One of the fun things I did while on staycation was visit the Green-Wood Cemetery. Really. Although it’s only 15 minutes away and I’ve passed it many times, I’ve never gone beyond the pearly gates. Well, the gates aren’t pearly, they’re more of a wrought iron, but you know…
It was founded in 1838 as one of America’s first rural cemeteries. Until then most cemeteries were in church courtyards or crowded city-run plots. Green-wood was designed as a park with rolling hills, ponds and benches. By 1860, it rivaled Niagara Falls as the country’s largest tourist attraction – 500,000 visitors came each year. To a cemetery. Its popularity caused people to recognize the need for city parks and inspired the creation of Central Park in Manhattan and Prospect Park in Brooklyn.
Of course the cemetery is no longer rural. The 478 acres are surrounded by the bustling Brooklyn neighborhood of Sunset Park, including an electric power plant and one of the main bus routes. But once I got inside the park most of the ambient city noise fell away. Would you laugh if I said it was very peaceful?
More than 560,000 people are interred here, many of them well-known. It’s a who’s who of the 19th century rich and famous: Henry Steinway (of piano fame), Leonard Bernstein (composer), Henry Ward Beecher, Louis Comfort Tiffany (the stained-glass maker), Horace Greeley (founder and editor of the New York Tribune), Samuel Morse (telegraph inventor), Boss Tweed, and George Tilyou (creator of the Steeplechase, one of Coney Island’s original amusement parks), just to name a few. It almost goes without saying that some of the mausoleums and grave markers are
In the older sections of the cemetery, there is no symmetry to the placement of the plots, other than where the family purchased the land, I suppose. The newer areas have grave markers lined in the neat little rows you’d expect. Green-wood is still a working cemetery (is working the right word?) with a funeral procession arriving during my visit.
I was there on a warm fall day just after Veterans’ Day, so there were many flags adorning the headstones. Many who are buried here served in the American Civil War and other conflicts. There is a preservation effort in the cemetery (which is listed on the historic register) to conserve or replace the deteriorating monuments, especially the markers of the veterans.
This is what the markers generally look like before…
…and after they’ve been replaced. (This poor soul died during the Battle of Antietam, fought on Sept. 17, 1862, the deadliest of the Civil War with 23,000 casualties in a single day.)
The site of the cemetery is an important one in the annals of American history for another reason. During the Revolutionary War, 20,000 British soldiers were perched at the top of this hill where they had a great vantage point of the East River, including General George Washington’s 9,000 troops clustered on a patch of land in what is now Brooklyn Heights.
Here is what the view looked like from an engraving made in 1775. The British were on this hill and the Continental Army would have been down behind that clump of trees in the middle of the engraving with their backs to the river (a distance of less than 1 mile).
The British had planned to launch an attack at the break of day, but during the night a thick fog rolled down the river providing just enough coverage for Washington’s troops to climb into boats and escape into Manhattan and then retreat up the Hudson. The British then had control over all of Long Island, but many historians believe that if Washington had been captured that day the colonists would have never garnered support of the French and the revolution would have ended.
Here is the view from this same vantage point today. The Battle Hill monument to liberty is saluting the lady in the harbor, the Statue of Liberty.
Now take a moment and allow yourself a little breathing space.
Thanks for coming along on my tour of Green-Wood Cemetery. Have you ever been a tourist in a cemetery? What was your experience like?