I See Dead People

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 ostentatious ornate.

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? 

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44 comments

  1. Those gates look pretty darn close to “pearly”–aren’t they stunning? What a wonderful tour of a fascinatingly deadly place! Hope you have a great week, my friend. Happy Thanksgiving to you—————-
    Kathy

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    1. The gates are just stunning, aren’t they? Talk about a grand entrance.
      Happy Thanksgiving to you and Sara. I hope it’s a blessed one!

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  2. I love cemeteries. Whenever I visit a new city I try to visit a cemetery. In big cities like Paris you find so many graves of famous people, it’s amazing.
    I’ve never heard of Green Wood Cemetery before. It looks like a place I would enjoy exploring. Thanks for sharing the pictures and the history of the location.

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    1. I’ve heard of the catacombs in Paris, deep underground. Have you ever been there? I’m not quite sure I come face to face with all of those bones.

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      1. I haven’t been there but visited other catacombs. It’s eerie.
        my frined visited the ones in Paris and said it’s very big. A whole city full of dead people.

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  3. Beautiful, Jackie, thanks for sharing the history of this place. I love old cemeteries…so rich in history, and the curiosity of all those lives lived during different times. The front gates are gorgeous, like something from the middle ages. Really cool.

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    1. I especially enjoyed reading the epitaphs on the headstones. My favorite was, “My work here is done.” I guess that about sums it up. 🙂

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  4. I think cemeteries are fascinating. I’m told this is incredibly creepy. I just think everything from the names to the dates to the statues tell us a lot about the people resting there.

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    1. It is creepy, Tori, and that’s why I like you! I’ve never been a tourist in a cemetery before and it was just incredibly interesting. Who were these people? How did they die? What were they doing in Brooklyn? I guess it’s the writer in me. I start making up all kinds of answers.

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  5. This was wonderful, Jackie! Is it odd for me to think “Wow they really did exist!” when I find out a certain person’s remains are in a cemetery? I’m referring to Samuel Morse. Of course I know he existed – there is just something about the burial spot.

    Loved this!

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    1. So true. I saw Leonard Bernstein’s grave and there was his family beside him. You know what I was thinking? Oh, he had a spouse and kids and grandkids. I have no idea why I was surprised.

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  6. Hi Jacquelin,
    We loved your blog post! Thanks for visiting and thanks for such kind words about Green-Wood. Come back anytime. Or, as we like to say (tongue in check), “Come visit while you can still leave.” Stay in touch with us!
    Cheers,
    Lisa Alpert, Director of Development and Marketing
    The Green-Wood Historic Fund

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    1. Hi Lisa, Thanks so much for reading and commenting. I hope that I did Green-Wood justice. It feels like such a unique place in Brooklyn. Not a bad place to spend eternity either. 🙂

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    1. Thank you, Carole. Is that the cemetery in Paris where Jim Morrison of The Doors fame is buried? I have no idea why I know that!

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      1. …Yep, that’s the one. I’ve also visited Père Lachaise – just because I happened to be in the area with a spare half-hour. It’s huge, so I didn’t see much of it. Just looking at the map of famous people buried there was daunting. I saw Serge Gainsbourg’s grave, which was littered with photos, poems written by fans, empty beer bottles and cigarette lighters. Classy!

        What creeps me out the most in cemeteries is when I see family plots with space left on the headstones for the people not yet deceased…

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      2. I saw a few of those headstones also! The person’s name and date of birth were engraved, but the date of death was blank. I mean, I know it’s inevitable, but it seems to be taunting the Grim Reaper, doesn’t it?

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      3. Yep… I’m not particularly superstitious but I think pre-preparing your own gravestone is taking being super-organised a bit too far.

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  7. Thanks for sharing these photos and impressions of Green-wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. When I would visit home I would go visit and photograph my local cemetery and it always seems peaceful there to me. As a child, I even played it in until caught and chastised. Something about the passing on makes me pause, and then cherish living.

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    1. I’m glad I’m not alone in enjoying my visit to the cemetery. It’s something I hadn’t thought about doing until recently. A good place to do some deep thinking! Thanks so much for stopping by.

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  8. Beautiful photos, Jackie and I might’ve been better at history if I was able to learn it through a tour of a historic cemetery! I actually found myself paying attention to every word you wrote about the Revolutionary War…My brother in Cleveland takes his lunch sometimes at this huge cemetery where Elliot Ness is buried. I remember the really neat ones in New England…gosh, I miss the East. You even had the beautiful fall leaves in there…

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    1. I’m so glad that you enjoyed my little history lesson. 🙂
      The fall colors were so beautiful that weekend. It made everything so vibrant.

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    1. Thanks, Paul. I guess i often think that I don’t have time to go to some of these places even though they seem so interesting, or I figure that they’ll always be there. This gives me more incentive to check out some other places that have been on my list.

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    1. Thank you for stopping by, Carla! I’m glad you enjoyed my tour of Greenwood. I bet New Orleans has many interesting cemeteries like this one.

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  9. This is so interesting. I had seen it previously but revisited the post this morning because the title grabbed me from the sidebar. On our first date my husband and I walked through the historic cemetery in our town. 🙂

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