Life is for the living; thank heavens for the dead. Properly remembered, our long-losts anchor public spaces that, in their solemn quietude, speak what we most need to hear. Whether visiting Grandma, strolling in peace, or holding a freaky séance, we explore the outer edges of the everyday in graveyards. Of the cemeteries that follow, Green-Wood, Woodlawn, and Trinity are the ones taking reservations, but any walking stiff can sample eternity by touring this featured handful of New York City’s well-known final resting places.
Ambling down the street to Brooklyn’s GREEN-WOOD CEMETERY (Fifth Avenue and 25th Street, Brooklyn, 718-768-7300, green-wood.com), a city unto itself, a black-outfitted goth chick crossed my path. Through the ornate, three-spired entrance—another gothic threshold—the yard’s surface rolls and turns, and worn roads climb and switchback. Follow a footpath, like Sweet Gum: Pass tombstones and crypts belonging to White, Welch, Kelly, Keller, Ludlam, Boocock. Like seeing local history reflected in a shattered mirror, one glance signifies bad luck (children passed before their parents), another determined defiance of loss (the perfect dedication “PAPA”). Like any celebrated burial site, there’s life surrounding the granite and grass—regular walking tours, a new addition to the Hillside Mausoleum, capped with a pyramid. Denial, as we know, ain’t just a river in Egypt.
Graves, of course, memorialize people other than mummy and daddy. WOODLAWN CEMETERY (233rd Street and Webster Avenue, Bronx, 718-920-0500), roughly four-fifths the size of Green-Wood at 400 acres, is animated by the histories of its celebrity bodies. Beneath the lawn lie Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Fiorello La Guardia, Herman Melville, Joseph Pulitzer, and suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Sculptures by well-known artists mark some mausoleums; William Ordway Partridge outfitted Pulitzer’s with a bronze sitter reminiscent of The Thinker.
Drinkers stumbling through the East Village at night might be tempted to peek or even pee between the iron bars separating NEW YORK CITY MARBLE CEMETERY (212-228-6401) from the sidewalk. The eerily barren site, which takes up most of the 2nd Street block between First and Second avenues, holds two former mayors I’ve not heard of; the open swath of sky above is more noticeable than the scattered plaques and stones below.
While World Trade Center memorial finalists have been announced, ground zero still gapes. ST. PAUL’S CHAPEL (Broadway and Fulton Street, 212-602-0800, saintpaulschapel.org), a delightfully modest wooden and stone structure which survived the fall of the towers across the street, hosted rescue workers after 9-11. Today the chapel’s tiny cemetery dignifies the void just outside its gate. TRINITY (74 Trinity Place, 212-602-0800, trinitywallstreet.org), the nearby Mother Church of St. Paul’s, opens its small, neatly kept yard to the public. The parish’s most famous resident, Alexander Hamilton, once said, “Nobody expects to trust his body overmuch after the age of 50.” He died on July 12, 1804, at the age of 47.