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.
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.
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.
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