Washington Cemetery made news in 2008 when it sold its last available burial plot, becoming the first of the city’s operating cemeteries to run out of space. This Brooklyn burial ground has continued to attract media attention over recent years, often presented as a symbol of the city’s cemetery overcrowding problem and as a harbinger of the coming loss of burial options for New Yorkers as graveyards reach capacity. The elevated platform of the F train’s Bay Parkway stop offers striking views of Washington Cemetery’s grounds, and from here the situation is evident—the landscape is jam-packed with tombstones and new graves have been squeezed into every available space.
There have been about 200,000 burials in the 100-acre cemetery, which is divided into five sections stretching between Ocean Parkway and 19th Avenue in the Midwood neighborhood. As the cemetery ran out of land, its parking lots and roadways were all converted to graves and narrow paths—now coffins are unloaded on the busy streets outside the cemetery and carried in on foot. Several hundred graves at the cemetery do sit empty, but cannot be used—most were purchased over a century ago by burial societies that are now defunct and reselling these kinds of plots is a complicated and rarely used procedure.
James Arlington Bennet, a lawyer, educator, and author who gained some notoriety in 1844 as Joseph Smith’s first choice as a running mate in the Presidential election, founded Washington Cemetery in the 1840s from a portion of his estate. Officially incorporated in 1850 as a nonsectarian cemetery aimed at the middle classes (early ads claimed it was the “cheapest in the state”), in 1857 Washington Cemetery was consecrated as a Jewish burial ground and Jewish burial societies, congregations, and individuals purchased the vast majority of its plots. Today it is Brooklyn’s largest Jewish cemetery. Founder J. Arlington Bennet and his heirs (who managed the cemetery after Bennet’s death in 1863) are among the small number of non-Jews interred here.
Although the names of Washington Cemetery’s more prominent denizens are generally unfamiliar to us today, some were celebrities of their time. Yiddish playwright Jacob Gordin, known as the “Jewish Shakespeare,” was buried here in 1909; beloved by the Jewish East Side community, 20,000 mourners thronged city streets during his funeral. A crowd of 10,000 showed up at the cemetery in 1934 when Hollywood actress Lilyan Tashman was interred in the family plot. The fans, mostly women, caused a melee, jumping over hedges and knocking down tombstones as they fought to snatch up floral wreaths and to get a glimpse of the casket.
Sources: “Consecrating a Jewish Burial Ground,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Dec 30, 1857; “The Washington Cemetery,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Sept 6 1867; “Jewish Cemeteries Plots in NYC a Nightmare,” Vos Iz Neias, June 19, 2008; “City Cemeteries Face Gridlock,” New York Times, Aug 13, 2010; “A Grave Situation,” The Brooklyn Ink, March 28, 2011 “Graves’ End”, BKLYNR, Apr 18, 2013; : “Thousands Honor Gordin’s Memory,” New York Times June 14 1909; “10,000 Riot at Bier of Lilyan Tashman,” The Pittsburgh Press Mar 24, 1934 p. 12; OpenStreetMap