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This past weekend was Open House New York. For a weekend the whole city was an elementary school field trip as cultural, architectural, and industrial institutions throughout the burroughs opened their doors to the public for a sneak peek behind the scenes. There were a lot of tempting choices, but, in keeping with ferrebeekeeper’s long obsession with all things gothic, some friends and I visited Brooklyn’s Green-Wood cemetery to look inside the catacombs and palatial mausoleums of nineteenth century elite. Green-Wood cemetery consists of 478 acres of lovingly tended forests and gardens where more than 600,000 individuals are buried. The cemetery is sprawled over the terminal moraine left by the Wisconsin ice sheet when it retreated back to Canada about 18,000 years ago. As the thousand foot tall wall of ice melted it dropped its burden of pebbles, boulders, and topsoil into rolling hills which now form the bulk of Long Island. The tallest hill on Brooklyn is Battle Hill in Green-Wood where one can stand in the middle of a field of obelisks and look down at the harbor, the Narrows, and lower Manhattan.
The main gates of Greenwood are a gothic revival masterpiece created by Richard M. Upjohn in 1861 (the cemetery itself dates back to 1838). Back in the 1960s a shipment of monk parakeets (Myiopsitta monachus) being flown from Argentina to Idlewild somehow escaped and the renegade birds set up nesting sites first in the cemetery gate. Later, as the colony expanded, the birds also occupied the coEdison transformer station next to the cemetery. So, as you walk into the park, you are greeted by raucous screeches and streaks of chartreuse among the trees. And what trees! Since the cemetery is old and is protected by a spiked fence, armed guards, and fierce dogs (along with who knows what sort of malevolent chthonic agencies), the trees have grown to maturity unmolested and the grounds feature numerous huge field oaks, mighty beeches, giant metasequoias and every other ornamental or native specimen which grows in these parts.
It is difficult to convey the scope of the cemetery. Visitors wander through different landscapes going up and down hills, into dark forests, across garden glades, and beside lakes—and everywhere there are tombs of every sort. There are thin limestone headstones where the text is fading, tall granite plinths with statues, squat obsidian cubes, Egyptian pyramids, and elegant urns. Sometimes you also pass huge haunting circles of graves which evoke feelings of barrows and ancient standing stones. During the open house my friends and I visited the spooky Greek revival mausoleums of a heartless railroad baron and of a rich tobacconist who turned to spiritualism after the mysterious death of one of his (demi-mondaine?) female employees. We also visited the underground catacombs where workers installed a creepy underground network of burial chambers in the excavation left over from a pebble mine.
The largest mausoleum inhumes the remains of Stephen Whitney, one of the richest and most parsimonious merchants of the nineteenth century who eschewed philanthropy. As one might imagine he was not well loved and when he died, the famous social commentator George Templeton Strong remarked that “his last act was characteristic and fitting. He locked up his checkbook and died.” Although Whitney’s grave was magnificent and the cemetery’s great mourning chapel (pictured below) was even more so, to me the most interesting mausoleums and graves were the smaller gothic ones which I have pictured throughout this post. We’re getting closer to Halloween (and to peak foliage)—why not take a constitutional through a nearby cemetery and contemplate the ephemeral nature of things amidst a beautiful vista?