Green-wood Cemetery, located in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, opened in 1838 and is one of only four U.S. cemeteries to be granted National Historic Landmark status. That alone should tell you that it is a special place, worthy of a visit or two or more. So what is so special that one would happily visit this cemetery for a stroll or even a picnic!?! We invite you to take our Green-wood Cemetery Tour to let us guide you, but if you can’t attend, here is some background info.
In America until the 1830s, burials were located in graveyards — small plots of land usually belonging to the adjacent church or a town hall. New York City’s Trinity Church and St. Paul’s Chapel both have graveyards that date back to pre-Revolutionary times.
According to maps of early 1800s Manhattan, there were at least a dozen small graveyards below 12th Street, but these tended to be reserved for the deceased of wealthy or well-connected families. Meanwhile, immigrants began arriving in New York City by the tens of thousands and as the city’s living population soared, so did the need for more space to bury its dead. City planners began to address this issue and one major obstacle was the lack of space and the high real estate prices within New York City (which until 1898 was only the Island of Manhattan).
City planners had to look for land located beyond the city limits. At the same time, cities like Paris and Boston were experimenting with a new kind of cemetery, designed to be pastoral, serene and airy unlike the cramped, dreary city graveyards. The earliest grand and intentionally “rural” cemeteries were Pere Lachaise in Paris (1806) and Mount Auburn in Boston (1831).
In stepped Henry Pierrepont, a prominent and wealthy resident of the City (now borough) of Brooklyn. Pierrepont felt strongly that the 300,000 residents of Brooklyn, then one of the most important cities in the world, deserved a cemetery of grandeur, far removed from the hustle and bustle of city life, and that would offer both a serene setting for afternoon strolls for the living and eternal homes to Brooklyn’s dearly departed. A board of trustees was formed and 478 acres of farmland in Brooklyn was purchased. With Pierrepont’s influence, engineer and designer Major David Bates Douglass was commissioned to develop Green-wood. The result was magnificent. Located on the highest peaks in Brooklyn, Green-wood was more like a grand English park, with its rolling hills, natural ponds and walking paths that wind through expanses of lush green lawns dotted with flowers and succulents, sculptures and architectural monuments.
Green-wood’s landscaping was so exceptional that it served as an inspiration to Calvert Vaux, the designer of Central Park and Prospect Park. Ironically, what Green-wood didn’t inspire were customers. Despite the splendor and space it offered for burials, its potential clientele mainly lived on Manhattan and would have to be ferried over for burial. In Green-wood’s early years there was reluctance by New Yorkers to purchase plots in Distant Brooklyn. Then, in 1844, the cemetery’s trustees devised a brilliant public relations stunt that gave the cemetery instant celebrity status. They arranged to move the body of a multi-term New York mayor, U.S. Senator and Governor, DeWitt Clinton, (who died in 1828) from his modest Albany grave to a new site at Green-Wood. Soon the cemetery was selling huge plots of land for tombs, shrines and even mausoleums and catacombs to families of the ‘rich and famous’ in anticipation of the inevitable.
Within 20 years of its opening, Green-wood was just as popular with the living as it was with the dead. It attracted 500,000 visitors a year, rivaling only Niagara Falls for the greatest number of tourists. When you visit Green-wood it is easy to understand why people flocked there to stroll and even picnic on the grass. Green-wood is a feast for the eyes, with an abundance of finely-sculpted headstones that tell the stories of those who lie beneath them, grand public monuments to fallen civil war heroes and victims of calamities, as well as stunning family shrines, private mausoleums and even catacombs. Some consider it to be one of the finest 19th and 20th century open air galleries of neo-renaissance, neo-classical and Victorian style statues.
When visiting Green-wood, one is struck by both its natural beauty and its solemnity. It is, after all, a cemetery, with over half a million people buried there. Among these buried you will find over 5,000 fallen civil war soldiers, commemorated by a monument located on the highest point in Brooklyn, on the site of the first and biggest Revolutionary War battle, the “Battle of Long Island”.
Green-wood is filled with influential Americans whose contributions changed the world and individuals who brought joy to millions of people. Just a few of the notables buried in Green-wood are inventors Elias Howe (the sewing machine), Samuel F. B. Morse, (the telegraph and Morse code), Walter Hunt, (the safety pin), and John Matthews (the “Soda Fountain King”, creator of an early apparatus to carbonate soft drinks). Green-wood is the final resting place of some of the founders of America’s most influential newspapers: Horace Greeley (the New York Tribune), James Gordon Bennett, Sr. (New York Herald) and Henry Jarvis Raymond (co-founder of The New York Times).
The number of politicians is equally impressive: seventeen mayors of Brooklyn, 10 of who became mayors of New York City following consolidation of the city in 1898. Just minutes away from these civic leaders, you can find mobsters such as Albert Anastasia, contract killer for Murder Inc., “Crazy” Joey Gallo of the Columbo family and William “Bill the Butcher” Poole, leader of the notorious Bowery Boys gang in Five Points.
Gentler souls are also in Green-wood, including Jean-Michel Basquiat (modern artist), Leonard Bernstein (composer and conductor), Louis Comfort Tiffany (artist) and several of the Steinway family members (piano manufacturers).
And last but certainly not least are many heroes of baseball such as Charles Ebbets (owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers), Henry Chadwick (Baseball Hall of Fame member), and James Creighton, Jr. (the first pitcher to throw a fastball). Speaking of baseball, what game would be perfect without a hot dog? At Green-wood, you can stop by and say thanks to Charles Feltman, credited with being the first person to put a hot dog on a bun which eventually led to the establishment of Nathan’s Restaurant in Coney Island.
Written by Courtney Shapiro