Old Dutch Church at Sleepy Hollow
Many communities have a signature event that sets them apart from others. It’s their claim to fame. Their annual extravaganza. Events range from mega-productions like the long-running flowery flotilla, the Tournament of Roses in Pasadena, California to the testosterone fueled Run-A-Mucca Motorcycle Rally in sparsely populated Winnemucca, Nevada.
In the Village of Sleepy Hollow, New York, it all comes together on October 31st. Halloween. All-Hallows’ Eve. The day before the Day of the Dead. If you’ve ever heard the name Sleepy Hollow you are probably familiar with the namesake tale penned by American writer Washington Irving in 1820. In The Legend of Sleepy Hollow the climax comes when hapless Ichabod Crane is pursued by a Headless Horseman through a cemetery. In the story, the cemetery where the abbreviated equestrian chases Ichabod is actually the Old Dutch Churchyard which adjoins present day Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, but never mind it’s close enough for marketing purposes. Sleepy Hollow Cemetery was originally named the rather uninspired Tarrytown Cemetery and the Village of Sleepy Hollow didn’t change its name from North Tarrytown until the late 1990’s
Ah yes, the cemetery. Ask the proverbial man-on-the-street to conjure up an image of a cemetery and it’s likely he’ll envision something akin to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. Sleepy Hollow has it all; spooky lilting 18th century death’s head tombstones, twisting narrow roads, majestic mausoleums and magnificent statuary, perfectly placed onto a hilly woodland canvas. It’s a cemetery with a capital “C”. It’s the perfect place to spend Halloween. Most cemetery administrators are understandably skittish about Halloween. The goblin-centric holiday often brings out the worst in people and because cemeteries have relatively low security, they are often vandalized by tombstone topplers and mayhem makers. Not so for Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. Administrators and the nonprofit Sleepy Hollow Historic Fund look forward to it. It’s party time or more specifically, lantern tour time.
For months Sleepy Hollow Cemetery has been lining up volunteers and taking reservations for their Halloween Lantern Tours.The tours are so popular that a total of 17 lantern tours now occur October. At Sleepy Hollow, Halloween isn’t just a day, it’s an entire month. Of course, if you really want to do it right Halloween night is the time to go. Tour guides will supply you with your own personal lantern, but you may also want to pack along a small flashlight.
The first stop on the mile-long tour is to pay homage at the grave of the one who made this all possible: Washington Irving. Then you’ll be off to the 19th century receiving tomb, where bodies were stored when the ground was too frozen to dig graves.
The Receiving Tomb on the lantern tour
Vampire fans will be overjoyed to know that the receiving tomb was featured as one of the haunts of the vampire Barnabas Collins in the 1970 MGM film, House of Dark Shadows. The tour continues through Revolutionary War and Civil War monuments and notable and notorious permanent residents like industrialists Andrew Carnegie and William Rockefeller and master counterfeiter and all-around scoundrel Joshua D. Miner and explores the mysterious symbols on gravestones.
Even though Sleepy Hollow Cemetery is in the greater New York City megalopolis, when night falls on the cemetery it gets dark, really dark. It’s best not to stray from your tour group. Legend has it that the Headless Horseman still rides there carrying his jack-o-lantern head pursuing Ichabod Crane and whoever else might wander into his path.
The Latin inscription on Catriena VanTessel’s Gravestone translates to “Death Conquers All”
Douglas R. Keister is a graveyard guru, who Sunset magazine said “has done for cemetery exploration what Audubon did for birding.” His 39 books include four books on cemeteries such as Stories in the Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography. Read his blog on Red Room. All photos are copyright Douglas R. Keister.