|From the Supplement to the 123rd Annual Meeting
Of Monuments and Memories:
New York City's Burial Sites and Cemeteries
Throbbing with energy, perpetually dismantling the old to make way for the new, New York City seems to announce, “Forget history; reinvention matters here.” Yet remnants of the past abound and quiet corners refuse to budge for the bulldozer. Many of these involve burial sites, not only in Manhattan, but also in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island. Some are minuscule one- to two-person graveyards. Others stretch into hundreds of acres accommodating hundreds of thousands of graves.
January’s forecasts rarely bode well for extended tours of outdoor burial grounds, but New York’s cemeteries never disappoint, particularly when combined with nearby indoor warm-up locations. You can reach those highlighted here via public transportation, but you might want a car for sites outside Manhattan.
Urban development, real estate prices, and cholera epidemics conspired to prohibit burials in Manhattan after 1852, though several important sites remain. To reach four interesting sites in Lower Manhattan, take a southbound R train to Rector St./Trinity Place or hail a cab. The Trinity Churchyard (74 Trinity Pl., 212-602-0800, www.trinitywallstreet.org), opened in 1697, has a number of colonial and early-national graves, including those of Robert Fulton, Albert Gallatin, and Alexander Hamilton
St. Paul’s Chapel Churchyard (209 Broadway, between Fulton and Vessey St., 212-233-4164, www.saintpaulschapel.org), completed in 1766, once extended to the Hudson River and now stands directly opposite the east side of the World Trade Center site. Churchyard graves include many Revolutionary War veterans. The city’s oldest public building in continuous use, St. Paul’s now houses Unwavering Spirit, an interactive exhibit devoted to photographs, commemorative posters, and other items left along its iron fence in the wake of 9/11. (If you are getting chilly, warm up at Oliva Gourmet, 225 Broadway between Vessey & Barclay Streets. Open 7 days a week, 6 a.m.–7 p.m.) The African Burial Ground National Monument (290 Broadway, 212-637-2019, www.nps.gov/afbg), is an extremely significant urban archaeological project. Landfill hid the site until 1991, when construction work 25 feet below street level unearthed the remains of African Americans interred in wooden boxes. Following years of controversy and the removal, inspection, and documentation of the remains of 400 of the estimated 15,000 people buried at the site, on October 5, 2007, the city dedicated a memorial to the free and enslaved Africans buried in the graveyard. First Shearith Israel Cemetery (55 St. James Pl., 212-873-0300, www.shearithisrael.org) contains fragments of the city’s only surviving colonial-era Jewish cemetery. Founded mostly by Portuguese and Spanish Jews, Congregation Shearith Israel was the only synagogue in New York between 1654 and 1825. The site of the congregation’s first cemetery (1656) continues to elude researchers; the earliest grave in the cemetery behind a locked gate in this corner nook dates to 1683.
Return to the meeting hotels after a stroll through Chinatown, home to many excellent warm-up sites, including Green Bo Restaurant (66 Bayard St., between Mott and Elizabeth St.), famous for its Shanghai dim sum, dumpling soups, and reasonable prices. Board a northbound R train at the Canal Street station
The Bronx’s largest burial site, the Woodlawn Cemetery (Webster Ave. and E. 233rd St., 718-920-0500, www.thewoodlawncemetery.org), opened in 1863. Famous burials include Irving Berlin, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Joseph Pulitzer, and Madame C.J. Walker. The cemetery also contains remains from Bensonia (Morrisania) Cemetery, a Native American burial ground. The closest subway station, Woodlawn, is about an hour and fifteen minute trip from the meeting hotels.
One of New York City’s most famous graveyards, Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn (500 25th St., 718-768-7300, www.green-wood.com), was founded in 1838 and was as popular for picnic excursions as for burials. The cemetery boasts a number of celebrity graves, including Henry Ward Beecher, Leonard Bernstein, Susan McKinney Stewart, Theodore Roosevelt, Margaret Sanger, and William Marcy “Boss” Tweed. About an hour from the meeting hotels by subway; take the R train to Brooklyn’s 25th Street station, walk east one block to 5th Avenue, and enter at the Gothic-arch entryway, completed in 1861.
When the New York legislature passed the 1847 Rural Cemetery Act, it stipulated that no cemetery organization could own more than 250 acres in one county. Graveyards soon straddled the boundaries of two counties; 17 different burial grounds make up what is now known as the “Cemetery Belt” in Brooklyn and Queens. The first to take advantage of the new law, Cypress Hills Cemetery (833 Jamaica Ave., Brooklyn; 718-277-2900; www.cypresshillscemetery.org), was founded in 1848 as Brooklyn and Queens’ first non-sectarian cemetery. Notable burials include Jackie Robinson and Arthur Alfonso Schomburg. The Cypress “chain” also connects a number of significant Jewish cemeteries, including Mount Zion Cemetery (59-63 54th Ave., Maspeth, Queens; 718-335-2500; www.mountzioncemetary.com), the final resting place of Rose Rosenfeld Freedman, the last survivor of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. About an hour and a half from the hotels via subway; closest station Cypress Hills/Jamaica Ave.
Finally, you can visit Staten Island Cemetery (1642 Richmond Terr.) at the end of a hill running alongside an auto body shop on Alaska Street. The cemetery’s first interments, in the 1820s, were relatives of a freed slave named Joseph Ryers.
Jocelyn Wills, associate professor of history at Brooklyn College, City University of New York, is the author of Boosters, Hustlers, and Speculators (MHS Press, 2005). Her current research focuses on American boom-and-bust, and the everyday experiences of lower-middle-class workers and petite-storefront operators. She is a member of the Local Arrangements Committee.Last Updated: December 15, 2008 2:41 PM