There is a remarkable sight just north of the elevated Long Island Expressway as it travels through Maspeth, Queens—a vast expanse of tall, thickly crowded stone monuments sprawls before two massive, blackened smokestacks that arise from a strange nest of metal and tubes. The towering smokestacks are part of a defunct New York City Department of Sanitation incinerator, and they loom over Mount Zion Cemetery, one of the city’s most fascinating graveyards.
Mount Zion Cemetery began in the early 1890s when a small group of Jewish land developers purchased about 130 acres in rural Queens to accommodate the burial needs of the burgeoning Jewish immigrant populations of urban Manhattan and Brooklyn. Of the original acres, only 73 were approved for burial use and most of the rest of the land was sold for other purposes. By the 1920s, about 250 Jewish burial societies had purchased all the approved acreage. In the 1950s, five more acres were approved for burial use and made available for private and family lots. The original association that managed the cemetery was a religious one, Chevra B’Nai Sholom; in 1929 it became Elmwier Cemetery Association, a not-for-profit corporation that still oversees the cemetery today.
The first burial at Mount Zion was in 1893 and by the 1920s the cemetery interred more than 3,000 individuals per year. Now there are 210,000 graves in the 78-acre cemetery, making it one of the city’s densest graveyards. Most of the graves are organized into gated areas owned by various burial societies founded by Jewish immigrants, usually those from the same town or region in Europe. Because most of these immigrants were poor and their burial societies could not afford to reserve land for landscaping or ornamental features, they would use every inch of space for graves that sold for a few dollars each. Society burial grounds often lack walkways and space between monuments or headstones, and the graves, designed for small, Orthodox-sized caskets, are so closely placed that digging of new graves must be done by hand. This spatial practice and the sense of claustrophobia it creates is often mystifying to modern cemetery visitors but was a familiar environment for those buried here. Most Jewish immigrants of the turn of the 20th century came to the crowded neighborhoods of New York City from compact Jewish ghettos in their European homelands, where the governments restricted both living space and cemetery land. Jewish immigrants had already developed practices for maximizing burial space under these conditions and the burial grounds at Mount Zion mirror a tradition of closeness and communalism that testifies to this history.
A number of celebrated individuals are buried at Mount Zion, including Pulitzer prize-winning composer Marvin Hamlisch, Broadway lyricist Lorenz Hart, novelist Nathanael West, and several prominent Orthodox rabbis. Notorious figures are also interred here, including brothers Morris and Joseph Diamond, who the State of New York executed at Sing Sing prison in 1925 for the robbery-murder of two Brooklyn bank messengers. “Stay away from bad company and love your mother,” was Morris Diamond’s last statement before execution. “She is your dearest friend. If you search all the treasure of the world you will not find a treasure like your mother.”
Mount Zion Cemetery is the final resting place of 44 victims who died in the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York City. The Triangle fire, which claimed the lives of 146 young immigrant workers, is one of the most infamous workplace accidents in American history, a tragedy that brought widespread attention to dangerous factory conditions and set a in motion an era of labor reforms to better protect the safety of workers. In the Workmen’s Circle section at Mount Zion, several monuments honor the fire victims. One early monument surrounds 14 graves with victims’ names inscribed on individual pillars, and carries the message, “In Memory of the young men and women who perished in the fire at the Triangle Waist Company’s shop, Asch building, N.Y. March 25th 1911. Erected November 1911 by their sisters and brothers, members of the Ladies Waist and Dressmakers Union Local Number 25.” Rose Rosenfeld Freedman, the last survivor of the Triangle fire, is also buried at Mount Zion; a lifelong crusader for worker safety, she died in 2001 at 107 years old.
Secluded off Path C in the southwestern part of Mount Zion is another noteworthy feature—a family burial ground dating to Queens’ colonial period. In 1656, Capt. Richard Betts established a homestead and family graveyard at the northeast corner of 54th Avenue and 58th Street, a site now part of Mount Zion. The burial ground holds the remains of Capt. Betts and his descendants, and Mount Zion maintains it for the Queens Historical Society.
The urban features surrounding Mount Zion add to its unique character today and the area has had a distinctive atmosphere since the cemetery’s early days. During the first half the 20th century, the locale was a known desolate spot that was popular for criminal misdeeds; murder victims were frequently found next to Mount Zion’s fences along 58th Street and Maurice Avenue. Also part of the cemetery environs during this time period was a famed shantytown of Ludar Romanian gypsies that stood immediately south of Mount Zion on 54th Avenue from 1922 to 1939.
Sources: Mount Zion Cemetery; “Trip to Mount Zion Cemetery,” Jewish Genealogical Society Newsletter 2(1) Sept 1980; Mount Zion: Sepulchral Portraits (Yang 2001); “American Jewish Cemeteries,” (Halporn 1993), Ethnicity and the American Cemetery, p131-155; “Sallie Diamond Faints at Brothers’ Burial in Maspeth,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 2, 1925 p24; The 1911 Triangle Factory Fire; Woodside: A Historical Perspective, 1652-1994 (Gregory 1994) p6; “Man Found Shot to Death,” New York Times, June 12, 1926 p21; “D’Olier’s…Murder,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Sept 4 1928 p1-2; “Can’t Oust Gypsy Camp,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 8, 1923 p26; “Colorful Maspeth Gypsy Camp Now Just a Memory,” Long Island Star-Journal, Mar 30, 1939 p5; Mt. Zion Cemetery & Queens Garbage Incinerator (aerial video); OpenStreetMap; Sing Sing Prison Admission Registers, 1865-1939 (Ancestry)