Monthly Archives: March 2012

The Gem of New York City

Brooklyn's Green-Wood Cemetery: New York's Buried TreasureBrooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery: New York’s Buried Treasure by Jeffrey I. Richman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In the 19th century, the two greatest tourist attractions in North America were Niagara Falls and Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery. This well-researched and fully illustrated coffee table book will make you feel that you are there.

And what a place it is! Green-Wood is the final home of Samuel Morse, Leonard Bernstein, Jean Michel Basquiat, Boss Tweed, Currier and Ives, F.A.O. Schwartz, Louis Comfort Tiffany, as well as spiritualists, artists, soldiers, silent film stars, Native Americans, sports heroes, and even Frank Morgan, the Wizard of Oz. Paging through this book, you can pay your respects and visit their graves, but it would be wonderful to join one of Green-Wood’s guided tours and see the place for yourself.

Until you can get there in person, this fascinating and comprehensively illustrated book will whet your appetite.

I bought my copy directly from the cemetery, but it’s also available on Amazon: Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery: New York’s Buried Treasure.

Cemetery of the Week #53: Green-Wood Cemetery

Cemetery of the Week #53: Green-Wood Cemetery

Green-Wood in Springtime, photographed by Aaron Brashear.

Green-Wood Cemetery
500 25th Street
Brooklyn, New York 11232

Telephone: 718-768-7300
Founded: 1838
Size: 478 acres
Number of interments: more than 560,000
Open: The main entrance at Fifth Avenue and 25th street is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week, with extended hours in the summer.

This weekend: Saturday, March 31 from 1 to 3 p.m.
Photographer John Thomas Grant will present a talk and lead a tour called Eternal Beauty: Green-Wood Through the Lens (with a special presentation on Victorian mourning). The talk is free, but there is a fee for the tour. Tickets are $15 for members of the Green-Wood Historic Fund, $20 for non-members, and are available here.

Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery followed the garden cemetery movement pioneered in the United States by Cambridge’s Mount Auburn Cemetery. That is, these cemeteries didn’t belong to churches, but used the beauty of their grounds to attract clientele. After two years of landscaping, Green-Wood Cemetery hosted its first burial in 1840.

The Graveyard Shift: A Family Historian’s Guide to New York City Cemeteries claims, “Green-Wood’s beauty ultimately inspired the contest to design Central Park.” In the 19th century, sightseers took trains to Green-Wood merely to walk its paths. In 1860, the graveyard pulled in half a million visitors a year: a tourist attraction rivaling Niagara Falls.

Alongside Brooklyn’s Fifth Avenue rises its huge Gothic Revival archway. Richard Upjohn, designer of Green-Wood’s entryway, did his part to welcome visitors to the cemetery. Pierced like lace, the breathtaking brownstone gate ascends in high arches.

Warren and Wetmore, the firm that designed Grand Central Station, designed the chapel. The chapel, built in 1911, stands on land that used to be Arbor Water, one of the famous ponds of Green-Wood.

The ground facing the former pond rose in terraces lined with mausoleums. The architecture spans Egyptian pyramids to columned Greek temples to the Romanesque receiving tomb.

Green-Wood reportedly has 20 miles of drives. Its 478 acres contain more than 560,000 souls. Until the 20th century, it was the largest landscaped cemetery in the world.

Two seated angels in magnificent relief flank the ornate cutwork door of the Stewart mausoleum. The angel on the right holds a slender trumpet as tall as his shoulder. In Green-Wood: New York’s Buried Treasure, Jeffrey I. Richman said the angels had been controversial in their day, since they didn’t depict death as gloomy. The relief had been designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, sculptor of the figure called Grief at Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

In the 19th century, a large variety of souvenirs pictured the cemetery. These were originally collected on sightseeing tours or as souvenirs from imaginary vacations. Famous and Curious Cemeteries reports that there were over a thousand stereo-opticon cards of Green-Wood by 1862.

Stereoviews were stiff cardboard cards with a pair of duplicate photographs mounted on them. You slipped the cards into a stereopticon viewer, peered inside, and the image magically became three-dimensional. Millions of cards were produced, documenting every imaginable thing from scenes of daily life to pornography to natural disasters like the San Francisco earthquake and fire. The number of cemetery cards alone is staggering.

In my stereoviews, Charlotte Canda’s memorial is a gothic fantasy enclosed by a lacy iron fence. A small chapel with twin spires houses a statue of the virgin, one hand over her bosom. Six granite steps lead down to the lawn. A pair of worshipful angels kneels at the edges of the plot. It is the pinnacle of Victorian memorial art.

Charlotte Canda was the only child of a French émigré who’d fought in Napoleon’s army before opening a girls’ school in New York. The prodigy Charlotte designed the ornate memorial for an aunt. After a party to celebrate her seventeenth birthday, horses pulling her carriage bolted through a raging storm. Flung to the street, Charlotte died in her parents’ arms.

During the 1850s, Canda’s grave had the most visited monument in the country. Richman reports, “On any given Sunday, a crowd gathered around it.” A 1985 issue of American Cemetery magazine said that Canda’s monument was “still one of the most popular of the cemetery’s numerous attractions.” More than the graves of Samuel Morse (inventor of the telegraph), Elias Howe (inventor of the sewing machine), or Lola Montez (Gold Rush-era dancer of questionable talent who seduced Franz Liszt), I went to Green-Wood to see Canda’s monument.

In 2006, the U.S. Department of the Interior named Green-Wood Cemetery a National Historic Landmark. It is only the fourth cemetery in the nation to receive this designation.

Rich Moylan, President of the Green-Wood Cemetery, takes pride in the cemetery’s restoration program, which he says has “restored hundreds, if not thousands, of memorials over the past 10 years.” In 2009, they were raising funds to recreate an angel that disappeared over 60 years ago from pianist-composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s monument. Green-Wood has also worked with the New York Restoration Project to plant nearly 500 new trees. Throughout the cemetery, over 7,500 trees have been tagged and catalogued.

In the future, Green-Wood would like to open a Visitor Center away from the cemetery’s main office, so that tourists can be kept separate from mourners. Green-Wood provides 1500 burials and 2200 cremations per year, while welcoming 300,000 visitors. The Visitor Center will include museum space to display “original artworks by the nearly 300 artists of note resting here. The collection now exceeds 100 paintings by over 70 of those artists.”

Useful links:

Green-Wood Cemetery’s website

Historical Brooklyn

Yelp reviews of Green-Wood Cemetery

Google map of Green-Wood Cemetery

Books I’ve reviewed that reference Green-Wood Cemetery:

Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery: New York’s Buried Treasure 

Permanent New Yorkers: A Biographical Guide to the Cemeteries of New York

The Graveyard Shift: A Family Historian’s Guide to New York City Cemeteries

The American Resting Place: 400 Years of History Through Our Cemeteries and Burial Grounds

The Last Great Necessity: Cemeteries in American History

Famous and Curious Cemeteries: A Pictorial, Historical, and Anecdotal View of American and European Cemeteries

The Cemetery Book: Graveyards, Catacombs and Other Travel Haunts Around the World

Victorian Cemetery Art


What’s the prettiest cemetery in springtime?

Mount Auburn in the spring

Several years ago, I took a graveyard tour in the springtime, driving from Boston to Philadelphia and back to New York City.  I saw 17 cemeteries in 10 days, each lovelier than the last.  So my question to you is:  where is the best place to revel in spring?

I’m limited by the poll-making program to 10 responses, so I merely listed the first 10 beautiful graveyards that came to mind.  I know I’ve missed many, many more.  Please point up the omissions in the comments.

Also, you can feel free to vote for more than one in the following list.

Finally, this poll doesn’t record your identity, so no worries there.  I’m just curious to see what springtime cemeteries I should add to my must-see list.

Cemetery of the Week #52: Aoyama Reien

Lovely Aoyama Cemetery

Aoyama Reien
2-32-2 Aoyama, Minato-ku, Tokyo, Japan
Telephone: 03-3401-3652
Founded: 1872
Size: 64 acres
Number of interments: difficult to estimate, since Japanese are cremated and their ashes are buried inurned beneath the family monument.
Open: 24 hours

Cherry blossom-time is a national holiday in Japan, with news reporters following the progression of spring throughout the country. The delicate pink cherry blossoms are adored for their fragrance and fragility. One of the most peaceful places to contemplate the brevity of spring is the Aoyama Cemetery, called Aoyama Reien or more familiarly Aoyama Bochi, just slightly west of central Tokyo.

Not far from the Shibuya business district and within sight of Roppongidori’s high-rises, Aoyama Cemetery is Tokyo’s largest cemetery and one of the few park-style cemeteries in Japan. In fact, it was Tokyo’s first municipal cemetery, owned and overseen by the city and not affiliated with a particular temple or shrine.

The Aoyama area is named for Tadanori Aoyama, who was given the land by the Shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa in the early 1600s. The Ginza line, Tokyo’s oldest subway, opened there in 1938. At the end of World War II, Allied firebombing leveled 98% of the area. It languished until the area was rebuilt for the 1964 Olympics. Now it is filled with posh shops and nightclubs.

The graveyard fills the crest of a huge hill. The outer part of it is quite steep. Stone steps lead between terraced grave plots. It is one of the few places in Tokyo with so many trees. When I visited in mid-March several years ago, marvelous bushes bloomed. Their small, star-shaped flowers were waxy yellow, white, or deep pink. The scent was a combination of jasmine and orange blossoms.

Traditionally, Japanese graves rise a step or two above ground level. Often a low fence encircles the plot. Generally, the fences in Aoyama Cemetery are made of the same stone as the monuments inside, but some graves have living fences, either low hedges or woven from green bamboo. A number of plots have Torii gates. Inside nearly every fence stands a stone lantern with crescent moon cutouts on its side.

All grave plots have a family crest. My favorite was a half-daisy that floated on a watery S-curve. Hard to describe, but cool. One crest had two crossed lines that were fletched like arrows. Another was a spiral of three birds.

A fair number of graves had fresh flowers on them. The Lonely Planet guidebook talked about the three levels of ikebana, the art of flower arrangement. Classical bouquets incorporate Heaven, Earth, and Humanity. Most vases we saw held more than three varieties of flowers—we saw pink tulips, orange marigolds, white and red anemones, lots of yellow flowers. There were some pinnacles of flower arrangement in this graveyard.

The Lonely Planet guidebook calls Aoyama’s real estate “very expensive.” Perhaps that is why greed nearly overcame the Japanese reverence for the dead, which usually prevents them from uprooting graves and building apartments on the land. In 2005, many graves in the foreign section of the graveyard were tagged with notices warning that if the rent was not paid, the dead would be evicted. In 2007, the “gaijin bochi” was granted special status, recognizing the historical importance of the people buried there.

Many of the foreigners in Aoyama Reien had come to Japan to serve the Meiji Emperor in the second half of the 19th century. Italian Edoardo Chiossone designed Japan’s paper money and postage stamps, as well as sketching the Emperor’s official portrait. American agricultural advisor Edwin Dun brought the cultivation of hops to Japan and laid the foundation for Sapporo Brewing Company. Charles Dickinson West, an Irish engineer, brought steam-engine mechanics to Japan. Dutch missionary Guido Verbeck translated the Bible into Japanese.

Joseph Heco, the first naturalized Japanese American, published the first Japanese-language newspaper in the U.S. (Because of his American citizenship, he was buried in Aoyama Cemetery with the foreigners.)

Of the Japanese buried in Aoyama Reien, Nogi Maresuke, a general during the Russo-Japanese War, committed seppuku in order to follow his emperor into death. Okubo Toshimichi, one of the main proponents of modernizing Japan, was assassinated by conservatives who disagreed. Olympic gold medalist Nishi Takeichi commanded a tank at Iwo Jima and died on the island. Yoshida Shigeru served as the last Prime Minister of the Japanese Empire, which he disbanded in 1946.

The most famous grave in Aoyama Cemetery belongs to Hachiko, an Akita who always met his master at Shibuya Station. After Professor Eisaburo Ueno suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died, the dog continued to wait at the station to meet his train for nine more years. Hachiko’s hide was stuffed and is on display at the National Science Museum of Japan, but his ashes lie beside his beloved master’s. The memory of his faithfulness is kept alive by the statue of Hachiko, which remains a popular meeting spot outside Shibuya Station.

Useful links:
Cherry Blossom Graveyard Mystery Tour:  Friday, March 30, 2012 at 2 p.m.

News story about the possible eviction of the foreigners

The Foreign Section Trust’s map of threatened graves

Spectacular cherry blossom photos

Cemetery of the Week #7: Zoshigaya Reien in Tokyo

A first look at the African Burial Ground

Breaking Ground, Breaking Silence: The Story of New York's African Burial GroundBreaking Ground, Breaking Silence: The Story of New York’s African Burial Ground by Joyce Hansen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was excited to find a book about Manhattan’s African Burial Ground, which I visited in May 2002. At that time, it was merely a patch of grass inside a chain-link fence with an historic plaque, not much of a remembrance for the thousands of Africans, slaves and free, who were interred there. Of course, after 9/11, commemorating the long-dead became less of a priority. Thankfully, the site has been made right at last.

The subtitle of this book is “The Story of New York’s African Burial Ground.” Unfortunately, when the book was published in 1998, not much seems to have been known about the graveyard. Perhaps Howard University was still performing the analyses of the 400 bodies that were recovered, but only a handful of the reclaimed bodies are discussed here. Maybe the archaeologists were busy writing their papers for other publications, but there’s not much information about what they found. What’s there is fascinating, but scant.

Apparently there are few historical documents pertaining to the space, other than old maps. The authors pad out the book with history lessons drawn from legal records about the treatment and lives of the Africans brought to the colony by the Dutch, then the British, then the new-fledged Americans. The history was new to me, but not nearly as interesting as the contents of the graveyard — for which I’d purchased the book.

My hope is that there will be a new book available when I revisit the African Burial Ground (now a national monument) this summer.

I bought my copy on eBay, but it’s available on Amazon: Breaking Ground, Breaking Silence: The Story of New York’s African Burial Ground (Coretta Scott King Author Honor Books)

View all my reviews on Goodreads.