Tag Archives: Cypress Hills

Maimonides Cemetery & Mount Hope Cemetery

Mausoleums in Mount Hope Cemetery, April 2018 (Mary French)

“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.

A 1905 map showing Maimionides and Mount Hope cemeteries, situated along Jamaica Ave and the border of Cypress Hills Cemetery

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 Metro-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.

An 1880 advertisement for Maimonides Cemetery from one of the city’s Jewish newspapers.

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.

The gatehouse at Maimonides Cemetery, April 2018 (Mary French)
A view of Maimonides Cemetery, Jan 2016 (Mary French)
The entrance building at Mount Hope Cemetery, April 2018 (Mary French)
A view of Mount Hope Cemetery, Jan 2016 (Mary French)
An aerial view of Maimonides and Mount Hope cemeteries, 2012

View more photos of Maimonides and Mount Hope cemeteries.

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

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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