetery’s main entrance since 1863. With its brownstone finials, buttresses, open tracery, pillars, central clock, and double arches, and its four sandstone panels with scenes of death and resurrection in high relief, this masterpiece has a bell within the central tower, rising 106 feet, that still rings to announce the arrival of a funeral procession.
Once inside, you’ll find yourself in a National Historic Landmark (only the fourth cemetery in the United States with that distinction), designated in 2006 in recognition of the cemetery’s quadruple threat: significance in art, architecture, history, and landscape. You’ll also find yourself with a choice — which road to choose? They all sound so inviting: Willow Avenue, Sycamore Avenue, Holly Path, Tulip Avenue, Marigold Path.
If you veer off to the right, you’ll soon come upon the gorgeous chapel, another New York City landmark (2016), designed in 1911 by the same firm that designed New York’s Grand Central Terminal. With its Gothic frillery, finials, five domes, and quatrefoil windows, this beautiful chapel functions as a peaceful oasis for those attending a service. From there, you’ll just want to wander for hours on and off the serpentine paths that snake their way through this microcosm of New York history, highlighted by beautiful art and architecture in a flawless setting.
Long before the cemetery was laid out, the Americans lost the Battle of Long Island, but on Battle Hill, the highest point in Brooklyn (220 feet above sea level) and now part of the cemetery, the Americans repulsed a series of British attacks and kept control of the hill while inflicting the greatest number of casualties during the entire battle. Today, that very spot is marked by the Altar to Liberty: Minerva monument, a bronze statue of the Roman goddess of wisdom and strategic warfare that was unveiled in 1920. By no coincidence, it looks directly at the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, about five miles away; in 2006, that meaningful line of sight was employed to defeat the construction of a nearby building that would have ruined it.
Since its opening 181 years ago, Green-Wood has played a critical role in local, U.S., and global history, including its inspiration for other rural cemeteries throughout the United States as well as for both Central Park in Manhattan and Prospect Park in Brooklyn. Originally considered a Christian burial place for white Anglo-Saxon Protestants of good repute, times have changed (my ancestors buried here are Italian Catholics, and one of the earliest sepultures was that of Do-Hum-Me, a Native American princess from the Sac nation). Its early regulation forbidding burials for anyone executed for a crime or who died in jail has also fallen away, most notably for William “Boss” Tweed, New York’s notoriously corrupt state senator who ran the infamous Tammany Hall, who circumvented the rule and was interred here in 1878.
More reputable folk who found local, national, and international fame during their lives also found their final resting place in Green-Wood. By profession, the cemetery covers just about everything you can imagine: inventors and artists, actresses and journalists, business entrepreneurs and sea captains, cabinetmakers and racehorse trainers — the list goes on and on. Government is well-presented here, too: Only Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia has more politicians buried within its borders than Green-Wood.
Some of the more famous residents include:
- pastor and anti-slavery activist Henry Ward Beecher;
- founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) Henry Bergh;
- composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein;
- the “father of baseball,” Henry Chadwick;
- U.S. Senator, New York State Governor, and New York City Mayor (and near-President of the United States, had he not lost Pennsylvania in the 1812 election) De Witt Clinton;
- Nathaniel Currier and James Ives, printmakers whose work still adorns your annual Christmas cards;
- Asher B. Durance, leader of the influential Hudson River School of art;
- Brooklyn Dodgers owner Charles Ebbets;
- Frank Morgan, the actor who will forever be the Wizard of Oz, whose tombstone bears his real surname, Wupperman;
- telegraph inventor Samuel F.B. Morse;
- James Renwick Jr., designer of New York’s famed St. Patrick’s Cathedral;
- Martha Roosevelt (Teddy’s mother) and Alice Roosevelt (his wife), both of whom died on the same day in 1884;
- beloved toy salesman F.A.O. Schwarz;
- piano manufacturer Henry Engelhard Steinway;
- America’s two best stained-glass artists, Louis Comfort Tiffany and John La Farge; and
- John Thomas Underwood, creator of the typewriter.
Green-Wood also holds the remains of dozens of people whose names may be unfamiliar but who made their mark, one way or the other:
- William Henry Aspinwall, responsible for the Panama Railroad that linked the Atlantic and Pacific oceans 59 years before the Panama Canal came into existence;
- Eberhard Faber, who added the eraser to the pencil;
- Elias Howe, inventor of the sewing machine;
- Walter Hunt, inventor of the safety pin;
- Laura Keene, the actress who was on stage at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., when Abraham Lincoln was shot in 1865 and who tried to aid the dying president;
- Pierre Lorillard, inventor of the tuxedo;
- founder and editor of The New York Times, Henry Raymond;
- Samuel Chester Reid, who designed the American flag; and
- Clarence Mackenzie, the first Brooklynite to be killed in the Civil War — a 12-year-old drummer boy.
Of course, most of those buried here have no claim to fame. They were born, lived, loved, and died in virtual anonymity. Some died of natural causes at an advanced age, some died as babies, a few were murder victims. Some died on battlefields — soldiers from every American war, starting with the Revolutionary War, were laid to rest here. And, sometimes, the deaths were en masse. For instance, following the catastrophic Brooklyn Theatre fire that claimed up to 300 lives in 1876 (which remains the third-worst theater disaster in the United States), 103 unidentified victims were buried here.
Ill-fated ship passengers seemed particularly destined for Green-Wood. When the transatlantic steamship Arctic sank in 1854, 250 of the ship’s 335 crew and passengers perished, including every woman and child, and multiple family members of one of the shipping line’s financial backers lie in the family plot. The silver lining of the tragedy: Sea lanes were instituted, and watertight compartments for passenger ships were now mandated. Fifty years later, the General Slocum, a sidewheel passenger steamboat, caught fire and sank in New York’s East River, taking with it 1,051 lives, making it the worst maritime disaster in New York history, the second-worst maritime disaster in the United States, and the worst disaster in New York up until 9/11. Forty-six of those who perished ended up in Green-Wood. Soon after, federal and state regulations resulted in improved emergency equipment on passenger ships. In 1912, one victim of the Titanic tragedy was buried here, and in 1915, Green-Wood became the resting place for two passengers lost on the Lusitania.
Art and Architecture
Many of Green-Wood’s well-known figures rest in large, ornate mausoleums, some free-standing, others built into hillsides, in a dizzying array of styles — Moorish Revival, Greek Revival, Egyptian, Gothic. The art and architecture of these mausoleums, and of thousands of other tombs, obelisks, busts, statues, crosses, sculptures, and monuments throughout the grounds, are highly regarded as some of the best funerary art in the United States, some of which was designed by the country’s leading architects, including master sculptors Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Charles Calverley.
The brownstone Pierrepont Monument, created for Henry Pierrepont, who served on the commission to create Green-Wood, was designed by famed architect Richard Upjohn. Upjohn also designed the base on which the statue of De Witt Clinton stands. America’s first sculptor to cast in bronze, Henry Kirke Browne, created the lifelike figure of this important New Yorker that combines the artistic convention that heroes be dressed as civic demigods of ancient civilizations (Clinton wears a Roman mantle and sandals) with historical accuracy (above the waist, Clinton dons a suit).
Creativity abounds in Green-Wood’s art, where gravestones and markers take on symbolism, personal references, and unusual elements. Among the mourning dogs, dozens of mourning angels, Celtic crosses, half-covered urns, and broken columns, I found the monument to harbor pilot Thomas Freeborn, which features the doomed ship he was trying to guide into harbor, its masts at a dangerous angle amid turbulent waves. The Firemen’s Monument includes a couple of brownstone fire hydrants topped by fire helmets. The monument to baseball star pitcher Jim Creighton of the long-defunct Brooklyn Excelsiors sports two crossed bats, a base, and a score card, honoring both Creighton and the sport that literally killed him — a fantastic swing that earned him a home run ruptured his bladder; he died four days later, at age 21.
There’s the shipyard owner with a granite ship on his monument, the four-sided monument with each side dedicated to one of the four deceased Harper brothers, and the monuments for a photographer and painter adorned with a box camera and painter’s brush and palette, a musician with a lyre, and a soldier with a cannon. William Holbrook Beard, a popular anthropomorphic painter in the 1800s, has a brown bear sitting atop his tombstone.
Azrael, the angel of death in both the Jewish and Muslim faiths that separates the soul from the body at the moment of death, smothers the tomb of husband and wife Charles and Marie Louise Schieren, who died within a day of each other and were buried in a double funeral.
Although she was not famous, Jane Griffith, thanks to her husband, has one of the finest monuments. This marble gem is a sculpted scene of Jane, standing on the front steps of her wisteria-covered townhouses by a cast-iron fence, bidding goodbye to her husband, dressed in a swallowtail coat and stovepipe hat.
More than just names and dates on a slab, these grave markers, no matter how simple or how grand, tell stories that keep the deceased alive — and visitors enthralled.
Absorbing all this history and art becomes so much more enjoyable when you’re doing it outdoors in one of New York’s finest green spaces. Indeed, Green-Wood teems with life, and its vast array of flora and fauna make this a magnet for botanists and dendrologists, bird watchers and ornithologists, and anyone with even the slightest appreciation of nature.
The farther I walked from Green-Wood’s periphery, the quieter it became, until a virtual silence surrounded me. Car horns, construction equipment, the rumble of buses and trucks — they all vanish once you’re deep inside the cemetery, and that’s a rare and most welcome experience in Brooklyn. Like botanic gardens, rural cemeteries such as this have been proven to lower your blood pressure, and you can feel yourself decompressing.
Of course, one of Brooklyn’s rare green lungs isn’t only just for human visitors. Increasing expanses of concrete seemingly everywhere has made Green-Wood a critical stop on the flight patterns of migratory birds, who break here for a little R&R and some hydration in the four glacial lakes. They may rest in the branches of more 8,000 trees and shrubs that thrive here, a combination of evergreen (24 percent) and deciduous (76 percent), 173 of which have a diameter in excess of 48 inches. Beech, cedar, chestnut, cypress, dogwood, elm, ginko, magnolia, oak, pawpaw, sassafras, spruce, sugar maple, sweetgum, and weeping willows are just some of the trees providing respite for these transients and plenty of shade and beauty for the rest of us. Brooklyn’s four-season climate ensures a year-round display of kaleidoscopic colors, with spring and autumn truly bringing out nature’s best in their blossoms and leaves.
All those plants and lakes also support permanent residents. Although at first I felt that the silence was total — so accustomed am I to incessant ambient noise — I took a moment or two to attune my ears to the song and call of Green-Wood’s avian citizens. In addition to those waterfowl that I always look for, bluebirds, cardinals, egrets, finches, herons, hummingbirds, orioles, sandpipers, tanagers, warblers, woodpeckers, and dozens and dozens of other birds (220 different species have been observed here over the past 50 years) contribute to the cemetery’s soundtrack and add flashes of colors in trees or the open meadows. The buzz of bees reminds you of their vital role as pollinators, while butterflies conduct their equally important business soundlessly.
Around the water features, you’ll often spot frogs and turtles. And opossums, rabbits, raccoons, voles, and woodchucks scurry about. Even though it may seem a halcyon oasis for such critters, they have to remain vigilant — the cemetery is also home to hungry predatory birds like owls, falcons, and hawks. At night, bats come out to feast.
Thirty miles of paths, designed for pedestrians and the horse-drawn carriage, keep you moving and totally engaged, as you never know what’s going to appear around the next bend. Without a map, you’re likely to get lost here, but you really won’t mind as you revel in this harmonious blend of nature, art, and history. Like other spectacular rural cemeteries, such as Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri, and Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, New York, Green-Wood Cemetery offers the opportunity to commune with the dead and the living in the most beautiful environment imaginable.