Category Archives: corporate cemeteries

Linden Hill Cemeteries

A 1909 map showing Linden Hill Methodist Cemetery and Linden Hill Jewish/Ahawath Chesed Cemetery (Bromley 1909)

On a hilltop near the intersection of Flushing and Metropolitan Avenues in Ridgewood, Queens, are two small garden-like cemeteries created in the mid-nineteenth century. Linden Hill Methodist Cemetery is a 21-acre burial ground situated along Woodward Avenue between Starr and Stanhope streets. Established in 1842 by the Second Street Methodist Episcopal Church in Manhattan, in 1852 the cemetery was acquired by the First German Methodist Episcopal Church of Manhattan who operated it until 1977, when it was transferred to the New York Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. Although owned by Methodist entities throughout its history, Linden Hill Cemetery has always been a nonsectarian, multi-ethnic burial ground. The humble gravestones that fill its grounds mark the final resting place of more than 30,000 people and reflect the area’s shifting demographics—many of the earlier monuments are for German, Italian, and Eastern European immigrants, while more recent graves are predominately Hispanic and African American.

A view of Linden Hill Methodist Cemetery, April 2016 (Mary French)

In 1875, Ahawath Chesed, a prosperous German Jewish congregation now known as Central Synagogue and located on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, acquired a tract of land adjacent to Linden Hill Methodist Cemetery for a Jewish burial ground. Linden Hill Jewish Cemetery occupies 10 acres on the northwest side of the Methodist cemetery, and has its gatehouse at the corner of Metropolitan Avenue and Grandview Avenue. A number of prominent members of New York’s Jewish community lie buried beneath monuments and in mausoleums here, including U.S. Congressman Jacob Javits and businessman Joseph Bloomingdale. In 2008, Central Synagogue sold Linden Hill Jewish Cemetery to David Jacobson, who operates several of the city’s Jewish burial grounds, and today the cemetery primarily is used by recent Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

A view of Linden Hill Jewish Cemetery, April 2016 (Mary French)

Among the notable individuals interred at Linden Hill Jewish Cemetery is theatrical producer and playwright David Belasco, whose family mausoleum occupies a central position at the end of the cemetery’s entrance drive. Designed by Tiffany Studios, the domed structure is of heavy, rough-hewn granite with marble interiors. Belasco built the mausoleum in 1913 in memory of his daughter Augusta, who died three years earlier at age 22. During her life, it was said, Augusta Belasco dreaded the dark; when she was interred in the mausoleum David Belasco and his wife installed a bronze lamp that was kept burning day and night to insure “that beside their dead daughter there shall be kept an eternal vigil of light.” David Belasco was interred next to his wife and daughter in the mausoleum when he died in 1931.

The Belasco Mausoleum at Linden Hill Jewish Cemetery, April 2016 (Mary French)
A 1923 image of the southeastern end of Linden Hill Jewish Cemetery (NYPL)
A 2016 aerial view of the Linden Hill cemeteries

View more photos of Linden Hill Methodist Cemetery

View more photos of Linden Hill Jewish Cemetery

Sources: Bromley’s 1909 Atlas of the City of New York, Borough of Queens Pl 17; Linden Hill United Methodist Cemetery; The Cemeteries of New York (Judson 1881), 18; The Leonard Manual of the Cemeteries of New York and Vicinity (1901), 9, 50; Central Synagogue Archivist, personal communication, April 27, 2016; “Playwright’s Mausoleum,” The Reporter Oct 1914, 35; “Stars of Stage Pay Tribute to David Belasco,” Schenectady Gazette May 16, 1931, 14; Beyond Grief: Sculpture and Wonder in the Gilded Age Cemetery (Mills 2014), 182.

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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

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

Pelham Cemetery

Pelham Cemetery overlooking Long Island Sound, June 2014 (Mary French)

One of the best views in City Island, that scenic village off Pelham Bay Park in the north Bronx, is from the cemetery on the island’s east side. There’s no hint that you’re in New York City here in Pelham Cemetery, where tombstones overlook boats bobbing rhythmically in the waters of Long Island Sound. The people of City Island have always had strong ties to the water. Once home to oystermen and shipmakers, today the island is a haven for those who seek recreation and refuge in its Cape Cod-like environment.

Throughout the cemetery there are vivid reminders of the island’s past as a hub of maritime production and signs that the water is the community’s soul—numerous tombstones are marked with nautical ranks of those who made their living on the water or are decorated with images of ships, sailboats, anchors, compasses, fish and other animals, all emphasizing the aquatic connection, whether commercial or recreational. An inscription on one gravemarker perfectly captures the spirit of the place:  Rest in peace on this island where you were born and raised; home again on the shores of these waters you loved.

Pelham Cemetery in 1868 (Beers 1868)
Gravesite of Orrin Fordham at Pelham Cemetery, June 2017 (Mary French)

A fire that destroyed the cemetery’s records before 1922 obscures its early history, but it seems it was established as the village graveyard by the mid-19th century. An 1868 map depicts the cemetery at is current location along the shore, and many of the early tombstones in the graveyard date to this time period when large numbers of settlers moved to City Island. The island was isolated and sparsely populated until Connecticut shipbuilder Orrin Fordham established an oyster planting business on the island’s east side around 1830, a concept that revolutionized the American oyster industry and ushered in settlers and a period of prosperity for City Island. The oyster business thrived here through the 1890s and oystermen became some of the island’s wealthiest residents. Many of these early settlers and their descendants are represented in family plots at Pelham Cemetery.

In 1881, the three-acre cemetery was officially incorporated as Pelham Cemetery Association, so named because City Island was within the boundaries of the town of Pelham in Westchester County until New York City annexed it in 1895. According to City Island legend, remains from an early burial ground on Fordham Street were transferred to Pelham Cemetery when Public School 17 was built  on the old burial site at 190 Fordham Street in 1897-98.

Also buried in Pelham Cemetery are men and women who worked in the shipyards and sailmaking lofts that opened on the island in the 1860s and flourished until the mid-20th century. Among the shipbuilding pioneers interred at the cemetery is Augustus B. Wood (1831-1902), a lawyer, yachtsman, and boatbuilder whose City Island shipyard developed a national reputation for building very durable, light boats, including oyster skiffs and the famed Hell Gate pilot boat.

Nautical themes are common on tombstones in Pelham Cemetery, illustrating the maritime connections of its inhabitants (Mary French)

The Hell Gate Pilots Association had their headquarters at City Island and in the 19th and early 20th centuries many of the island’s men made their living piloting vessels through the East River’s treacherous Hell Gate passage. A number of Hell Gate pilots are buried at Pelham Cemetery, including “Dynamite” Johnny O’Brien (1837-1917), a daredevil sea captain and gunrunner revered as a hero of the Cuban people for his expeditions supporting their revolution. Capt. Edward Sadler, a City Island icon who died in 2011 at age 95, is here at Pelham Cemetery, too. Sadler, a Hell Gate pilot and FDNY fireboat captain, was a lifelong islander and community activist; he died in the same home he where he was born in 1916.

Gravesite of Pietro Vaini at Pelham Cemetery, June 2017 (Mary French)

Pelham Cemetery is a nondenominational burial ground and more than 2,000 people are buried here; most spent their lives on the mile-and-a-half-long island or have strong connections here. One exception is Italian artist Pietro Vaini, whose life on City Island was a brief and tragic one. Vaini came to New York City from Rome in 1872 and had a studio in Manhattan, where his talents attracted attention and he was considered to have great promise. On August 31st, 1875, Vaini came to City Island to attend a picnic at a gathering of local politicians and Hell Gate pilots. At one point during the afternoon, Vaini rose to recite a poem in Italian; his intense and earnest delivery riveted his audience, although most didn’t understand his words. At the close of his recitation, he announced, “Dio è il giudice di tutti i giudici, ed è il giudice di questo, mio atto,” (“God is the judge of all judges, and is the judge of this, my act”); he then drew a small revolver from his pocket and fired into his right temple. The spectators, imagining his act was simply the denouement of a dramatic performance, broke into applause before realizing what had happened. Vaini died without regaining consciousness; subsequent inquiries determined that friends were worried about his mental state for some time before the incident. The story of Pietro Vaini’s suicide became part of City Island lore, with many variations and embellishments over the years. Two weathered wooden crosses just inside the cemetery’s main gate mark his grave.

Depiction of Pietro Vaini’s suicide at City Island, engraving from L’Illustrazione Italiana, Nov 7, 1875 (Scala Archives)

Today, City Island’s days of oystering, boatbuilding, and sailmaking are long gone. Gone too are the Hell Gate pilots, who were absorbed by the Sandy Hook Pilots Association in 1967. But the island is still alive with nautical pleasures and a walk through Pelham Cemetery tells the story of its rich maritime heritage, and of those who are still lured to the island and its waters.

View of Pelham Cemetery from Long Island Sound, July 1928 (NYPL)
Old wooden arch and fence at the entrance to Pelham Cemetery in 1923, later replaced by a wrought iron arch and fence (NYPL)
Location of Pelham Cemetery on King Ave between Ditmars and Tier streets, City Island (NYCityMap)

View more photos of Pelham Cemetery

Sources: Beers’ 1868 Atlas of New York and Vicinity, Pl 35; City Island:Tales of the Clam Diggers (A. Payne 1969); City Island and Orchard Beach (C. Scott 2004); The Other Islands of New York City (Seltz & Miller 2011), 106-128; The Bronx, in Bits and Pieces (B. Twomey 2007), 92-94; A Strange Suicide,” New-York Tribune, Sep 2, 1875, 1; “Causes of Pietro Vaini’s Suicide,” New-York Tribune, Sep 3, 1875, 8; “Funeral of Pietro Vaini,” New-York Tribune, Sep 4, 1875, 12; “’Dynamite Johnny’ O’Brien to be Buried Wednesday,” New-York Tribune, Jun 25, 1917, 7; “Shaft to Rise from Lonely Grave of ‘Dynamite Johnny,’ Liberator,” New York Herald, Jun 27, 1924, 17; “City Island Mourns the Loss of Captain Ed Sadler,” Bronx Times, Nov 23, 2011; NYCityMap; Barbara Harrison Kaye & Darrell Smith, personal communication, July 3, 2017

Mount Zion Cemetery

Aerial view of Mt Zion Cemetery, 2015. Long Island Expressway at left, Dept of Sanitation complex at right, Calvary Cemetery and Manhattan skyline in background (G.Tushev)

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.

Location of Mount Zion Cemetery (OpenStreetMap)
Tombstones in Mt Zion Cemetery, May 2016 (Mary French)

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.

Visitors at Mt Zion Cemetery during the Jewish holidays, ca 1940 (Mt Zion Cemetery)
Mt Zion’s original main gate and office building on 54th Avenue, seen here ca.1940, was torn down about 1960 (Mt Zion Cemetery)

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.”

Morris Diamond’s Sing Sing Prison Admission Record, 1924 (Ancestry)

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.

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A 1912 photo of the marble monument surrounding graves of 14 victims of the Triangle Fire that are interred at Mt Zion Cemetery (Kheel Center)

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.

Gypsy shantytown at Maspeth, located opposite Mt Zion Cemetery, 1937. The cemetery’s 54th Avenue entrance gate/office building can be seen in the background (QBPL)
View of Mt Zion Cemetery, Betts Avenue Incinerator in background, June 2017 (Mary French)

View more photos of Mount Zion Cemetery

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)

Washington Cemetery

WashingtonCem_Jan2016
A view of Washington Cemetery, Jan 2016 (Mary French)

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.

WashingtonCem_OpenStreetMap
Location of Washington Cemetery in Midwood, Brooklyn (OpenStreetMap)

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.

An 1861 ad for Washington Cemetery (Brooklyn Daily Eagle Feb 11, 1861)
An 1861 ad for Washington Cemetery (Brooklyn Daily Eagle Feb 11, 1861)

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.

Visitors at the grave of Yiddish playwright Jacob Gordin, Washington Cemetery,  ca. 1920s (CJH)
Visitors at Jacob Gordin’s gravesite, Washington Cemetery, ca. 1920s (Center for Jewish History)

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.

View of entrance on Bay Parkway, 1970s (BPL)
View of entrance on Bay Parkway, 1970s (Brooklyn Public Library)

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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