New York City Marble Cemetery
Following his death on July 4, 1831, and a glorious funeral
procession through the streets of New York watched by as many as a
hundred thousand people, United States President James Monroe became one
of the first people to be buried in the brand new New York City Marble
Cemetery on the Lower East Side, then a leafy, bucolic suburb on the
northern fringe of New York City.
Thirty years later, Virginians reclaimed their native son, deeming the
cemetery an insufficiently dignified place. By that time, the area was
becoming the city's most crowded slum, and those from the fairer
classes, living or dead, were fleeing.
The New York City Marble Cemetery still stands, on East 2nd Street,
across from the Anthology Film Archives, near Urge bar and Anyway Cafe.
It might seem to have changed far less than the neighborhood around it,
but in truth there are many parallels between the city's residences for
the living and those for the dead. In Manhattan, burial space is even
harder to find than an apartment. There is only one truly active
graveyard in Manhattan - Trinity Church's cemetery in Washington Heights
â€“ and even there the only available space is in above ground "community
mausoleums", large marble blocks that are, essentially, condos for
corpses. Unhindered by rent regulations, the prices for graves have
continued to rise. This has driven some who have spent a lifetime
resisting the pull of the suburbs to wind up there posthumously.
Close to 325 graveyards have existed at some point during the city's
history, according to Graveyard Shift: The Family Historian's Guide
to New York City Cemeteries. Of these, the New York State Division
of Cemeteries estimates that 75 are still accepting newcomers, mostly in
Brooklyn or Queens. There is no reliable estimate for how many people
get buried here each year, but given that the two largest cemeteries in the
city -- Brooklyn's Green-Wood and Woodlawn in the Bronx -- bury only 3,000
people combined, there is little doubt that many of the 60,000 or so
city residents that die annually end up beyond the city limits.
Still, city cemeteries are concerned that they will soon run out of
space. When a graveyard fills up, it loses its primary means of income.
Many fall into disrepair; some are abandoned completely. Many New
Yorkers see cemeteries as not only places to bury the dead, but also as
important green spaces and historical relics, and there are increasing
efforts to preserve cemeteries or restore those in need.
For their part, all cemeteries are setting money aside to prepare for
the day when they run out of space. Some are also looking for other ways
to raise the money they need to mow their lawns and maintain their
tombstones in perpetuity.
"When your entire annual budget is spent on a few hours gardening and
general maintenance, you want to think creatively," said Colleen Iverson
of the New York City Marble Cemetery. The cemetery, like others,
solicits donations by promoting itself as a historical site through
events like Open House New York (this year, four cemeteries are
participating: New York City Marble Cemetery, nearby New York Marble
Cemetery, Green-Wood and Woodlawn). Cemeteries are also encouraging
engagement by throwing concerts (there is a concert this Thursday at the New
York City Marble Cemetery), leading regular tours, holding cocktail parties,
and even offering themselves out for weddings.
Forty years ago, New York reacted to the loss of old Pennsylvania Station by passing a law to protect city landmarks. This series, in partnership with Open House New York, looks at the physical city since the birth of the preservation movement.
New York City Marble Cemetery has also decided to give burying people
another try. The cemetery has held two funerals in the last five years,
and is now trying to let people know that there is some room left yet.
But if the recent funerals have presented potential for the cemetery,
they have also reminded it of its vulnerability. In November 2000, over
150 years after Monroe was buried there, the cemetery held another
military funeral. Twenty-five people gathered and listened as two
soldiers played taps. At the moment that the trumpets hit their last
note, a large section of the cemetery's wall collapsed.
RUNNING OUT OF ROOM
Nationwide, there is no danger of cemeteries running out of room,
according to Bob Fells of the International Cemetery and Funeral
Association. More people are choosing to get cremated - about 28 percent
of Americans who died in 2002 were cremated, as opposed to 7.6 percent
25 years earlier. Cemeteries have developed more efficient ways to bury
everyone else, like "stacking" more than one coffin in a single
gravesite, and more people are being buried in above ground community
mausoleums. Some cemeteries are even selling or leasing land that they
don't need. Places like Long Island's Pinelawn Cemetery, home to many
former New Yorkers, has so much extra space that it has built a 27-hole
golf course on land it originally intended to use for burials.
But for many New York cemeteries it's a different story. The problem
is most dire at Catholic and Jewish graveyards, said Richard Moylan,
head of the Metropolitan Cemetery Association and president of
Green-Wood. But even 478-acre Green-Wood, the city's largest cemetery,
is feeling squeezed. Green-Wood buries about 1,500 people a year, and
only has enough room to do so for about five more years. It has long
been closing roads and rethinking its layout to make more room for
As space in cemeteries gets scarcer, its price rises. In 1882,
legendary Wall Street speculator Jay Gould bought a 30,000 square foot
plot of land at Woodlawn for his family mausoleum at $2 a square foot,
an exorbitant price at the time. The same plot today, instead of costing $60,000, would cost $6 million. A typical (far smaller) gravesite at Woodlawn costs $4,400, even as the cemetery insists it still has plenty of room. At Green-wood, plots start at $7,000.
Layering the dead at Trinity Cemetery in Washington Heights
The problem of scarcity is unlikely to be solved by cemeteries
acquiring land. Acquiring real estate in New York City is difficult for
anyone, and there are strict regulations for cemeteries buying land to
bury people in. Because this land comes off the tax rolls, there is
little incentive for governments to approve such conversions even if
cemeteries could afford to try.
"It's pretty well status quo," said Rich Fishman, head of the state's
Division of Cemeteries.
What the state has done recently is make it easier for cemeteries to
use their own land more efficiently. Some cemeteries have a significant
amount of unused land that was purchased by people who the cemeteries
have since lost contact with. Lawmakers in Albany recently passed a
measure that would allow cemeteries to reclaim such land after 75 years
have passed without word from the owners.
Many of the empty graves were bought some 80 years ago, when rumors
of limited grave space led people to hoard plots for future burials or
resale, making them eligible for reclamation. The state and the
Metropolitan Cemetery Association see this as a way to provide some
immediate relief to some cemeteries where space is a concern.
Not having the money for continued maintenance is a serious concern
for aging cemeteries. In the past some have disappeared below new
development, a fate that theoretically won't happen now because the
restrictions for new development on cemetery land are even tougher than
those keeping cemeteries from developing new land. But the threat of
falling into disrepair or abandonment is real, say some who manage
historic cemeteries in the city. To avoid this, they are looking beyond
burials to other fundraising possibilities.
GRAVEYARDS OR GREENSPACES?
Richard Moylan began cutting the grass at Green-Wood in 1972 as a
summer job the year he finished high school. At the time being bereaved
was the price of entry for those who didn't work there. Anyone
approaching the cemetery's gates intending to take a stroll through its
grounds or get a glimpse of its stunning view of
Manhattan's skyline was turned away.
"We did not encourage the public to enter," said Moylan. "It was
basically lot owners and families."
The cemetery closed its gates because it was frightened of vandalism
and a bit ashamed of its unkempt state. With its own problems to
consider, the cemetery didn't think much about its interaction with the
public. Its financial struggles turned into young Moylan's own; he was
laid off when he came back to work in the summer of 1973.
But eventually Green-Wood decided it couldn't pretend it was just a
graveyard. It was an enormous park in the center of Brooklyn, and a
historical resource as well. There were former mayors, deceased
gangsters and Boss Tweed, a member of both categories. Charles Ebbets of
Ebbets Field was buried there, as was Horace Greeley, the editor of the
New York Tribune. The city had even declared that the gates that kept
people out were a landmark. In the early 1990s the cemetery opened those
gates, and it now plays host to about 300,000 visitors a year.
Green-Wood isn't the only cemetery whose appeal stretches beyond
those whose loved ones are buried there. The city has designated so many
cemeteries as landmarks that a spokesperson for the Landmarks
Preservation Commission declined to even guess at the total number. It
is a distinction that, while it does not involve any direct funding, can
make it easier for cemeteries looking for grant money or private
New York Marble Cemetery
And increasingly they are looking. They are organizing tours and
other events aimed at seducing history buffs into helping out. A music
teacher from Brooklyn gave Green-Wood $5,000 to restore a monument to
William Wheatley, who has been credited with creating the American
musical; Woodlawn is currently hoping a generous musician will do the
same for Augustus D. Juilliard's grave.
The potential historic significance of some cemeteries is made clear
by a drive through Woodlawn with Susan Olsen, the cemetery's cheery
historian with an "I brake for historic graveyards" bumper sticker on
the back of her car. She points out the tombs of Robert Moses (in the
corner of the cemetery directly adjacent to the entrance to the Major
Deegan Expressway); Fiorello LaGuardia and four other mayors (none of
whose tombstones have the word "mayor" on them); "Moby Dick" author
Herman Melville ("every failed writer comes to pay tribute to poor old
Melville"); and the adjacent resting places of Duke Ellington and Miles
Davis, the cemetery's most popular spot.
A new addition is salsa queen Celia Cruz, and the cemetery recently
learned that Colin Powell made annual visits to pay respects to members
of his family - when the Bronx native mentioned the trips at a
dedication ceremony at the World War II memorial in Washington DC.
Contrary to popular belief, however, Bronx rapper Big Pun is not buried
here - his remains were returned to his family after his cremation in
the Woodlawn crematorium.
Such a rich history is a valuable resource, says Olsen, and the
cemetery is often playing host to a historic researcher or two digging
through the archives. But Woodlawn does try to keep this function
separate from its primary purpose. Olsen's office is located about as
far away from the main office as one can get without ending up on Jerome
"What we try to do is keep our happy history stuff separate from our
regular business," said Olsen. "People who are doing genealogy are all
excited about researching Miles Davis; you don't want them to be in a
situation where they're working next to someone burying a loved
There is definitely a line that can be crossed - Green-Wood's movie
series, which included a run of horror movies, inspired complaints by
some who were visiting to mourn. The cemetery decided to cancel the
movies. But being close to capacity, Green-Wood is trying to cultivate
its role as a public space more aggressively than Woodlawn. "Our end
isn't imminent, but it's coming," said Moylan. "And to start thinking
about it when you're out of space is too late."
BRINGING A CEMETERY BACK FROM THE DEAD
Cate Ludlam was introduced to Prospect Cemetery in 1989, when she got
a telephone call from a woman who had entered what she thought was a
dump to save some puppies. The woman had found hundreds of tombstones,
some with the name "Ludlam" on them, and looked Cate up in the phone
The woman had stumbled onto the oldest cemetery in Queens,
established in 1668. It had been effectively abandoned for years; there
were records as far back as 1910 describing the cemetery as so overgrown
that it was impassible, about 50 years after one of Ludlam's ancestors
commissioned a chapel to be built there. Ludlum was shocked to find that
the tombstones and chapel had been badly damaged.
"When I saw the chapel, when I saw the destruction, I wept," she
said. "You couldn't do anything but weep. I've never seen something so
lovely vandalized that badly."
New York State tries to ensure that cemeteries do not allow
themselves to fall into such a state of disrepair. State law calls for a
portion of burial costs to be set aside in a trust which, in theory, is
supposed to sustain cemeteries in perpetuity.
This had not worked for Prospect Cemetery. It had some funding and
was being run by a board of trustees when Ludlam discovered it. But the
board's management style was minimal to say the least: its director, the
wife of a man who was buried there, was herself in her late eighties.
She lived out of state.
Ludlam formed a new board with several other descendants who had also
been contacted by the puppy saver. They had access to about $1,500 a
year - and an enormous task ahead of them.
Immediately, Ludlam enlisted the help of the Greater Jamaica
Development Corporation. As most of the other board members drifted off
she also recruited the New York Landmarks Conservancy. With their help
repaired the fence to prevent vandalism, and has arranged for volunteer
workers come several times a year to help landscape. The cemetery is
still closed to the public, but Ludlam is eager to lead tours for those
who request it.
Through continued use of endowments and a slow stream of donations,
the cemetery is nearing the point where it will have enough money to fix
up the chapel that made Ludlam cry 15 years ago. A congregation has
inquired about renting it one day a week, and she hopes that it will
also serve as a small museum and a place to hold events that will bring
in other funds as well.
"What looks like a snail's pace is really progress," said Ludlam of
the restoration. "We may be able to do the chapel this year. This is
really a miracle - for me at least."
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