A Day @: Green-Wood Cemetery Offers Much More Than Simply Peace and Tranquility
By Anne Marie Kelly, Contributing Writer, July 26, 2018
For some, visiting a cemetery means taking a stroll through history and enjoying a place of peace; for others, it’s a harder sell. No matter how you feel about visiting cemeteries, the historic Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn needs to be on your list of delightfully interesting places to visit in New York City. It’s chockablock with famous “residents” dating from pre-Civil War days until now, but it is also a park featuring rolling hills with stunning views of Manhattan, a sculpture garden, an arboretum, a birder’s paradise, and even an event space used for weddings (unfortunately closed for extensive renovations until November 2019). It’s leafy and lovely and easily one of the most peaceful places in all of the five boroughs.
Green-Wood Cemetery opened in 1838 when rapid urbanization meant traditional burial grounds in churchyards were becoming overcrowded. It was part of the rural cemetery movement, where cemeteries were designed to look and feel like parks. Believe it or not, it was once among the nation’s most-visited tourist attractions, second only to Niagara Falls. One reason New Yorkers flocked to Green-Wood was that Central Park and Prospect Park didn’t yet exist; in fact, Green-Wood’s popularity inspired the creation of both these parks. It spans 478 acres, features the highest point in Brooklyn and is the eternal home to some 560,000 people. It’s also a National Historic Landmark with significance in art, architecture, landscaping, and history.
Green-Wood, of course, boasts graves of many high profile and historically recognizable names, including composer Leonard Bernstein (which may be a popular place to visit on August 25 — the 100th anniversary of his birth); the abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher (whose mistress is also interred in Green-Wood); artist Jean-Michel Basquiat; former New York governor DeWitt Clinton; newspaperman Horace Greeley; piano manufacturer Henry Steinway; famed cabinet maker Duncan Phyfe; Samuel Morse, inventor of the Morse Code; and Laura Keene, the actress who was on stage when President Abraham Lincoln was shot.
But just as interesting is the fact that it is the resting place of many ordinary residents as well. The various creative grave markers offer a glimpse into their lives and their souls. A great example is C.A. Viemeister’s (1885-1931) amazingly picturesque family mausoleum. It’s a small, beckoning building nestled into the side of a hill, surrounded by a flowering garden. He left behind the philosophy by which he tried to live his life etched into a bronze disc flanking the mausoleum door. It has a surprisingly modern feel saying, in part, that he tried to “To take Care of the Present and Let the Past and the Future take Care of Themselves.“ Another surprising discovery: Lewis Comfort Tiffany crafted many of the museum-quality windows that take pride of place in luxurious mausoleums. Yet his grave marker is a stunningly simple headstone. No building. No sculpture. And certainly, no stained-glass window. And then there is Rex; a Retriever buried alongside his owner. Rex’s bronze likeness is his grave marker. It’s rendered so beautifully you’re tempted to pat him behind his ear and whisper “Good Boy.”
It’s not only people who seek sanctuary at Green-Wood; our feathered friends do as well. There are regular before-hours Birding in Peace tours to discover the many birds that call Green-Wood home. But even non-birders who can’t get up quite that early will be delighted by the Argentine Monk Parrots who have made their home in the main gates. Rumor has it they escaped 50+ years ago while transiting through Kennedy Airport (then called Idlewild). Twice, over the years, they decamped to nearby trees when the gates underwent renovation, but they rebuilt their nests as soon as the construction ended, where they remain active residents.
Architecture lovers will find much to feast on in Green-Wood. The wide-ranging mausoleum styles include Egyptian Revival, Neoclassical, and Art Deco. In a sense, these structures are small, very expensive, custom homes with attention to detail and design everywhere. The magnificent Gothic Revival entry gates, home to those Argentine parrots, are a New York City Landmark. They were built during the Civil War by the same architect who built Trinity Church in lower Manhattan. Equally impressive (and also a New York City landmark) is the cemetery’s chapel. It was completed in 1911 by the architectural firm who designed Grand Central Station. It’s a miniature replica of the upper sections of a Christopher Wren chapel in Oxford, England. It’s small, ornate, cool even on a sweltering day and utterly contemplative.
In addition to remaining an active cemetery, Green-Wood has successfully evolved into an event space. Programming takes advantage of the magnificent grounds and sometimes, but only sometimes, expands on the theme of death. There’s a Thursday night Jazz at Twilight series that “starts just before the sun begins to drop below the horizon so you can see sweeping views of the cemetery, New York Harbor, and downtown Manhattan awash in dazzling golden light.” There is also a monthly Death Café conversation. The Death Café is a national movement inspired by the old European salon (or café) where people gathered to discuss philosophical, political or scientific ideas. This salon specifically focuses on how people feel about death — with the hope that accepting the inevitability of death it will help us make the most of our (finite) lives.
Green-Wood Cemetery is open every day (specific hours change with the seasons). Expert guides lead Historic Trolley Tours which break the cemetery grounds into smaller points of interest, such as The Hidden Gems of Green-Wood, The Far Side of Green-Wood and The Twilight Tour. You can also download a free app from Green-Wood’s website that includes self-guided walking tours. For more information on the various events happening at Green-Wood check out the Events Calendar listing.
From time to time Rooftop Films hosts screenings on the grounds of the Cemetery; the next scheduled feature is Prospect on Saturday, August 4. The evenings begin with live music and features a Q&A and an after-party with alcohol (spirits for the spirits?); refer to their website for more information. Also of note, there’s a new concert series hosted in the Catacombs at Green-Wood entitled The Angel’s Share with upcoming concerts: Harpist Bridget Kibby and Friends on August 6-7; and a tribute to Leonard Bernstein commemorating the anniversary of his 100th birthday entitled An American in Paris on August 25-27 featuring duo-pianists Christina and Michelle Naughton. Each concert includes a pre-show sunset whiskey tasting overlooking Manhattan, before descending to the Catacombs at dusk. For more information on upcoming concerts and events click here.
Cover: The grounds of Green-Wood Cemetery; courtesy of Green-Wood Historic Fund.