Cemetery of the Week #98: the New York Marble Cemetery

The entrance to the New York Marble Cemetery

The entrance to the New York Marble Cemetery

The New York Marble Cemetery
41-1/2 Second Avenue
New York City, New York 10003
Contact information: P.O. Box 315, New York City, New York 10159
Founded: 1831
Size: half an acre
Number of interments: 2080
Open: the fourth Sunday of the month, between April and October, from noon to 4 p.m.

I stumbled across this cemetery last summer while wandering Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The gate in the middle of the block was locked, but the graveyard looked so green and enticing… It seemed to be reachable only by passing two sets of locked gates, which stood on either end of a shadowy alley between two brick apartment buildings. If I read the cemetery’s homepage correctly, it’s open six days a year—unless you rent it for a small private party or as a film location.

The cemetery isn’t easy to find, since it doesn’t appear on Google Maps, MapQuest, or About.com’s maps of the area. Sometimes called the Second Avenue Cemetery, it’s bounded by Second Avenue, Second Street, Third Street, and Bowery.

IMG_1412The historic plaque on the exterior Second Avenue gate names the New York Marble Cemetery as “the oldest public nonsectarian cemetery in the city.” After in-ground burials were banned inside city limits, the New York Marble Cemetery was opened as a hygienic alternative in 1831. At the time the cemetery opened, Second Avenue stood on the northern edge of development. Several churchyards in the area already existed, so the developers had the sense that people would be happy to bury their dead this far from the center of town.

In fact, the 156 belowground vaults of Tuckahoe marble (the same brilliantly white marble as used in the U.S. Capitol) sold so quickly that the New York City Marble Cemetery (no relation) opened around the corner.

Through the gate of the New York Marble Cemetery

Through the gate of the New York Marble Cemetery

It was believed that these vaults, which lay completely beneath the sod, would prevent the spread of Yellow Fever. The vaults, which are the size of small rooms, are built in pairs 10 feet below the surface. They can only be accessed by removing the stone slabs that lay beneath the lawn. No catacombs or passages connect them.

Of the more than 2000 burials in the cemetery, most took place between 1830 and 1870. The first was a child of Dr. Post in 1830. The last was apparently Charles Janeway Van Zandt in 1937, although descendants of descendants of the original vault owners may request to be buried in their family vaults. When I visited, a sign on the gate said that two of the vaults had apparently never been used and no hereditary owners can be found, so the cemetery was planning to reclaim them.  I wonder what they’ll sell for now.

When the cemetery opened, gravestones were considered gauche. The vaults have only ever been marked by marble slabs on the walls – and those slabs only list the names of the vaults’ purchasers. In many cases, the people named on the walls are actually buried elsewhere, having been taken up by their families and reburied in newer, more fashionable cemeteries. It’s estimated that the Marble Cemetery lost up to a third of its interments when Brooklyn’s Green-Wood and the other rural cemeteries opened after 1838.

Unfortunately, the Tuckahoe marble is soft and susceptible to weathering. The original plaque that proclaimed the Marble Cemetery as a “place of interment for gentlemen” has not survived. Restoration is an ongoing concern for the cemetery.

Among the prominent New Yorkers once buried here are Mayor Aaron Clark, Congressman James Tallmadge (who also served as president of New York University), Uriah and Charles Scribner of the publishing family, and Benjamin Wright, the father of American Civil Engineering, who planned the Erie Canal.

The cemetery is both a New York City landmark and on the National Register of Historic Places.

Useful Links:

The Marble Cemetery’s homepage

The Atlas Obscura feature on their tour of the Marble Cemetery

GPS information from cemeteryregistry.us

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

Other Manhattan graveyards on Cemetery Travel:

Cemetery of the Week #11: the General Grant National Monument

Cemetery of the Week #41: Trinity Churchyard

Cemetery of the Week #65: the African Burial Ground

Cemetery of the Week #75: St. Paul’s Churchyard

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