Green-Wood Cemetery: A Site to Die For
by Jonathan Zeller , 07/07/2009
With everything NYC has to offer— theatre, world-class cuisine and museums, to name a few—why would you spend your time in a Brooklyn graveyard? As it turns out, there are plenty of reasons. You see, among resting places, Green-Wood Cemetery isn't like the rest—at all.
We take for granted leafy locales like Central Park and Prospect Park, but those commons might have never existed without Green-Wood. The cemetery opened in 1838; by 1860 it was drawing nearly 500,000 visitors a year. Local officials, recognizing its success, began to build public parks. Today, the National Historic Landmark remains a popular place to reflect; regulars love taking quiet strolls sans the picnickers, cyclists, (living) ballplayers and other revelers they'd find in a typical park.
The views, too, are unmatched. The cemetery's Battle Hill is Brooklyn's highest point, one that figured heavily in the Revolutionary War's first major campaign, the Battle of Long Island. Today, the Altar to Liberty commemorates the soldiers who died in the conflict. There, from her high perch, a statue of Minerva salutes the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. Visitors share her perspective of Manhattan's skyline.
The cemetery's entrance features an unexpected treat: wild parrots. Many believe their feathered forefathers escaped from a container at John F. Kennedy International Airport in the 1960s. They now live in a huge complex of nests by the beautiful 25th Street gate.
Beneath the Surface
History abounds at Green-Wood. With nearly 600,000 graves, the cemetery's population exceeds that of Cleveland's (and roughly matches that of Washington, D C's). Just like living Gothamites, Green-Wood residents don't fail to impress: they were inventive (Morse Code creator Samuel F. B. Morse and composer Leonard Bernstein), powerful (corrupt New York politician William "Boss" Tweed) and principled (abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher). Green-Wood's first celebrity boarder, former New York governor DeWitt Clinton, was moved from Albany in 1844 specifically to draw visitors. Many artists are buried in Green-Wood these days—so many, in fact, that its caretakers now collect their work and hope to someday build a permanent gallery.
Green-Wood is also the resting place for more than 3,000 Civil War veterans. In 2008, the cemetery and the federal Department of Veterans Affairs replaced lost or decomposing tombstones with new ones on the graves of more than 1,200 veterans. Battle Hill also features the grand Civil War Soldiers' Monument, erected in 1869 to honor those who fought in the conflict.
The Civil War connection offers a glimpse into another of the cemetery's charms: its touching individual stories—like the graves of two brothers who fought on opposite sides of the war and died the same day. On another stone, an ornate engraving depicts Jane Griffith's last good-bye to her husband as he left for work one day in 1857. When he returned, she was dead.
It's natural that a place so steeped in American history would have baseball connections, and Green-Wood doesn't disappoint. Its baseballers include James Creighton Jr. of the Excelsior Club (perhaps the game's first superstar) and Henry Chadwick, "the Father of Baseball," who perfected the box score. And some residents touched both early baseball and Civil War history: John B. Woodward, for example, was a player for the Excelsior Club and a Union general.
Yes, Green-Wood has everything you'd want in a New York City neighborhood: breathtaking Manhattan views, a peaceful setting and good company. You know the catch. But it's still a nice place to visit.