Category Archives: corporate cemeteries

St. Michael’s Cemetery

A large stylized cross and rows of small plain crosses mark the Community of St. John the Baptist plot at St. Michael’s Cemetery, where early sisters of this order of Episcopal nuns are buried. (Mary French, Aug 2021)

In 1852, Rev. Thomas McClure Peters acquired seven acres of farmland in Newtown, Queens, to establish a new cemetery that would provide graves and dignified burials for the poor. Rev. Peters, the rector of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Manhattan, had devoted himself to mission work in the city’s almshouses, prisons, and hospitals, and among its poorest and most disenfranchised communities. He developed an understanding of the needs of these communities and believed it was possible to run a cemetery on business principles and at the same time furnish the poorer classes of the city with burials at a price within their means. Once he had the cemetery laid out and functioning successfully, Rev. Peters turned it over to the corporation of St. Michael’s Church, which owns and manages it to this day.

St. Michael’s Cemetery gradually added more land over the years to reach its present size of roughly 88 acres in the area bounded by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and the Grand Central Parkway in East Elmhurst, Queens. Various churches and charitable institutions acquired sections within the cemetery, public grounds were set aside for free and low-cost burials, and private lots were purchased by individuals and families. St. Michael’s Cemetery still serves a diverse constituency and is the final resting place of roughly 175,000 people from all classes, religions, and ethnicities.

Robert Kellner monument at St. Michael’s Cemetery, 1983 (Jackson & Vergara)

The older family plots at St. Michael’s are predominately German and the dark gray markers here are frequently ornamented with statues depicting angels, lamenting females, and other classical imagery. Also here is a life-sized statue of a Doughboy adorning the gravestone of 24-year-old Cpl. Robert L. Kellner, who was killed on the battlefield of the Argonne Forest, France, in 1918. Later sections have markers with Italian and Greek-lettered names, while more recent monuments carry Chinese and Korean inscriptions. The cemetery’s crematorium, opened in 2005, accommodates the needs of the city’s large Hindu population.

The burial place of St. Michael’s most renowned resident—African American composer and pianist Scott Joplin—is found amid the modest markers and unmarked graves in the cemetery’s public grounds. Dubbed the “King of Ragtime,” Joplin experienced a brief period of fame at the turn of the 20th century, but his career was cut short by mental health issues and he died in poverty in 1917 at age 49. His family was too poor to provide a stone or marker for his grave, and Joplin faded into obscurity as his music waned in popularity.

Plaque marking Scott Joplin’s grave at St. Michael’s Cemetery, Aug 2021 (Mary French)

In 1973, the Academy Award-winning film The Sting stimulated a revival of ragtime and renewed interest in Joplin when his 1902 composition “The Entertainer” was used as the film’s theme music, topping the musical charts for months. The following year, the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) installed a bronze plaque at Joplin’s unmarked grave at St. Michael’s. In 2004, St. Michael’s began holding annual ragtime concerts on its grounds in Joplin’s honor, and in 2017 added a memorial bench at the gravesite to commemorate the centennial of his death.

1983 photo showing wreckage of once orderly rows of tombstones at St. Michael’s Cemetery (Jackson & Vergara)

During the 1970s, St. Michael’s fell into disrepair because of budget cuts and a lack of maintenance and experienced a period of intense vandalism and neglect through the 1980s. Intruders toppled hundreds of tombstones throughout the cemetery and  weeds and underbrush completely enveloped the monuments in some sections. At one point, the lack of adequate fencing allowed motorbikes and even cars to drive among gravesites in the cemetery’s southern corner. But a large-scale renovation in the early 1990s restored the historic cemetery to its past beauty, and today it is well maintained and continually expanding through the construction of community mausoleums.

Another modern addition at St. Michael’s is a collection of memorials devoted to the city’s first responders who lost their lives on 9/11 and before. The most striking of these is the Christopher Santora memorial, honoring 76 firefighters who lived or worked in Queens that died on September 11, 2001. The memorial’s centerpiece is a black marble slab bearing an etched image of Santora, the youngest firefighter to die at the World Trade Center on 9/11. These memorials to the city’s service members are a continuation of St. Michael’s mission to create places to remember and celebrate lives.

The Christopher Santora/Sept. 11 Firefighters Memorial at St. Michael’s Cemetery, Aug 2021 (Mary French)
Location of St. Michael’s Cemetery in East Elmhurst, Queens (OpenStreetMap)
Vintage photo showing reporters gathering for the interment of mobster Frank Castello’s casket in the family mausoleum at St. Michael’s Cemetery, February 21, 1973

View more photos of St. Michael’s Cemetery

Sources: Annals of St. Michael’s: Being the History of St. Michael’s Protestant Episcopal Church, New York for One Hundred Years 1807-1907 (Peters 1907); St. Michael’s Cemetery – About; Silent Cities: The Evolution of the American Cemetery (Jackson & Vergara 1989); King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and His Era, 2nd ed (Berlin 2016); “Our Cities of the Dead,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 28, 1895; “Costello & Legend are Buried,” Daily News, Feb 22, 1973; “A True Note at Composer’s Grave,” Daily News, Oct 7, 1974; “Requiem for the Cemetery?” Daily News, Nov 8, 1974; “Queens Vandals Topple Markers on 300 Graves,” New York Times, Apr 5, 1980; “Seek to Stop Cemetery’s Decline,” Daily News, Jan 11, 1983; “700 Stones Overturned at Cemetery,” New York Times, Aug 10, 1991; “E. Elmhurst Biz Plots for the Future,” QNS.com, May 19, 2004; “Memorial to Firefighers Who Died on 9/11 Is Dedicated,” Queens Gazette, Sep 16, 2004; “New Final Home Underway in Boro,” Queens Tribune, Jun 10, 2010 “Queens Cemetery’s Attempts to Expand on Park Land in Limbo, Daily News, Aug 15, 2013; “Visit to a Historic Cemetery,” CSJB Newsletter, Spring 2013; “Three-Story, 18,800-Square-Foot Mausoleum Coming To St. Michael’s Cemetery, Woodside,” New York Yimby, June 29, 2016; “Joplin Tribute Draws Hundreds of Admirers,” Queens Chronicle, May 23, 2019

United Hebrew Cemetery

Numerous stones left atop these monuments at United Hebrew Cemetery attest to frequent visits (Mary French)

In contrast to many of New York City’s Jewish burial grounds, which often have a deserted air about them, United Hebrew Cemetery on Staten Island hums with activity. On an average day, cars line the cemetery’s roadways, paths are filled with family and friends visiting their departed loved ones, and a yarmulke-wearing manager zips around the grounds on a golf cart. The cemetery’s history begins when the United Hebrew Cemetery Association of New York City incorporated in 1906. The association later acquired 67 acres on Arthur Kill Road in the Richmond section of Staten Island and opened to burials in 1908. United Hebrew now is the resting place of 40,000 Jews from the Bronx, Brooklyn, Staten Island, and the Lower East Side of Manhattan. In its early years, United Hebrew sold plots to about 200 burial societies and benevolent associations. Today its grounds are sold directly to families or individuals, and recent emigration from the former Soviet Union has resulted in an increase in burials over the past few decades.

The Drobniner Holocaust memorial at United Hebrew Cemetery (Steven Lasky/Museum of Family History)

Among those interred at United Hebrew Cemetery are countless people touched by the Holocaust and monuments found throughout the cemetery memorialize those who suffered or died under Nazism.  The Holocaust memorials are dedicated to specific towns that lost their Jewish population to the Nazi regime and their collaborators, or to the many Jews themselves who once inhabited these towns. A monument in the Eishishok Society plot at United Hebrew commemorates more than 4,000 Jews of the Lithuanian shtetl of Eishyshok who were massacred by German troops in 1941. Another large monument, erected by the Drobniner Benevolent Society, commemorates 3,000 Jews from the town of Drobnin, Poland, who were gassed and cremated at the Auschwitz concentration camp. Buried at the foot of the Drobniner monument are ashes brought from Auschwitz in 1961 by one of the camp’s survivors, Rabbi David Foffer.

Burial site of ashes from Auschwitz interred at the foot of the Drobniner monument (Steven Lasky/Museum of Family History)
Listing for United Hebrew Cemetery in a 1910 directory of NYC cemeteries
Location of United Hebrew Cemetery on Arthur Kill Road in Staten Island (OpenStreetMap)

View more photos of United Hebrew Cemetery

Sources: “Incorporations Filed,” Buffalo Courier, Nov 2, 1906; Fairchild Cemetery Manual (1910), 164-165; Annual reports of the Board of Health of the City of New York, 1900-1925; “Rites for Nazi Victims,” New York Times, Nov 27, 1961; “Jewish Cemeteries Recall Era of Immigration, Times of Suffering, Moments of Forgiveness,” Staten Island Advance, Jul 26, 2005; Carved in Granite: Holocaust Memorials in Greater New York Jewish Cemeteries (Poplack 2003); “Holocaust Memorials of New York and New Jersey,” Museum of Family History; OpenStreetMap

Baron Hirsch Cemetery

A stone gate at Baron Hirsch Cemetery marks the entrance to a plot owned by a branch of the Independent Order of Brith Abraham, a Jewish men’s fraternal order (Mary French)

All is quiet during a midday walk through Baron Hirsch Cemetery, where dense woods cover much of the grounds, leaves whisper in the breeze, metal gates creak on rusted hinges, and critters rustle through underbrush that surrounds tombstones. Throughout this 80-acre Jewish graveyard in the Graniteville section of Staten Island there are large plots, fenced off and gated like small neighborhoods, that were bought up by various burial associations during the cemetery’s early years. Leaning and toppled headstones are evidence of the waves of vandalism that have plagued the cemetery since the 1960s, as well as signs of widespread indifference—as members died out so did the burial societies that supported upkeep of their plots and younger generations feel no responsibility for maintaining their ancestor’s graves.

Martin Einziger of Staten Island examines the swastika vandals painted on his family’s tombstone at Baron Hirsch Cemetery in January 1960 (Associated Press)

Altogether, about 65,000 people are buried at Baron Hirsch Cemetery, which was founded in 1899 by an association of Jewish men of New York and named for Jewish businessman and philanthropist Baron Maurice de Hirsch. Some notable figures can be found at Baron Hirsch—theater producer Joseph Papp, publisher Samuel Newhouse, Sr., and Medal of Honor recipient William Shemin among them—but most of those buried here are the lesser-known or forgotten from surrounding areas of New York and New Jersey, individuals with hopes and dreams, with families, each with their own unique story.

Henrietta Schmerler’s tombstone (Baron Hirsch Cemetery)

The story of one young woman buried at Baron Hirsch Cemetery is profoundly timeless and hauntingly relevant to today’s social issues. In the summer of 1931, 22-year-old Henrietta Schmerler, a student of renowned anthropologist Ruth Benedict’s at Columbia University, set out to do fieldwork among the White Mountain Apache in Arizona. On her way to conduct research at a tribal dance on July 18, 1931, she was raped and murdered by a member of the community she was studying. Her body was returned to her family in New York and interred at Baron Hirsch. In the aftermath of the crime, Apache tribal members, FBI investigators, and Schmerler’s mentors and colleagues condemned Schmerler for her own sexual assault and murder. Characterized as willful and careless, a message emerged that she shared responsibility for what had happened to her. Recent research has attempted to correct the distorted narrative of events surrounding Schmerler’s death and to reexamine her story in the context of the #MeToo movement and other experiences of sexual violence within the field of anthropology.

A 2012 aerial view of Baron Hirsch Cemetery
Orthodox Jews from Brooklyn pray at the grave of Herman Steiner—brother of Grand Rebbe Yehuda Tzvi Steiner, who founded the Kerestir Hasidic dynasty—at Baron Hirsch Cemetery, May 2019 (SI Advance)

View more photos of Baron Hirsch Cemetery

Sources: “Incorporated at Albany,” Sunday News (Wilkes-Barre PA), Jul 9, 1899; “Bigotry Peril to the World, Ike Tells AJC” Daily News,Jan 13, 1960; “Vandals Topple Tombstones at S.I. Jewish Cemeteries, Daily News, Apr 2, 1979; “Island Cemeteries Reflect Our ‘Tender Mercies,’”Staten Island Advance, April 29, 1990; “In a Place Plagued by Vandals, The Pain of Putting Things Right,” New York Times, May 16, 2004; “Apathy, Neglect and Vines Overtake Staten Island Cemetery,” Staten Island Advance,  Aug 18, 2012; “Hundreds Pay Their Respects on 103rd Anniversary of Rabbi’s Death at Graniteville Cemetery,” Staten Island Advance, May 17, 2019; “Students Attend Schmerler Rites,” New York Times, Aug 1, 1931; Henrietta Schmerler and the Murder that Put Anthropology on Trial (Schmerler 2017); “How Henrietta Schmerler Was Lost, Then Found,” Chronicle of Higher Education, Oct 14, 2018; Realms of History: The Cemeteries of Staten Island (Salmon 2006), 32-37; Baron Hirsch Cemetery; NYCityMap

Mount Olivet Cemetery

An 1881 illustration depicting Mount Olivet Cemetery’s entrance and original office building

Mount Olivet Cemetery is one of over a dozen cemeteries developed along the Brooklyn-Queens border after the New York legislature passed the Rural Cemetery Act in 1847, spurring creation of new large-scale cemeteries throughout the state. In 1850 a group of Episcopalian businessmen from Brooklyn and Manhattan incorporated Mount Olivet and acquired a tract of farmland near the village of Maspeth in the historical Newtown township, Queens. The founding trustees originally intended to allow only Episcopalian funeral services within the cemetery but lifted this restriction by the time the cemetery opened to the public in 1851, making Mount Olivet entirely non-sectarian. In November 1851, Mount Olivet’s trustees ran an ad in the New York Times announcing that the cemetery was ready for interments, enticing buyers with the following description:

It combines all the attractions appropriate to a place set apart for the unmolested repose of the dead and its corporate privileges exclude the possibility of any disturbance in the future. The soil is dry; the surface elegantly diversified with wood and water, lawn and thick; and from some of its eminences, most magnificent views of the Cities of New York, Brooklyn and Williamsburg may be obtained. The rules and regulations adopted by the Trustees are identical to those of Greenwood Cemetery and the prices of lots have been fixed at very moderate rates and less than half those charged at Greenwood.

Mount Olivet’s original 42 acres are shown in this detail from an 1852 map; additional lands were acquired to expand the cemetery to its current 71 acres

Mount Olivet’s 71 acres extend from the main entrance on Grand Avenue in Maspeth to the rear entrance on Eliot Avenue, which separates it from Lutheran/All Faiths Cemetery to the south. Its open policies and affordable lots attracted many religious, fraternal, and benevolent associations, and groups such as the American Legion, the Masonic Merchants Lodge No. 709 F.&A.M., the Sociedad Espanola de Beneficencia, and the German Evangelical Home for the Aged acquired plots, as did churches and religious societies of many denominations. The cemetery’s undulating terrain features picturesque buildings, beautiful plantings, and a patchwork of multicultural graves and historical monuments. It is the final resting place of approximately 100,000 people, including colonial settlers, Civil War veterans, African American trailblazers, Russian nobility, fallen comrades of America’s labor and civil rights movements, notorious gangsters, and one of the country’s first self-made female millionaires.

Many families with long ties to historical Newtown acquired plots in Mount Olivet Cemetery after it opened, choosing the modern cemetery over the farmstead burial grounds or churchyard plots used by previous generations. One of these families was the Halletts, who have a large plot along the central road at Mount Olivet. The Hallett clan, led by patriarch William Hallett, emigrated from England and settled in the Astoria area of Newtown in 1652, remaining prominent in local political, business, and social life into the 20th century. In 1905 bodies and tombstones dating back to the 17th century were moved from the old Hallett burial ground at Astoria Boulevard and Main Avenue to Mount Olivet. One of the monuments in the Hallett plot at Mount Olivet carries a bronze plaque denoting the family’s colonial history.

The Civil War veterans’ plot at Mount Olivet Cemetery, Nov 2020 (Mary French)

In 1885, Civil War veterans living in and around Newtown organized a Grand Army of the Republic Post, naming it Robert J. Marks Post No. 560 in honor of a local soldier who died of wounds received in battle in 1864. One of the post’s first orders of business was purchasing a fraternal burial plot in the northeastern section of Mount Olivet on which they erected, in 1889, a 12-foot-tall granite monument depicting a Union soldier at parade rest and wearing his overcoat. Among the veterans interred in the Civil War soldiers’ plot is Jeromus Rapelye (1834-1913), known to his Grand Army friends as “Fair Oaks” for injuries he sustained at that Virginia battle site in 1862. Rapelye was a founding member of Robert J. Marks Post, noted for marching at the head of the group during their annual Memorial Day exercises and for personally visiting every soldier’s grave in Newtown to decorate it with flowers. 

Excerpt from the obituary of 30-year-old WWI veteran John. L. Davis, one of the Harlem Hellfighters interred at Mount Olivet

Members of Newtown’s historic black community also are interred at Mount Olivet Cemetery, as are figures prominent in black fraternal, civic and religious life of Brooklyn and Harlem, and African Americans who pioneered in their fields. Notable are Bessie Buchanan, the first black woman to become a member of the New York legislature; James P. Johnson, influential jazz pianist and composer who wrote “The Charleston;” actor Oscar Polk, known for his role as Pork in Gone With the Wind; renowned Trinidadian calypso singer MacBeth the Great; James Lockley, one of of Harlem’s first African American businessmen, his department store was a local landmark; and several veterans of the Harlem Hellfighters, the most celebrated African American regiment in World War I.

Members of the Japanese American Association of New York at the annual grave attendance ceremony in the Japanese section of Mount Olivet Cemetery, May 2013 (JAANY)

The Japanese Mutual Aid Society, founded in 1907 by Dr. Toyohiko Takami, purchased a plot of land at Mount Olivet Cemetery in 1912 for Japanese immigrants who died in New York without family here to arrange for their burial. Located at the south end of Mount Olivet, this plot is the city’s oldest Japanese burial ground and burials are still occasionally made there. Continuing the legacy of Dr. Takami, the Japanese American Association of New York holds an annual Bosankai, or grave attendance ceremony, at Mount Olivet to honor the ancestors and early Japanese New Yorkers interred there. Each Memorial Day a group attends the ceremony, conducted by Buddhist priests and Christian ministers. After completing the service at Mount Olivet, the group proceeds to Cypress Hills Cemetery where they repeat the ceremony at the Japanese American section there.

Eastern Orthodox monuments at Mount Olivet Cemetery, Nov 2020 (Mary French)

The distinctive three-barred cross of Eastern Orthodoxy surmounts many monuments at Mount Olivet Cemetery, marking the graves of immigrants and descendants from former Soviet countries, the Middle East, and the Balkans. New York’s growing Eastern Orthodox community began acquiring extensive grounds at Mount Olivet in the early 1900s, and the Russian Orthodox Church erected a small chapel in the southeast corner of the cemetery. Due to its affiliation with the Eastern Orthodox community, Mount Olivet is the burial place of a number of members of aristocratic families who immigrated to New York when the Russian Empire was overthrown. One of these exiled aristocrats at Mount Olivet is perfumer Prince Georges Vasili Matchabelli, descendant of the royal house of Georgia in the Transcaucasia, interred here in 1935 following a three-hour funeral service at Manhattan’s Russian Orthodox Church of Christ. Just steps from Matchabelli’s grave at Mount Olivet is the burial spot of Polish-born cosmetics tycoon Helena Rubinstein (1872-1965). Famous for rising from Krakow’s Jewish ghetto to become one of the world’s richest businesswomen, Rubinstein rests beside her second husband, Prince Artchil Gourielli-Tchkonia of Georgia. 

Gravemarker of political activists Steve Katovis and Gonzalo Gonzales at Mount Olivet Cemetery (Babis Vogias )

Three political activists killed in separate altercations with police during labor and and civil rights protests in 1930 are interred at Mount Olivet Cemetery. In January of that year, 400 members of the Communist Party of the United States accompanied the body of Steve Katovis, a Greek vegetable-market clerk shot down in a clash between police and striking market workers in the Bronx, to Mount Olivet for interment. On July 1, 1930, Alfred Luro (a “Negro Communist,” according to news reports) was laid to rest at the cemetery when he died following a scuffle with police during a political protest in Harlem; Mexican organizer Gonzalo Gonzales, killed at a memorial rally for Luro, joined his deceased comrades at Mount Olivet.  A monument marking the grave of Katovis and Gonzales is carved with symbols of the International Labor Defense, the legal arm of the Communist Party in the United States. At the bottom of the marker are the words “Martyrs in Labor’s Cause.”

A crowd of curiosity seekers and reporters gathers around Jack “Legs” Diamond burial site  at Mount Olivet, Dec 1931 (Daily News)

Perhaps the most infamous figure buried at Mount Olivet, Prohibition-era Irish gangster Jack “Legs” Diamond was interred in a hastily-dug grave in a remote corner of the cemetery after church authorities refused his widow’s request to have him buried in consecrated ground at a Catholic cemetery. Nicknamed “the clay pigeon of the underworld” for surviving numerous attempts on his life, Diamond’s luck ran out when he was shot to death in an Albany rooming house in December 1931. His widow Alice was murdered in her Brooklyn apartment two years later. Diamond’s burial spot eludes modern curiosity seekers—he and Alice  are buried in unmarked graves at Mount Olivet, and their location is not disclosed to the public.

A view of Manhattan from Mount Olivet, April 2016 (Mary French)
Location of Mount Olivet Cemetery in Maspeth, Queens (OpenStreetMap)

View more photos of Mount Olivet Cemetery

Sources: Dripps’ 1852 Map of Kings and Part of Queens Counties, Long Island N.Y.; Mount Olivet Cemetery; Mount Olivet Cemetery (1851); “Mount Olivet Cemetery,” New York Times, Nov 12, 1851; The Cemeteries of New York (Judson 1881); “Founding Family’s Monument Updated,” Queens Chronicle, Aug 25, 2011; “Died for the Union,” Brooklyn Citizen, Nov 11, 1889; “Jeromus Rapelye,” Newtown Register, Aug 14, 1913; “Sgt. John L. Davis’ Funeral Impressive,” Amsterdam News, Apr 7, 1926; “‘Gabriel’ Dies,” Amsterdam News, Jan 15, 1949 p5; James R. Lockley, New York Age, Nov 30 1957; “Macbeth the Great, Calypso Singer Dies,” Amsterdam News, Feb 2, 1957; “Bessie A. Buchanan, Ex-State Aide, Dies,” New York Times, Sep 11, 1980; “A Place for All Eternity In Their Adopted Land,” New York Times, September 1, 1997; Japanese American Association of New York; “Russians Open Chapel Closed in 1923 Strife,” New York Tribune May 10, 1937; “Prominent Russians Mourn Matchabelli,” New York Times, Apr 4, 1935; “Helena Rubinstein Dies Here at 94,” New York Times, Apr 2, 1965; “Red Rally Orderly Under Police Guard,” New York Times, Jan 29, 1930; “3 Police Handle Parade of 3,000 Reds at Funeral,” New York Herald Tribune, Jul 2, 1930; “Honor Fallen Red,” Amsterdam News, Jul 9, 1930; Steve Katovis—Steve the Red (Vogias 2016); “Niece, 13, Leads Last Rites for ‘Legs’ Diamond,” New York Herald Tribune, Dec 23, 1931; “Play Pals, Big Shots Shun Diamond Grave,” Daily News, Dec 23, 1931; Resting Places:The Burial Sites of More than 14,000 Famous Persons, 3rd ed. (Wilson 2016); OpenStreetMap

Bayside Cemetery, Mokom Sholom Cemetery & Acacia Cemetery

This 1872 map denotes the “Jews Cemetery,” extending from Liberty Ave to  Old South Rd (later Pitkin Ave). At this time the burial ground included Bayside and Mokom Sholom cemeteries; Acacia would be established in 1896 on the land identified here as the property of “D. Bergen.”

Beginning in the 1860s, cemetery corporations began to acquire tracts of land near Jamaica Bay to create what would become three Jewish cemeteries situated in today’s Ozone Park, Queens. Jointly, these cemeteries—Bayside Cemetery, Mokom Sholom Cemetery, and Acacia Cemetery—now cover close to 40 acres where an estimated 50,000 individuals have been interred. The adjoined burial grounds are located on flat terrain extending from 80th Street to 84th Street and from Liberty Avenue to Pitkin Avenue.

The cemeteries are separate, but their conterminous nature has frequently led to mix-ups in burial records, obituaries, and other accounts regarding which cemetery an individual was actually interred in. Newspaper reports and property records often confuse the cemeteries and their ownership as well. The three cemeteries also share a troubled record of poor stewardship, financial woes, chronic neglect and vandalism, and some of the most appalling acts of desecration ever to occur in New York City cemeteries.

Notices appeared in newspapers in 1861 (left) and 1864 (right) notifying the Jewish public of the opening of Bayside and Mokom Sholom cemeteries

Bayside  Cemetery (founded 1861), Mokom Sholom Cemetery (founded 1864), and Acacia Cemetery (founded 1896) each were established by independent corporations authorized by the state’s Rural Cemetery Act of 1847. The corporations acquired the cemetery land, which they then sold as sections or plots to hundreds of different Jewish burial societies, fraternal organizations, congregations, and other communal groups. Although family and individual plots also were sold, the majority of the cemeteries’ land was acquired by communal organizations who were responsible for the care and upkeep of their burial grounds.

An 1899 advertisement for cemetery plots at Acacia Cemetery

Nearly all the organizations that purchased burial grounds at the three cemeteries were defunct by the mid-20th century, and few made financial arrangements to fund ongoing maintenance of their plots. Compounding this situation, the managing corporations who originally established the cemeteries also had become defunct over time, and responsibility transferred to Jewish congregations that had existing relationships with the original corporations. These congregations, which numbered around a thousand worshippers during their heyday, dwindled to just a handful of active members and lacked the resources to maintain the cemeteries.

With insufficient resources for upkeep and monitoring of the burial grounds, the cemeteries deteriorated and became consistent targets for a wide range of intruders, including thrill-seeking teenagers, vandals, and thieves. Incidents were particularly rampant at Bayside and Mokom Sholom during the last decades of the 20th century (though Acacia also experienced occasional vandalism, incidences were not as frequent or severe).

David Jacobson, manager of Acacia and Mokom Sholom cemeteries, examines gravestones toppled by vandals in Sept 1991 (Daily News)

In 1973, the National Guard were called in to help with clean-up and repairs at Bayside Cemetery, after a four‐year siege of vandalism in which hundreds of tombstones were overturned or broken, mausoleums smashed, iron gates ripped open, and the cemetery office building looted and ransacked. Between 1976 and 1978, over 500 tombstones were overturned at Mokom Sholom Cemetery. In addition to the pervasive vandalism that continued throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the cemeteries were frequently preyed upon by professional thieves who stripped dozens of mausoleums of their bronze doors, stained-glass windows, and marble interiors.

A casket lies open at Bayside Cemetery after vandals struck in April 1994 (AP)

Acts of desecration at these cemeteries have gone far beyond vandalism and theft. In April 1981, a group of teenagers broke into a mausoleum at Mokom Sholom, pulled a coffin from its niche, smashed it open and drove a metal spike through the heart of the corpse. The perpetrators, who placed a dead cat above the body and a red candle nearby, were later caught while showing off Polaroid snapshots to a friend. In the twilight hours of Mother’s Day 1983, two young men viciously and methodically desecrated the grounds at Bayside Cemetery, smashing stained-glass windows and covering walls and tombstones with graffiti. In one mausoleum, they broke through a three-inch-thick marble floor and into the crypt of a girl buried there, at the age of three, in 1903. Dragging the tiny coffin out onto the roadway, they scattered the child’s remains, then took a rock and shattered the corpse’s skull. Another incident at Bayside was called “a pretty sick and perverted act” by Mayor Rudy Giuliani in June 1997 when “sickos” broke into a mausoleum and set fire to one of bodies, incinerating it so thoroughly that nothing remained but ashes.

A stone archway marks the entrance to one of the many communal burial plots at Bayside cemetery, May 2016 (Mary French)

These shocking episodes of vandalism and desecration have decreased in recent years, as steps were taken to secure the cemeteries and provide them with the attention they needed. Mokom Sholom and Acacia, which had been owned by Manhattan’s Congregation Darech Amuno and Pike Street Synagogue, respectively, were taken over by the state in the 1970s and placed in receivership; today both are administered by David Jacobson, who operates several of the city’s smaller Jewish burial grounds. Bayside Cemetery, which is owned by Congregation Shaare Zedek of Manhattan, has continued in a serious state of disrepair. Other than the efforts of dedicated volunteers who labored for years to restore dignity at Bayside, the cemetery had essentially been abandoned until recently. In 2017, Shaare Zedek reached an agreement with the state Attorney General’s office to dedicate $8 million dollars from the sale of their Upper West Side synagogue for long-term care of Bayside Cemetery; rehabilitation efforts began in 2018.

A view of Mokom Sholom Cemetery from Pitkin Ave, May 2016 (Mary French)

It’s unfortunate that the history of these cemeteries—and the stories of those interred within their grounds—has been overshadowed by a depressing saga of neglect and desecration. Family visitors are few, and there are no graves of famous individuals to attract much public interest in these burial grounds (though a US Congressman and a Titanic victim are interred at Bayside). Still, it’s worth remembering that Mokom Sholom means “place of peace” and Bayside was so named because various small streams leading in from nearby Jamaica Bay came up to its boundaries before modern development encroached. When wandering in the secluded urban wilderness of these cemeteries today, it’s easy to imagine this was once a lovely spot, where thousands of Jewish New Yorkers were laid to rest as the sea breezes swept in from Jamaica Bay.

Monuments stand amid colorful grasses and trees at Acacia Cemetery, May 2016. The elevated A train tracks, which run along the cemetery’s northern boundary, can be seen in the background (Mary French)
A 2018 aerial view of Bayside, Mokom Sholom and Acacia cemeteries

View more photos of Bayside Cemetery 

View more photos of Mokom Sholom Cemetery 

View more photos of Acacia Cemetery 

Sources: Dripps 1872 Map of Kings County, with parts of Westchester, Queens, New York & Richmond; The Leonard Manual of the Cemeteries of New York and Vicinity (1901), 9, 11-12; Fairchild Cemetery Manual (1910), 12, 17; “Notice,” Long Island Farmer Apr 2, 1861; “To the Jewish Public,” Jewish Messenger, Sep 18, 1861; “Notice,” Long Island Farmer, Feb 9, 1864; “Notice,” Jewish Messenger, May 6, 1864; “Proposed New Cemetery,” The Journal, Mar 21, 1896; “Cemetery Plots for Sale,” American Hebrew, Mar 10, 1899; “Restoring Dignity to Cemetery, Daily News, May 21, 1973; “Vandalism Is on the Increase in City’s Cemeteries,” NY Times, Dec 18, 1973; “NY State Takes Over Ozone Park Cemetery,” The Wave, Aug 20 1977; “Vandals Attack Cemetery,” Daily News, Dec 4 1978; “Corpse in Mausoleum Desecrated by Vandals,” NY Times, Apr 3, 1981; “In New York, Not Even the Dead are Safe,” Daily News Sunday Magazine, Aug 21, 1983; “Vandals Rock Jewish Cemeteries,” Daily News, Sep 9, 1991; “Cemetary[sic] Vandalized,” The Journal News, Apr 6, 1994; “3 Cemeteries are Haunted by Vandals,” NY Times, Nov 24, 1996; “An Affront To the Dead, And the Living, NY Times, Jun 13, 1997; “Resting—But Not in Peace,” Daily News, Oct 12, 1997; “Can a Catholic Guy Save this ‘Hellhole’ Jewish Cemetery?” Forward, Jun 10, 2018; Kroth v. Chebra Ukadisha, 105 Misc. 2d 904 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 1980); International Jewish Cemetery Project—Queens—Ozone Park; Congregation Shaare Zedek—Cemetery FAQs