Green-Wood Cemetery: I Know Why The Free Bird Sings

After spending two years in Austin, I moved back to New York City in October and into the relatively elusive neighborhood of Green-Wood Heights Brooklyn, directly across from the Green-Wood Cemetery. My first thought was, “At least the neighbors are quiet.”

I spent my days walking past the cemetery and looked onto a sparkling pond beyond the iron gates nearly every day. I admired the Gothic Revival style gates at the main entrance every time that they were in view. During Hurricane Sandy, I took some comfort in the fact that the highest point in Brooklyn, Battle Hill, is within this cemetery. I suppose I thought I would simply sit atop the hill if my street flooded and wait for the waters to recede. I listened to stories about an urban colony of parakeets that live within the cemetery. I once lived in an apartment in Brooklyn alongside an industrious little parakeet named Handsome who flew away one late summer morning. I awoke to an odd silence that prompted me out of bed and wandered sleepily through the halls until I discovered an open window and an empty cage. Although I thought the stories of born again birds to be folklore, I privately hoped them to be true. I sometimes catch myself wondering how Handsome adjusted to his first outdoor winter when he found a permanent home within the immortal gates of Green-Wood Cemetery.

%Gallery-187199%This designated netherworld was a major tourist attraction in the 1850s. Many affluent and famous New Yorkers who passed during this time are buried here. Green-Wood’s eternal guest list includes Jean-Michel Basquiat, Leonard Bernstein, William Livingston, Samuel Morse, Henry Steinway and many members of the Roosevelt family. Inventors buried there brought contraptions like the safety pin and sewing machine to fruition. Unidentified victims of the 1876 Brooklyn Theater Fire, 103 in total, are buried together in the cemetery. The Wizard from “The Wizard of Oz,” Frank Morgan, rests here and I can’t help but wonder if his visitors ever utter pleas for advice beneath their breath at his tomb. The cemetery’s rich history, remarkable architecture and scenery snowballed into one massively compelling landmark of a neighbor for me.

It was gray and drizzling on Easter Sunday, but I decided to finally explore the grounds. As I climbed the hill that leads to the ornate, umbrella entrance gate, I heard the parakeets before I saw them.

“Aren’t the birds just lovely?” an older woman who was on her way out asked me.

I looked around for an image of the birds she referenced.

“You’re taking pictures of them, right?”

She was pointing toward the points of the gate. I had been taking pictures of them, but I hadn’t noticed them in my frame. The rumors were true and the evidence was before my eyes: a colony of parakeets do inhabit this cemetery and several nests lie within the crevices of the gate itself. These birds are said to have descended from monk parakeets that once escaped during transit. Of course, as my imagination would have it, the current colony warmly embraces any newcomers to their community, including rather ordinary, escaped apartment birds. Like an orchestra comprised entirely of flutes and piccolos, their soprano notes sound like hurried footsteps or bouncing raindrops. I envision them swooping down to me in unison and adorning me with ribbons. What I mean is: walking through a towering gate like this one all while the sonic wave of a wild parakeet choir crashes over me is a surreal experience in and of itself, but in the context of New York, it seems like an acid trip.

Now on the other side of the gate, I head toward the direction of Battle Hill, eager to see whatever elevated sights there are to see from such a height. At the top I see the Manhattan skyline from an unfamiliar vantage point. I continue walking and see tombs far more elaborate and likely expensive than any home I could ever hope to afford. One is shaped like an Egyptian pyramid. Another is accented with Roman columns. I pass a gravestone topped with a statue of a dog whose skeleton I presume to be buried beneath. Immaculately landscaped, each winding path in the cemetery seems like a shaded and enchanted trail toward a secret garden. Even in the midst of bare-boned and fruitless trees, I feel as though I am in a forest.

This is my 10th year living in this city and yet I never noted the existence of the cemetery until moving into an apartment on a street beside it. I wonder how this happened, how a site like this slipped beneath my radar. But it’s just as well, I think. Part of the charm of a place like this in New York City is that it isn’t overflowing with crowds. The sky is open and there’s room to breathe. The quiet that accompanies respect for the dead blankets the grounds and the only voices raised belong to the birds and I think I know why the free bird sings. Its song is a carol of joy and glee in a place where endings are engraved and for that, life is all the more sweet.

[Photo Credit: Elizabeth Seward]

‘Tombstone Tourism’ on the rise, allows you to get close to your favorite celebs

Strapped for vacation cash? Spend a day with the dead. “Tombstone tourism” is on the rise. See fabulous artwork, enjoy nature and get within six feet of some of your favorite celebrities. Better yet, admission is always free. It’s a grave-cation!

Did you know that before Disneyland opened in 1955, Forest Lawn Memorial Park cemetery in Glendale was the number one tourist destination in the Los Angeles area? Or that the popularity of Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn as a recreation site led to the establishment of Central Park in Manhattan in 1858?

Cemeteries, those places most of us strive to stay out of, are once again popular tourist destinations. Why? Part of the reason is that cemeteries, and historic cemeteries in particular, have become more “tourist-friendly.” With the rise in cremation (ashes and urns take a fraction of the space of a traditional burial plot) older cemeteries, many of which are essentially filled up, now have room for thousands more permanent residents. And they want us to visit. They’ve got free maps, ice cream socials, trolley tours, hayrack rides, lantern tours, outdoor movies, plays, concerts and more. Of course, they’d like us to consider staying there… forever. Not to worry; there aren’t any high-pressure sales tactics. Cemetery administrators are very patient people.

Whether you’re on a star search, looking for a place for a pleasant stroll or want to view and touch fabulous art, you’ll find it all in America’s historic cemeteries. Here are a few top tourist-friendly cemetery picks. Even if you don’t plan to be in these locales in the near future, you can always fly there by plugging the GPS coordinates into Google Earth.

WESTWOOD VILLAGE MEMORIAL PARK (34 3’31.07″N 118 26’30.47″W)
You won’t need a map for this postage-stamp-size cemetery just a stone’s throw from Rodeo Drive. There are hundreds of celebrities at your feet and in crypts. Of course, the most visited celebrity is Marilyn Monroe. And the empty crypt next to her? Reserved for the man who first exposed her in all her glory to the public: Hugh Hefner.FOREST LAWN GLENDALE (34 7’30.65″N 118 15’11.15″W)
This is the cemetery that started the trend of vast rolling lawns and flat markers. They have free maps that show you where to find full-scale replicas of Michelangelo’s David, the Labyrinth at Chartes, France, the Paradise Gates in Florence, Italy and much more. Forest Lawn is famously reticent about disclosing the location of celebrity graves, but you can find many of them in the recent book, Forever L. A..

Forest Lawn’s most recent A-list celebrity is Michael Jackson, who’s in the Holly Terrace mausoleum (34 7’23.95″N 118 14’51.83″W). You can even get married in one of Forest Lawn’s chapels, often for a fraction of the cost of a traditional chapel. Indeed, in 1940 Ronald Reagan married Jane Wyman at the Wee Kirk o’ the Heather chapel.

29 57’32.89″N 90 4’15.89″W)
Urban legend has it that burials in New Orleans are above ground because of the high water table (from time to time people who were buried in the traditional way would percolate up to the surface). While that’s not the real reason for above ground burial in New Orleans, there is a long tradition of placing bodies in tombs and mausoleums rather than in the waterlogged earth.

Begin your tomb tour just off the French Quarter at St. Louis #1, New Orleans’ first permanent cemetery. It’s easy to spot the tomb of voodoo queen Marie Laveau: it has dozens of X’s scratched into the surface.

CAVE HILL CEMETERY, LOUISVILLE (38 14’36.91″N 85 43’35.36″W)
Pick up a box of fried chicken and make your way to this very tourist-friendly cemetery. Cave Hill rightly touts itself as an arboretum and has long been popular with Louisvillians as a place to stroll or jog. Thanks to a thriving artistic community, there’s a bonanza of fabulous sculptures dotting its immaculate grounds.

And don’t forget to pay your respects to Colonel Sanders. There’s often an empty red and white box or two reverentially laying beneath his bust. The cemetery staff will be happy to give you directions and a free map.

40 39’29.23″N 73 59’40.56″W)
Green-Wood Cemetery, which was founded in 1838, was modeled on Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. It’s one of America’s most tourist-friendly cemeteries: just ask and they’ll give you a large foldout map, which pinpoints locations of famous residents. They also have a bookstore, conduct docent-directed trolley tours and sponsor lectures.

In the fall, Green-Wood participates in Open House New York and always opens some of their private mausoleums. Green-Wood is the last known address of many of New York’s late nineteenth century movers and shakers including Horace Greeley (“Go west young man”) and master designer Louis Comfort Tiffany.

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. The photos above are all courtesy Douglas R. Keister.

Undiscovered New York: Famous city cemeteries

This week Undiscovered New York is “digging up” a rather morbid topic: the cemeteries. The New York City metropolitan area has a population of around 18 million residents. However this number only reflects those that still have a pulse. When you’re talking about an urban area with history dating back to the 16th Century, we’re talking about millions and millions of lives that came and went within the confines of the city’s boundaries. And they all had to be buried somewhere.

When one thinks of a cemetery, it’s a place that’s frequently associated with stagnation and death. Yet the constant dynamism and momentum of New York does not allow any site to remain at rest. New York’s many cemeteries remain an important part in the city’s constantly changing patchwork and are filled with not only the stories of the past but also of the city’s future and continued vitality.

After the jump Undiscovered New York will take you inside some of the city’s most famous cemeteries. Interested in learning about New York’s role in the invention of baseball? Want to visit the habitat of a flock of tropical birds living in New York City? Would you be curious to know there’s a cemetery smack-dab in the middle of the East Village? Click below to get the whole story…
Green-Wood Cemetery

Arguably one of New York City’s most famous grave sites, Green-Wood Cemetery was founded in 1838 in an area just southwest of the Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Among those interred at Green-Wood include 1980’s downtown auteur Jean-Michel Basquiat, infamous 1800’s gang leader William “Bill the Butcher” Poole (portrayed by Daniel Day Lewis in Gangs of New York), as well as hundreds of early pioneers of a new 1800’s sport called baseball.

Visitors to Green-Wood will most certainly want to check out the Gothic Revival entrance gate at the cemetery’s entrance on 5th Avenue and 25th Street. In addition to the beautiful design, it’s also the nesting grounds for a flock of monk parakeets from South America that now call the cemetery home. The birds escaped from a container at JFK Airport in the 1960’s and have populated the area ever since.

New York Marble Cemetery

Hidden in the heart of New York’s happening East Village neighborhood, the New York Marble Cemetery and is the oldest non-sectarian cemetery in the city of New York. First established in 1830, the cemetery was founded to deal with recent outbreaks of Yellow Fever. Though the Marble Cemetery houses a few notable New Yorkers, it’s more impressive for its location. Hidden behind a narrow metal gate on Second Avenue, visitors enter a quiet walled sanctuary surrounded on all sides by the bustling urban life of Manhattan. The cemetery is typically open the fourth Sunday of each month, March through November, for those interested in checking it out.

Trinity Church Cemetery
Directly across from Ground Zero lies one of Manhattan’s most famous cemeteries, and the only active grave site within the borough, at Trinity Church. The church’s graveyard at 74 Trinity Place is the final resting place for some of America’s most famous figures, including Alexander Hamilton and New York fur baron John Jacob Astor and steamboat inventor Robert Fulton.