|Should you go?|
|Time spent||219 minutes|
|Best thing I saw or learned||You never know who you’ll meet at Green-Wood. For example, Do-Hum-Me, an Indian princess who came east with some of her tribe and died in New York.|
I feel like I’m on thin ice with this one. There’s a fairly strong argument to be made that cemeteries are not museums. Start with the fact that they are called “cemeteries” and not “museums.” But bear with me here.
First off this isn’t the first cemetery I’ve visited on this project. A significant part of what makes Trinity Church important is its graveyard, and Trinity’s is relatively tiny. Grant’s Tomb offers a lone voice trying to rehabilitate the General’s somewhat tattered reputation. And the African Burial Ground seeks to recall those whom history has forgotten.
New York’s two great cemeteries, Green-Wood in Brooklyn and Woodlawn in the Bronx, represent an amazing convergence of art and architecture, landscape design, nature, and the people, famous, infamous, and not-famous-at-all, who over centuries have made New York City what it is. A stroll through a one of these vast and amazing places can be almost as edifying, and at least as entertaining, as going to a gallery or historic house (or certainly a botanical garden).
The great cemeteries were parks before the City had parks. They provide a visceral a tie to the past that dusty displays at historical societies can’t match.
People are dying to get in.
Sorry. I knew I was going to write that sooner or later. Better to get it out of the way.
Green-Wood Facts and Landscape
If you accept Green-Wood Cemetery as a museum, then it is by far the largest museum in New York City, spanning 478 acres. Compare that with the New York Botanical Garden’s 250, and Prospect Park’s 526. In case you’re wondering (as I was), the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s floor space covers almost 46 acres.
Green-Wood was founded in 1838, as a place of eternal rest away from the crowded urban churchyards of New York City. In terms of the sheer landscape, Green-Wood may well be the most beautiful green space New York City has to offer: surprisingly rough, it comprises hills and dales, with secluded glens, ponds, and sweeping vistas unfolding as you proceed along the paths and roads. While Green-Wood features many free-standing mausoleums, a significant number of its crypts are built into hillsides, evoking a sort of Hobbiton for the dead.
As a result of the hilly nature of the place, Green-Wood also offers some amazing views of New York Harbor and Lower Manhattan.
In addition to hills and trees, of course, what Green-Wood offers is the dead. As the Cemetery’s map puts it, it’s home to 560,000 permanent residents. Or, rather, memorials to the dead, of all vintages from the 1830s to the present, in all states of preservation and decay, and in all levels of fanciness, from the austere standard military marker to vast, opulent tombs. Green-Wood tells a story about how we remember those who’ve died, or in some cases how they wanted themselves to be remembered.
Art & Architecture
Green-Wood’s monuments represent a wide array of architectural styles and forms. And some of the most famous and important of the city’s architecture firms — Warren & Wetmore, McKim Mead and White, and others –did work here. It’s a mini-showcase. Naturally some forms predominate in a memorial setting. Gothic architecture is super popular, and at its ornate peak in Green-Wood’s mighty main gates.
But other architectures abound. Obelisks and even the occasional pyramid evoke families or individuals with pharaonic aspirations, even with a veneer of Christianity applied.
Green-Wood is also home to many a mini-Parthenon as well. In fact, Athena herself stands at the highest natural point in Brooklyn, at an “Altar of Liberty” commemorating the Battle of Brooklyn (fought around here–and really throughout Brooklyn). She waves at the other bronze goddess of the city, the one visible in the distance, standing in the harbor, lifting her lamp beside the golden door.
Green-Wood was specifically designed as a rural cemetery. Its landscapes feel like the countryside, and the 7,000 or so trees contribute to a feeling of being far from the city. Green-Wood predates the city’s great parks, and I can’t help but think that the philosophy of the rural cemetery, with its rambling paths and unexpected views, had some influence on Olmstead and Vaux. From a certain perspective, Central Park and Prospect Park are just cemeteries minus the graves.
Bird watchers and tree huggers would love this place, though at one point I felt menaced by a gaggle of geese when I got between them and a pond. We think of cemeteries as places of death, of course, but really Green-Wood and its ilk are filled to the brim with life.
Green-Wood is home to a wide array of New York’s leading lights. Samuel F.B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph, has a prominent monument on a hill there. Leonard Bernstein has a much more modest stone, as does Jean-Michel Basquiat. Louis Comfort Tiffany and Boss Tweed reside at Green-Wood Cemetery. Whatever your interest, Green-Wood likely houses a selection of leading lights in that calling, industry, or profession.
Green-Wood Cemetery is also, of course, home to thousands upon thousands of people you’ve never heard of, and never will. People who lived ordinary lives, or only quietly extraordinary ones. Nice people and jerks. Those who died young and those who lived to ripe old ages. People representing the full diversity of the city, too — Green-Wood opens its doors to anyone, from any religion.
I randomly stumbled on the monument to Emile Pfizer (1866-1941) who topped his columned granite circle with a quote from As You Like It:
Tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in every thing.
He turns out to be one of the Pfizers, president of the pharma company from 1906-1941. But I didn’t know that at the time. In that moment, I felt like he was speaking to me across the decades, reflecting a little of who he was and what he thought about the world.
Green-Wood is still an active cemetery today — one of the interesting things about it is the mixture — monuments from the 19th century next door to ones of far more recent vintage. Sometimes, to be honest, I wish they kept the contemporary markers (which can run to the garish) separated from the more stately, somber ones from the 19th and early 20th centuries.
That said, even though some of Green-Wood’s contemporary options for interment look slightly…odd… it’s worth recalling the through-line, people wanting to be remembered, and more importantly people who wanted to remember, in a particular, special place, those who came before.
Should You Visit Green-Wood Cemetery?
If you haven’t noticed by now, I’m biased toward cemeteries. Full disclosure: my one tattoo is of a winged hourglass, found semi-frequently on 19th century grave markers, and meaning, of course, tempus fugit.
My penchant for funerary iconography notwithstanding, I love the wonderful melding of architecture, nature, people, and time at Green-Wood Cemetery (and at Woodlawn too). Cemeteries can be museums, and Green-Wood is much more about the living than about the shadow of death. And it’s extraordinarily well worth a visit. People are… well, you know.
|Address||Main Gate: 500 25th Street (at 5th Avenue), Brooklyn|
|Cost||General Admission: Free. Unless you want to stay permanently. Then it’ll cost you.|
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