“This Is Not Cypress Hills Cemetery” reads a sign immediately inside the gate at Maimonides Cemetery in Brooklyn. It’s easy to understand why disoriented visitors stumble into Maimonides by accident—it’s gate is located a short distance eastward of the entrance to the large, nondenominational Cypress Hills Cemetery on Jamaica Avenue and it, along with the adjacent Mount Hope Cemetery, is nestled into a notch of land cut along Cypress Hills’ southeast border. These two small cemeteries are timeworn today—especially their grand entrance buildings, which are targets of graffiti and vandalism— but in the late 19th-early 20th century, Maimonides and Mount Hope were among the fashionable burial grounds of New York’s Jewish community.
Maimonides Benevolent Society was formed in 1853 by a group of “wealthy Hebrews of New York City” to assist one another in times of illness and difficulty and to look after the needs of their community. Soon after this mutual aid society was organized, a plot in Cypress Hills Cemetery was purchased as a burial ground for its members. When this plot became full, they purchased, in 1879, 8 acres of land adjoining Cypress Hills to establish a new cemetery for the association as well as for other Jewish societies and families. The red-brick gatehouse on Jamaica Avenue was built in 1892 and by 1900 about 1,700 bodies had been interred in Maimonides’ grounds. To meet the need for more burial space, Maimonides Benevolent Society eventually purchased more land in Elmont on Long Island, and continues to operate both cemeteries today. Maimonides Cemetery in Brooklyn is notable as the burial place of two pioneering motion picture executives—Marcus Loew, founder of the Loew’s theatre chain and Meto-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) studios; and Joseph Schenck, an early president of United Artists and co-founder of Twentieth Century Pictures, which later became 20th Century Fox.
In 1881, members of several other Jewish fraternities and societies—including the Free Sons of Israel and Phoenix Widows’ and Orphans’ Aid Society—that had also outgrown their earlier burial grounds at Cypress Hills and elsewhere, formed Mount Hope Cemetery Association and purchased 12 acres of land immediately east of Maimonides Cemetery to establish a new cemetery. Like Maimonides, they sold plots to Jewish societies and families, and by 1900 3,000 individuals were interred here. The cemetery’s administration building, which replaced an earlier gatehouse constructed when the cemetery was established in 1881, was recognized by the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce’s building awards competition when it was built in 1931. Although tattered and covered with graffiti now, this elegant Art Deco structure, and Mount Hope’s beautifully intricate ironwork entrance gates, are gems hidden in the chaotic surroundings of Jamaica Avenue.
Sources: Hyde’s 1905 Atlas of the Borough of Queens Vol. 4 Pl. 10; “Maimonides Cemetery—A New Hebrew Burying Ground,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle Oct 6 1879; [Classified Ad], The Jewish Messenger July 30 1880; “Local News—Maimonides Benevolent Society,” The Jewish Messenger Sep 16 1892; The Leonard Manual of the Cemeteries of New York and Vicinity (1901), 52, 55-56; Maimonides Cemeteries; “The City—Mount Hope Cemetery,” The American Hebrew Sept 2 1881; “Local News—A New Cemetery,” The Jewish Messenger Sept 16 1881; “Chamber Cites Boro Buildings Erected in 1931,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle Feb 21 1932; NYCityMap
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.
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.”
Sources: Sidney’sMap 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
National cemeteries evoke a particular emotional response in visitors; the orderly appearance and regimented lines of uniform headstones are a tangible and powerful memorial to our veterans’ devotion to duty, honor, service, and sacrifice. Only one national cemetery is located in New York City, and this historic site was among the first group of national cemeteries created by Congress during the Civil War. In 1862, Cypress Hills National Cemetery began as military cemetery located within the boundaries of the large, private Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn. Three acres at Cypress Hills were set aside for the burial of Civil War dead; over 3,000 Union soldiers and several hundred Confederate POWs were buried in this parcel, which became known as the Union Grounds.
In 1884 the federal government purchased a separate, 15-acre tract on Jamaica Ave near the private Cypress Hills Cemetery and dedicated it the Cypress Hills National Cemetery. In addition, in 1941, a small tract within the old Cypress Hills Cemetery, known as the Mount of Victory Plot, became part of the national cemetery. This 0.6-acre plot, the smallest parcel of federally owned land in the country, is a burial ground for veterans who served in the War of 1812. Today Cypress Hills National Cemetery consists of three parcels totaling a little over 18 acres—the national cemetery on Jamaica Avenue, and the Union Grounds and Mount of Victory plot at the private Cypress Hills Cemetery. Cypress Hills National Cemetery was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1997.
Cypress Hills National Cemetery is the final resting place for 21,000 veterans and dependents, including 24 recipients of the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest and most prestigious military decoration. Among these is Sergeant Wilbur Colyer, a 20-year-old posthumous Medal of Honor recipient who served as a member of Company A of the 1st Engineers, 1st Division, in France during World War I. Born in Brooklyn in 1898, Colyer grew up in South Ozone Park, Queens, and enlisted in 1917. His Medal of Honor was awarded in January 1919 for his actions on October 9, 1918. Volunteering with two other soldiers to locate machine gun nests, Colyer advanced on the enemy positions to a point where he was half surrounded by the nests in ambush. He killed the gunner of one nest with a grenade he had captured from a German soldier and then turned the German machine gun on the other nests, disabling them before he returned to his platoon. He was later killed in action. Originally buried in Argonne, France, in 1921 his remains were returned to the U.S. and interred at the national cemetery. Sergeant Colyer Square in South Ozone Park was dedicated to him in 1931.
The Medal of Honor has been awarded to 3,500 people since it was created in 1861 and just 19 of those individuals have received it twice. One man was considered for it a third time, although ultimately received other awards in his place. That man was Marine Corps legend Sergeant Major Daniel Daly (1873-1937), and this fierce warrior is interred at Cypress Hills National Cemetery. Born in Glen Cove, NY, Daly had an early career as a boxer despite being 5’6” and 132lbs. He enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1899 and soon earned his first Medal of Honor, for actions during the Boxer Rebellion, the anti-foreign, anti-Christian peasant uprising that took place in China 1899-1901. On Aug 14, 1900, during a siege on the district where foreign diplomats resided, Daly was left alone to keep rebels from storming across the wall protecting the consulate while the rest of his unit went to get supplies and reinforcements. Daly spent the night fending off attackers and legend has it that when reinforcements arrived in the morning, the bodies of 200 dead rebels littered the ground where he had held his position.
Daly earned his second medal of honor 15 years later during the U.S. Occupation of Haiti. He and his 35-man platoon were sent on a reconnaissance mission in the Haitian countryside; when crossing a river, 400 Haitian rebels ambushed them. The platoon found a position to spend the night, but the situation was grim as they were badly outnumbered and had lost their only machine gun in the river during the ambush. In the night, Daly went out to retrieve the weapon and after securing the machine gun, returned to the Marine position and then led an attack to scatter the rebels the next morning.
Next came World War I, and Daly, now 44 years old, was recognized with a Distinguished Service Cross, Navy Cross, and other honors for repeated acts of heroism during the Battle of Belleau Wood in June 1918, including rescuing six wounded Marines who were pinned down by heavy enemy fire, capturing 13 German soldiers entirely on his own, and capturing a machine gun nest by himself armed with just his Colt .45 and a few hand grenades. It was during the Battle of Belleau Wood that Daly said the words for which he is famous. Pinned down by the Germans at one point during the battle with his men who were beginning to lose hope, Daly rose up and rallied them by bellowing, “Come on you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?” and led them into a successful charge. Daly’s battle cry is considered one of the finest expressions of Marine esprit de corps ever uttered.
Among the other notable figures buried at Cypress Hills National Cemetery is John Martin, the trumpeter who delivered General George Custer’s last message before the massacre of the 7th Cavalry at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876. Born Giovanni Martini in Italy in 1852, Martin came to the U.S. in 1873 and enlisted in the Army. Trained as a cavalry trooper and bugler, Martin was assigned as Custer’s orderly the day of the battle. As Custer and his company were heading into battle, he gave Martin a verbal message for Captain Benteen to bring his battalion forward with the pack train as quickly as possible. Because of Martin’s thick Italian accent, Custer’s assistant, Lieutenant William Cooke, stopped Martin and wrote the message on a piece of paper: “Benteen Come on. Big Village. Be quick. Bring packs. P.S. Bring Packs.” Carrying the message saved Martin’s life, as Custer and his troopers were annihilated during the battle. The note is now in the library at the United States Military Academy at West Point. John Martin retired from the Army in 1906 and became a ticket agent for the NYC subway.
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.
A landscape dotted with rusted metal markers and wooden crosses, Most Holy Trinity Cemetery in Brooklyn is one of the city’s most unique and visually arresting graveyards. Nestled at the end of Central Avenue in Bushwick and bounded by Evergreen Cemetery and the tracks of the NYC Subway’s L train, the 23-acre cemetery was established in 1851 as a new cemetery for Most Holy Trinity Church, the first German Catholic church in Williamsburg. The parish cemetery was originally located behind the church at Montrose Avenue in East Williamsburg; when a new church building and schools were planned for that site, a four-acre parcel of land was purchased from Evergreen Cemetery to serve as a church cemetery. The remains from the Montrose Avenue site were transferred to the new Most Holy Trinity Cemetery and, as the need for burial space grew over the years to accommodate an estimated 25,000 graves, the church purchased additional parcels from Evergreen until the parish cemetery reached its present size.
When Most Holy Trinity Cemetery was created, the church resolved that no distinctions were permitted to be made between the rich and the poor, and the rule was established that no stone monuments could be erected. Until very recent times, when flat gravestones have been permitted, only simple wooden and metal markers indicated the resting places of the dead. This “democratic equality of the grave” set the graveyard apart from others in the area and the markers created a remarkable visual spectacle. An 1890 article in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle described it:
The monuments that surmount [the graves] present a curious picture and one that has not a parallel in any other cemetery in the neighborhood of these two cities . . . the monuments are now all of wood, or, especially the later ones, of galvanized iron, dressed in imitation of gray granite. Nearly all of them have crosses rising above them, but the peculiar feature of nearly every one of them is that it is decorated with highly gilded figures of the crucifix, the winged head of a cherub and lamb. Some stones contain all of these three figures, some only one. They sparkle everywhere among the thickly strewn white and gray monuments and give the peculiar aspect to the cemetery that distinguishes it decidedly from all others.
Today, few of the numerous wooden crosses that once filled the cemetery are still present and the weatherworn crucifixes have lost their gilding. Large grassy areas, probably once filled with wooden crosses, now have only a few markers scattered here and there. The rusted metal markers, many strangely crumpled and peeling with paint, add to the peculiar atmosphere of this most interesting site.
The graveyard surrounding the Cathedral Basilica of St. James in downtown Brooklyn is believed to be the oldest Catholic cemetery on Long Island. St. James was founded in 1822 when a group of about 70 Brooklyn Catholics purchased property on the corner of Chapel and Jay Streets to establish a church and a place of interment. It was the first Catholic church built in Brooklyn and the first on Long Island. Shortly after the church was erected, the yard around it began to be used as a burial ground for clergy and laity. When the original ground was filled, more property was procured until the cemetery extended in a tongue back to about 100 feet of Bridge Street. Some 7,000 adults and children are said to have been interred in the graveyard between 1823 and 1849, when burials there were prohibited by law.
In 1900, about 200 tombstones were still standing in the graveyard at St. James, including a number of old wooden crosses and boards among the marble and red sandstone slabs; by 1914, all the wooden markers had disappeared and only about 100 tombstones were left. Many graves reportedly are beneath the rear of the church, covered over when the church was rebuilt and enlarged in 1902. Most of the markers that are still present in the churchyard today lie flat in the ground, preserved but hidden from passersby by the wall that surrounds the parish grounds.