Montefiore Cemetery

A 1910 advertisement for Montefiore Cemetery from one of the city’s Jewish newspapers, featuring an image of philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore

One of the city’s largest Jewish burial grounds is Montefiore Cemetery, located in far southeastern Queens near the edge of the New York City limits. This 114-acre site is situated on flat land along Springfield Boulevard and Francis Lewis Boulevard in Cambria Heights, an area that held a thriving Jewish population during the first half of the 20th century, and surrounds the non-sectarian, 5.5-acre colonial-era Old Springfield Cemetery on Springfield Boulevard.

A view of tombstones in Montefiore Cemetery, May 2016 (Mary French)

Montefiore Cemetery has been serving the Jewish community of the New York City area since 1908, and hundreds of societies, congregations, lodges, and temples own sections here. Montefiore is the final resting place of more than 158,000 individuals, mostly ordinary men and women who are remembered with modest monuments that hint at life stories or personalities.“When we fell in love it was forever,” proclaims the inscription on one couple’s tombstone, while the numerous stones placed atop the marker of an “Adoring Grandmother / Beautiful Soul” attest to frequent visits and devotion of her family and friends.

Location of Montefiore Cemetery (OpenStreetMap)

A number of famous—and infamous—figures are also buried here, including abstract expressionist painter Barnett Newman, songwriter Sholom Secunda, actor Fyvush Finkel, and Prohibition-era mobsters Jacob Shapiro and the Amberg brothers, Hyman, Joseph and Louis. Prizefighter Al “Bummy” Davis (Albert Davidoff), who was killed resisting a Brooklyn bar robbery in 1945, is also here, as is Arnold Schuster, a 24-year-old clothing salesman who provided a tip that led to the capture of bank robber Willie Sutton in 1952 and was murdered a few weeks later, allegedly at the order of mob boss Albert Anastasia.

Rabbi Menachem Schneerson’s gravesite at Montefiore Cemetery, 1996 (Getty)

Most notably there is also the grave of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh—and last—leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic dynasty based in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Known universally as “the Rebbe” and considered one of the most influential Jewish leaders of the 20th century, Rabbi Schneerson died at age 92 in 1994. Every year, tens of thousands of Jews from around the world, many of whom claim Schneerson as the messiah, visit his gravesite. Following the belief that part of the soul of a righteous Jew who has died remains at the grave, when people visit they experience it as though they are in the presence of the holy man himself. When the Rebbe was of this world, people would visit him and write to him to ask for his blessing and advice. Now people visit the site where he is buried and leave little notes to ask for his blessing, informing him of recent activities, and asking questions—certain that the Rebbe will find a way to answer them. The notes are read at graveside, torn into four parts, and left on the ground in front of the grave.

Rabbi Schneerson’s grave is located in the northeastern section of Montefiore Cemetery where it borders Francis Lewis Boulevard. Shortly after the Rebbe’s death, Chabad Lubavitch purchased a house adjoining his gravesite. The site is known as the Ohel, and refers to the structure built around the resting place; the house abutting the cemetery is the Ohel Chabad Lubavitch Center, and offers access to the gravesite via a private walkway. Open day and night, all year, the Rebbe’s resting place has become a pilgrimage site for the ultra-Orthodox Lubavitchers, as well as for secular Jews and Gentiles who are drawn to the mystical passion surrounding the Rebbe. More than 50,000 people visited the site to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Rebbe’s death in 2014.

Location of Rabbi Schneerson’s gravesite at Montefiore Cemetery and the adjacent Ohel Chabad Lubavitch Center on Francis Lewis Blvd

 

The Ohel Chabad Lubavitch Center on Francis Lewis Blvd (Mary French)

 

View more photos of Montefiore Cemetery

Sources: Montefiore Cemetery; [Montefiore Cemetery Ad], The American Hebrew & Jewish Messenger May 13, 1910, 40; “If You’re Thinking of Living In/Cambria Heights, Queens,” New York Times March 25, 2001; The Neighborhoods of Queens (Copquin 2009), 20, 189; Beyond the Grave: Cultures of Queens Cemeteries (Harlow 1997); “Thousands Beat Path to Queens Cemetery to Remember a Jewish Leader,” New York Times July 1, 2014; “Jews Make a Pilgrimage to a Grand Rebbe’s Grave,” New York Times Sept 13, 2013; OpenStreetMap

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Citizens’ Union/Mount Pleasant Cemetery

The Citizens’ Union Cemetery located on Buffalo Ave, just west of the Hunterfly Road in Weeksville, Brooklyn, in 1869 (Dripps 1869)

Founded in the mid-1830s by African American entrepreneurs, the historic village of Weeksville, in what is now the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, became one of the largest free black settlements in the United States. This independent African American community established all that was needed to support its citizens, including a school, churches, an orphanage, a home for the elderly and, in 1851, a cemetery. On September 1, 1851, Alexander Duncan, Robert Williams and Charles Lewis (described as “respectable colored men”) purchased 29.5 acres of land at the eastern edge of Weeksville; 12 acres of this became the Citizens’ Union Cemetery, and the rest was set aside for building lots. Situated on high ground on Buffalo Avenue between today’s Sterling Place and Eastern Parkway, the cemetery was enclosed with a wooden fence, had an entry gate at the northwest corner of Sterling Place and Buffalo Ave and had an underground vault for the temporary reception of the dead.

The village of Weeksville in 1849, situated just south of the Long Island Railroad and east of Bedford (Sidney 1849)

Although intended as “a burial place for the colored,” the founders of Citizen’s Union Cemetery advertised that it had no “rule which excludes any person from sepulture within its border, on account of complexion.” The cemetery offered free burials to the poor, charging only to open and close the grave, a policy that contributed to the financial hardships the cemetery experienced throughout its history. Investors received a poor return, which caused many stockholders to sell their shares. The cemetery reorganized in 1854 under the Mount Pleasant Cemetery Association but continued to struggle. By 1870, Mount Pleasant owed the city of Brooklyn $4,000 dollars in back taxes and the city intended to construct new streets through the cemetery lands. With permission from New York State, Mount Pleasant sold the cemetery in 1872 for $25,000 with the condition that they remove their dead from the site.

With some of the proceeds of the sale, Mount Pleasant’s trustees bought an acre of land at Cypress Hills Cemetery to receive the exhumed bodies from Mount Pleasant Cemetery. How many individuals were buried in Citizens’ Union/Mount Pleasant Cemetery during its twenty-year history is unknown. Ninety-four bodies are known to have been reburied in the Mount Pleasant grounds at Cypress Hills Cemetery, and many in unmarked graves were reportedly placed in a common trench there. A Brooklyn Daily Eagle reporter who witnessed the exhumations at Mount Pleasant described the chaos that occurred during the process, because many people had been buried in unmarked graves that weren’t recorded in the cemetery’s books. As a result, the contractors removing the remains had no idea where to look for them and bodies were often caught by the steam shovel and “carried off to the dump before anything can be done.”

Approximate boundaries of the former Citizen’s Union/Mount Pleasant Cemetery site (dotted lines) south of the Weeksville Heritage Center (arrow) in Bedford-Stuyvesant.
A view of the Mount Pleasant grounds at Cypress Hills Cemetery, Feb 2018 (Mary French)

Sources: Sidney’s Map of Twelve Miles around New-York, 1849; Dripps’ 1869 Map of the City of Brooklyn Sheet 3; Bedford-Stuyvesant (Kelly 2007), 66; Brooklyn’s Promised Land: The Free Black Community of Weeksville, New York (Wellman 2014), 70-72; A History of the City of Brooklyn (Stiles 1870), Vol 3, 633; “Citizens Union Cemetery Association,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Sept 10, 1851, 3; “Our Public Cemeteries,” New-York Herald Jun 2 1867, 8; “Notice—The Mount Pleasant Cemetery Association,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle May 25 1870, 4; “Mount Pleasant Cemetery,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 22, 1871, 2; “Desecration of the Dead,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Aug 26, 1872, 3; NYCityMap

Cypress Hills Cemetery

A hillside Chinese section at Cypress Hills Cemetery, 2011 (Mary French)

The passage of the Rural Cemetery Act by the New York legislature in 1847 spurred the creation of new large-scale cemeteries throughout the state, including over a dozen developed from farmland situated along the Brooklyn-Queens border. The first of these was Cypress Hills Cemetery, organized in 1848 as a non-sectarian cemetery that “might furnish extraordinary facilities for the vast and rapidly increasing population of this region.” Dubbed “the people’s graveyard” in a late 19th century guidebook for its inclusiveness and egalitarian principles, Cypress Hills offered a place “where every church and society may consecrate its own grounds according to its ideas of duty or feeling, and embellish them as its own means or taste may dictate.” Today Cypress Hills Cemetery is remarkable for the number of ethnic, religious, and social groups represented within its borders, and the resonance of their unique histories and cultural values.

Cypress Hills Cemetery straddles the Brooklyn-Queens border and is bisected by the Jackie Robinson Parkway (OpenStreetMap)

The cemetery’s 225 acres of rolling terrain extend from Jamaica Avenue in Brooklyn to Cooper Avenue in Queens. Its open policies and affordable lots attracted many religious, fraternal, and benevolent associations, and by the 1880s some 50 organizations owned ground within its boundaries. Groups such as the Metropolitan Police Benevolent Burial Association, New York Press Club, and Society of Mechanics & Tradesmen acquired extensive plots of ground, as did churches and religious societies of many denominations, and numerous immigrant mutual aid societies. The U.S. Government owns a three-acre parcel in the cemetery that was set aside for burial of Civil War dead, and in 1879 Mount Sinai Hospital acquired a sizeable plot to provide free burial for patients who died in the institution and were not claimed by relatives or friends.

A view of monuments in the Greek section at Cypress Hills Cemetery, 2011 (Mary French)

Cypress Hills has interred approximately 380,000 individuals since its inception, including an estimated 35,000 bodies transferred from church cemeteries in Brooklyn and Manhattan and reinterred here. It is the final resting place of a number of celebrated individuals, including iconic sex symbol Mae West, artist Piet Mondrian, and Jackie Robinson, the Brooklyn Dodger who integrated baseball. But what is most striking about Cypress Hills is the large clusterings of stones according to ethnic affiliation that seem to form “neighborhoods of the dead.” Significant among these are Chinese, Greek, Albanian, Japanese, Jewish, and Hispanic sections, each with memorial designs, grave adornments, offerings, and rituals tied to cultural values.

Food offerings are made at a grave in Cypress Hills Cemetery during the 2012 Qing Ming festival, a Chinese spring ritual that honors dead family members (NY Daily News)

The city’s Chinese community has been burying their dead at Cypress Hills since the 1890s, when an acre of ground at the north end of the cemetery was established as a Chinese section. This was the burial ground used by the Hip Sing and On Leong tongs (secret brotherhoods) that battled one another in the streets of Chinatown during the gang wars that raged for the first three decades of the 20th century. These and other early Chinese graves at Cypress Hills are gone now due to the practice of Jup Gum, by which dead Chinese were disinterred, cleaned and sent back to China for reburial every five to seven years. This custom, which kept a dead person’s ghost from sorrowing in an alien land, faded with the onset of World War II and the rise of communism in China.

Chinese monuments now dominate much of the landscape at Cypress Hills, especially on hillsides where burial is considered auspicious. The Chinese plots are made more distinctive by the elaborate offerings at gravesites, where food is left for the dead and fake money, incense and other items are burned. When purchasing a grave, Chinese frequently bring along a feng shui practitioner for advice on the best placement, and Cypress Hills recently built a trapezoid-shaped section similar to ones in Hong Kong’s cemeteries to appeal to new immigrants.

Jackie Robinson’s gravesite at Cypress Hills Cemetery, 2018 (Mary French)

Cypress Hills Cemetery has also long been an important burial ground for the city’s African American community. Two of New York’s earliest African American churches—African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (Mother AME Zion) and St. Philip’s Episcopal Church—purchased large sections at Cypress Hills in the mid-1800s to serve as burial grounds for their congregations and for reinterment of remains transferred from their graveyards in Manhattan, which had been major burial places for the city’s black community following the 1794 closure of the African Burial Ground near City Hall. Also reinterred in a plot at Cypress Hills are remains from the Citizens’ Union/Mount Pleasant Cemetery, the burial ground of the historic free black community of Weeksville in Brooklyn.

Al Sharpton with the family of Gavin Cato at a memorial service at Cypress Hills Cemetery in 1997 (Getty)

More than a dozen prominent African Americans are among those buried at Cypress Hills—besides baseball legend Jackie Robinson, there is ragtime-and-jazz great Eubie Blake and Arturo Schomburg, the pioneering historian and scholar who helped lay the foundation for the field of African American studies, as well as lesser-known 19th century trailblazers such as James McCune Smith, the first African American to hold a medical degree in the United States, and Charlotte Ray, the nation’s first black female lawyer. Cypress Hills is the final resting place of Wallace Turnage, an escaped slave who wrote a rare, recently discovered manuscript detailing his experiences, and Gavin Cato, the seven-year-old accident victim whose death ignited the Crown Heights race riots in 1991.

View more photos of Cypress Hills Cemetery

Sources: The Cypress Hills Cemetery, 1858 & 1880 [catalog & list of lot holders]; The Cemeteries of New York (Judson 1881); Cypress Hills Cemetery (Duer & Smith 2010); Beyond the Grave: Cultures of Queens Cemeteries (I. Harlow 1997); “In Mourning, Traditions Mingle,” New York Times Oct 28, 1997; “Mount Sinai Hospital,” The American Hebrew Feb 2, 1900; Chinatown: A Portrait of a Closed Society (G. Kinkead 1992); “Chinese-Americans Honor Loved Ones..,” NY Daily News Apr 6, 2012; “Immigration of the Dead,” Open City, Sept 8, 2017; “Where the Color Line Exists,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Dec 7, 1890; “Cypress Hills Cemetery Now for Tourists,” NY Daily News Jan 30, 2011; “History Lesson at Cemetery,” NY Daily News Mar 1, 2011; OpenStreetMap