by Benjamin Feldman
Author of Butchery on Bond Street
©2008 All rights reserved by author
"Cemetery." Not a great way to start a conversation with a stranger, is it? Today all things deathly are impolite. But it wasn't that way in years gone by. Passing was something to be embraced. For two hundred years, urban American Christians were buried in churchyards. Then things got crowded and large cemeteries were born. Boston's Mount Auburn, Philadelphia's Laurel Hill, and Brooklyn's Green-Wood were all founded in the first half of the 19th century on rolling expanses of rural land. Mourning lasted an entire year in genteel families. "Mourning" stores dotted downtowns, where dignified clothing, visiting cards, window drapings and all the necessary accoutrements of a "proper" bereavement could be purchased. But hand in gray kid glove, a fun side flourished at the cemeteries. Burial grounds were places of joy.
Until the opening of Central and Prospect Parks in Manhattan (1857) and Brooklyn (1867), these two then-independent cities lacked large public spaces for dignified promenading and carriage rides. Almost from the get-go, Green-Wood filled a recreational function for Brooklynites and adventurous Manhattanites willing to make the journey. Picnics, concert-going, Decoration Day celebrations, and stately carriage rides were enjoyed by legions of well-dressed weekenders who had no other connection to the permanent residents interred at the top of the Gowanus Hills. The ubiquitous gravesites dampened no one's spirits.
There's no room at the inn at Green-Wood these days. All plots were long ago sold, and a permanent resting place will be a wall nook in the columbarium for your urn of remains. Things have come full circle as Green-Wood morphs into a history theme park. The parasol-toting and hoop skirted ladies, the bowler-hatted, hamper-toting picnickers of 1880 had the right idea. Perhaps it's time we 21st centurions followed suit.
Halloween and All Souls Day have lost all religious meaning in today's America. But that's no reason to despair: This Halloween do something different. Go down in the hole and emerge at Brooklyn's spectacular Green-Wood Cemetery (R or M train to 4th Avenue and 25th Street, then walk one block over to 5th Avenue and bing you're there...)
More dead people than you can shake a stick at lie in this 450+ acre burial ground, all 560,000 of them, packed in layers, for godssake, in the most gorgeous, spooky place in all New York... Starting in 1840, New Yorkers were put there, famous, infamous and totally unknown. Gangsters, pols, molls and good guys lie chockablock along exquisitely manicured ways with names like "Gardenia" and "Olive Path." Meanwhile, the only operating crematorium in the five boroughs continues to puff its barbecue pit each and every day as the worms crawl in but never crawl out . . .
Three events beckon, so put on your warm clothes, say a few prayers and join Cemetery resident historian Jeff Richman to celebrate your Halloween. Stops on the tour will include the grave of Dr. Harvey Burdell, a notorious murder victim of 1857, whose lover was tried for her role in his gruesome death at the start of the year. Burdell, a loathsome womanizer and swindler (but a fine scientific dentist!) was found by his servant boy in what the papers described as a "pool of gore" in the good doctor's dental operatory early one January morning, with 15 stab wounds from a four-sided dirk riddling his corpse and a skein of purple veins splayed up his neck where a cord had been tightened to make sure he was really dead. Say a prayer for poor old Harvey as you pass by, but keep in mind, he deserved to die . . .
October 25, 2008, Saturday
1:00 PM -- Halloween at Green-Wood, Part 1 -- A Walk. Celebrate the holiday with fascinating tales of murder, mayhem, and Spiritualism. A visit to the Wizard of Oz and the Catacombs is included. This is a very, very popular tour, so arrive early. This special tour is $20; $10 for Historic Fund members. No reservations necessary.
October 26, 2008, Sunday
1:00 PM -- Halloween at Green-Wood, Part 2 -- A Walk. Celebrate the holiday with fascinating tales of murder, mayhem, and Spiritualism. This is a very, very popular tour, so arrive early. This special tour is $20; $10 for Historic Fund members. No reservations necessary.
If you're too busy getting your costume ready and filling those apples with razor blades (or just a glutton for ghouls), take a day to recover from your hang-over after the Greenwich Village parade and then head back out to Green-Wood for an All Souls Day program (one day late!). Meet at that subway stop (4th Avenue and 25th Street) @ 3:30 p.m. where program director Steve Estroff will assemble a group to experience a Haitian "Rara" procession with trumpet and Dja-rara, walking on to the Cemetery for a tour entitled "Symbols Stories and Trumpets" that will end about 6:00 p.m.
And careful whom you talk to when you're out there in Brooklyn. Don't trust anyone, even the dead . . .
©2008 Benjamin Feldman
Benjamin Feldman has lived and worked in New York City for the past thirty-eight years. After retiring in 2000 from a successful career in real estate and law, Ben turned to the full-time pursuit of his true love, New York City history. His essays about New York and about Yiddish culture have appeared on-line in The New Partisan Review and Ducts magazine, as well as in his blog, The New York Wanderer. Butchery on Bond Street is Ben's first full-length work.