December 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 8
by Judi Culbertson and Tom Randall; Chelsea Green Publishing Company; 405 pages; $16.95.
Who hasn’t been fascinated by an old cemetery? A graveyard can be not only a place for hallowing the dead but also a gallery of good and atrocious art, an exhibit field of curious poems, a final stage for the pageantry of vanity, and an epigrammatic museum of forgotten lives—all in a pretty park. Yet many of us either find cemeteries faintly morbid or tend to overlook them. Here, to show us what we’ve been missing, is an excellent guide to the cemeteries of New York, by the authors of a similar Baedeker of Parisian burial spots.
It’s a thick, handsome, and handy paperback, organized by cemetery, with useful maps and with the larger graveyards arranged as walking tours. Even the most jaded New Yorker will be surprised by the riches it reveals. At Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, for instance, Isabella Stewart Gardner is buried in a vault designed by Stanford White, with bronze doors by Augustus Saint-Gaudens; Elias Howe reposes several feet from his dog, Fannie, whose gravestone is adorned with an effusive poem; DeWitt Clinton rests under a statue of himself wearing formal attire from the waist up and a toga from there down; George C. Tilyou, the genius of Coney Island, sleeps below the figure of a maiden dripping flower petals on his grave; Albert Anastasia and Joey Gallo are interred at locations their families prefer kept secret; Horace Greeley lies beneath an eighty-three-word epitaph of his own penning. Others at Green-Wood include Lola Montez, Samuel Morse, Henry Ward Beecher, Margaret Sanger, and Boss Tweed. And this is all in only one of New York’s cemeteries. More than a dozen other local graveyards also offer spellbinding historical surprises.
The book is a pleasure to browse through. Some of its biographies of famous people are too cute (that of Herman Melville begins, “Call me Herman”), but its wealth of detail about the resting places of famous, obscure, and anonymous people is fascinating, and the variety of human experience it conveys is astounding. One monument at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx memorializes a youth who in 1909 “lost life by stab in falling on ink eraser, evading six young women trying to give him birthday kisses in office of Metropolitan Life Building.” The epitaph of two astronomers reads, “We have loved the stars too deeply to be afraid of the night.”