Tag Archives: New York City Cemeteries

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)

Rossville A.M.E. Zion Church Cemetery

A view of A.M.E. Zion Church Cemetery at Sandy Ground, May 2017 (Mary French)

Amid rows of modern tract houses on a quiet street in Staten Island is a graveyard that is regarded as one of the country’s most significant African American burial grounds. Rossville A.M.E. Zion Church Cemetery memorializes the history of Sandy Ground, one of the oldest continuously inhabited free black settlements in the United States. This African American enclave was founded near the towns of Rossville and Woodrow on the South Shore of Staten Island. Its history begins in 1828 when Capt. John Jackson bought land here shortly after slavery was abolished in New York in 1827. Capt. Jackson, an African-American ferryboat owner-operator, was the first black landowner on Staten Island. Other freedmen followed him to Sandy Ground, including oystermen from New Jersey, Delaware, Virginia, and Snow Hill, Maryland, who were attracted by the rich oyster beds in the area.

The A.M.E. Zion Church and Cemetery in 1874 (Beers 1874)

The settlement was centered at the junction of present-day Woodrow and Bloomingdale Roads and acquired its name from the sandy soil of the area. Sandy Ground grew and prospered through the early 20th century and at its peak in the 1880s-1890s encompassed almost two square miles and had about 200 residents and over 50 homes. After oystering in the waters off Staten Island was banned in 1916 due to pollution, the Sandy Ground community gradually declined. The community suffered a further blow in 1963 when about half Sandy Ground’s remaining 25 homes were razed in a brush fire that destroyed a large portion of Staten Island’s South Shore. Today, 10 families who trace their roots to the original settlers still live in Sandy Ground.

Location of Rossville A.M.E. Zion Church Cemetery (NYCityMap)

The Zion African Methodist Episcopal congregation at Sandy Ground was incorporated in 1850, and in 1852 they purchased land on Crabtree Avenue where they built their church and established a cemetery. By 1890 the congregation had outgrown its original church and constructed a new building on Bloomingdale Road where descendants of Sandy Ground settlers still worship today. The cemetery on Crabtree Avenue has continued as the church and community burial ground.

A view of the Rossville A.M.E. Zion Cemetery, ca. 1980 (LPC)

Rossville A.M.E. Zion Church Cemetery occupies 1.6 acres on the south side of Crabtree Avenue, west of Bloomingdale Road. About 100 modest tombstones can be found in the graveyard and a recent ground-penetrating radar survey located more than 500 unmarked graves here. Dates on the tombstones range from 1860 to the present and represent over 40 families. Capt. John Jackson’s tombstone is here, as are markers for members of other early Sandy Ground families such as Bishop, Harris, Henry, Landin, Purnell, and Stevens.

Distinguished Sandy Ground resident George H. Hunter (1869-1967) also has a marker in the cemetery. Hunter was the son of a Virginia slave who escaped to her freedom in New York State just before the Civil War and who brought young George to Sandy Ground around 1880. Hunter went on to establish a successful cesspool building and cleaning business and was a longtime steward of the A.M.E. Zion Church and caretaker of its cemetery. In a 1956 New Yorker article that is now considered a classic piece, legendary writer Joseph Mitchell profiled Hunter and chronicled the history of Sandy Ground and its residents.

George H. Hunter ca. 1940, with the “Honey Wagon,” the name Sandy Grounders gave to the truck he used for cleaning cesspools (SI Advance)

Visiting the A.M.E. Zion Church Cemetery with Mitchell, Hunter remarked, “Most of the people lying in here were related to each other, some by blood, some by marriage, some close, some distant. If you started in at the gate and ran an imaginary line all the way through, showing who was related to who, the line would zigzag all over the cemetery.” Hunter’s “imaginary line” symbolizes the cemetery’s significance in representing Sandy Ground’s history. The family plots and markers offer a visible record of the network of relationships that constituted the community of Sandy Ground and provide a tangible and visible link to Sandy Ground’s long and continuous existence that has shaped and molded the lives of the people who lived there, and their descendants, in many powerful ways.

Gravestone of Dawson Landin (1826-1899), an oysterman who moved to Sandy Ground from Maryland in the mid-1800s. He owned a forty-foot sloop named the Pacific and was the “richest man in the settlement,” according to George Hunter (Mary French)

View more photos of Rossville A.M.E. Zion Church Cemetery.

Sources: “Mr. Hunter’s Grave,” (J. Mitchell), New Yorker, Sept 22, 1956; LPC Rossville A.M.E. Zion Church Cemetery Designation Report, 1985; LPC AME Zion Church Designation Report, 2011; Sandy Ground Memories (Mosley 2003); “Sandy Ground: Archaeological Sampling in a Black Community in Metropolitan New York,” (R. Schuyler 1974), The Conference on Historic Site Archaeology Papers 1972, Vol. 7, pp.13-52; “Early Black Settlement Struggles to Preserve Heritage,” Los Angeles Times, Dec 15, 1991; “Repairs Start After Vandalism In Historic Black Cemetery,” New York Times, July 8, 1998; “On Visionary Soil, the Dream Turns Real, New York Times, Nov 7, 2008; Vintage Photos of Sandy Ground (SI Advance); Beers’ 1874 Atlas of Staten Island Sec 23; NYCityMap

Sailors’ Snug Harbor Cemetery

SSH April 2017
A view of Sailors’ Snug Harbor Cemetery, April 2017 (Mary French)

They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters, lead a life of peril, hardship and excitement . . . When the storms have been weathered, and the harbors reached they are usually ready for whatever good things the land has to offer, and when old age overtakes them to settle down about a quiet fireside . . . among them none holds so high a place as Sailors’ Snug Harbor . . . unquestionably the most famous sailors’ retreat in the world . . . One thousand old men, gathered from all quarters of the world under a single roof, make a curious and sometimes querulous collection . . . They may walk on the lawn, sit in the sunshine, dream under the trees, and there is nothing to disturb. When they become weary and are laid to rest, a little cemetery whose white tombstones may be seen back of this pastoral abode receives their bodies and then they are left serene. (Theodore Dreiser 1904)

Founded by Robert Richard Randall’s 1801 bequest to create a retirement home for “aged, decrepit, and worn-out sailors,” Sailors Snug Harbor opened in 1831 on Staten Island’s north shore overlooking the Kill Van Kull. The 150-acre facility was a self-sustaining community that included dormitories, a working farm, dairy, bakery, chapel, hospital, and cemetery. At its peak in the early 1900s, there were over 1,000 residents, called “Snugs,” who were admitted without regard to nationality, race, age, or religion. By the mid-20th century, the population at Snug Harbor had significantly dwindled and in the 1970s the retirement home was moved to Sea Level, North Carolina, where it is still in operation today. Most of the Snug Harbor property was transferred to the City of New York for a cultural center.

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Sailors’ Snug Harbor in 1853, and the cemetery located south of facility’s main grounds. (Butler 1853)
Location of Sailors’ Snug Harbor Cemetery (NYCityMap)

Sailor’s Snug Harbor Cemetery is located just beyond the facility’s old south gate on Henderson Avenue.  Funeral processions went down a tree-lined road that led to the back of Snug Harbor grounds and passed through the south gate on their way to the graveyard, which is situated today near the corner of Devon Place and Prospect Avenue, adjacent to Allison Pond Park.  The six-acre site contains the graves of 7,000 mariners who died at the retirement home between 1833 and 1975. The L-shaped graveyard, dubbed “Monkey Hill” by the Snugs, comprises a flat open field and a small hill and is enclosed by a red brick wall.

Gravestones from the Sailors’ Snug Harbor Cemetery on display at the Noble Maritime Collection, May 12, 2017 (Mary French)

At one time in the cemetery’s history, each burial was identified with a gravestone stamped with the four-digit identification number issued when a resident was admitted to the retirement home. As the cemetery became too crowded for stone grave markers, the gravestones were replaced with metal plates, which deteriorated over time and disappeared. Old marble tombstones were also removed from the cemetery to save them from vandals; hundreds of gravestones from the cemetery are now in storage at the Snug Harbor Cultural Center.

Gravemarkers in the Sailors’ Snug Harbor Cemetery, 1919 (SSH Archives)

While most of the Snug Harbor property became part of the Cultural Center or was sold for development, ownership of the cemetery was retained by the Trustees of Sailors’ Snug Harbor. The graveyard has been neglected and vandalized since the retirement facility relocated to Sea Level in the 1970s and the few headstones found sprinkled around the site today are the only evidence of the thousands of men who are buried here.

James Martin a.k.a Edward Leiter, photographed at Snug Harbor, ca. 1900 (SSH Archives)

Most of the tombstones still standing in the cemetery are for residents who died in the early 1900s; one of these is enigmatically inscribed “Edward Leiter Alias James Martin, 1840 – 1914.” Why this mariner used an alias is unknown; his registration shows that he was a native of Hoboken, New Jersey, and was admitted to Snug Harbor in 1899 after serving 36 years at sea.

The men at Snug Harbor were veterans of hard and dangerous lives at sea and even the modern residents had astonishing tales to tell. One of the most recent markers at the cemetery is for Rudolf Ozol, who died in 1975 at the age of 87. On November 8, 1959, Ozol was a boatswain on the tanker Amoco Virginia that exploded and caught fire while docked at Hess Terminal in the Houston Ship Channel. The accident, which caused the death of a fireman and seven crewmen, was reported in newspapers around the country. Ozol, who was described as 71-year-old bearded Latvian, said he went to sea at age 12 but had never learned to swim until that day when he jumped in the channel to escape the blaze. “It was sink or swim and I learned fast,” he said. “I paddled just like a dog the 50 feet to shore. That’s a long way for a man my age but a man will do many things under pressure.”

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Rudolf Ozol’s gravemarker at Sailors Snug Harbor Cemetery, April 2017 (Mary French)

View more photos of Sailors’ Snug Harbor Cemetery.

Sources: Butler’s 1853 Map of Staten Island; “Sailors’ Snug Harbor: Home for Aged Skippers,” (T. Dreiser), New-York Tribune Sunday Magazine, May 22, 1904, p3; Sailors Snug Harbor, 1801-1979 (B. Shepherd 1979), p62; “By Will of a Sea Captain: Sailors’ Snug Harbor Cemetery,” (D. Lane), FACSI Newsletter, 15(3) Fall 1998; The Sailors’ Snug Harbor: A History, 1801-2001 (G. Barry 2000); Realms of History: The Cemeteries of Staten Island (P. Salmon 2006), p145-148; Gravestones from Monkey Hill, the Sailors’ Snug Harbor Cemetery (Noble Maritime Collection display); “8 Dead in Tanker Blaze as Blasts Rock Houston,” Pittsburgh Press, Nov 9, 1959 p14; “Clues Hunted in Blasted Hulk of Tanker…,” The News Journal (Wilmington, Delaware), Nov 9, 1959 pp1-2; NYCityMap.

St. John’s Cemetery

A view of St. John's Cemetery in Middle Village, Queens, April 2016
A view of St. John’s Cemetery, April 2016 (Mary French)

There is a graveyard in Middle Village, Queens, where the Mafia goes to rest in peace. It is a bucolic haven where the rolling swards are tended by uniformed gardeners and the marble crypts are reminiscent of a grander age . . . It is a landscape of silent stone and quiet grass and bird song, and its utter peacefulness holds no sign of the violent deeds of those interred within its grounds . . . (New York Times, July 21, 2001)

St. John's Cemetery in 1891
St. John’s Cemetery in 1891 (Wolverton 1891)

St. John’s Cemetery was established by the Brooklyn Diocese in 1879 to meet the burial needs of Catholic families of Queens and Brooklyn. Located just west of Woodhaven Boulevard in the Middle Village neighborhood of Queens, the 190-acre cemetery is divided into two sections that straddle Metropolitan Avenue. Officially consecrated in 1881, the area north of Metropolitan Avenue was the first to receive interments and by 1895 there were already 32,000 burials here. The land on the southern side was developed and made available for burials in 1933.

Over the years, many prominent Mafia figures chose St. John’s as their final resting place and the cemetery has gradually become a “who’s who” of organized crime families that dominated the New York City underworld since the 1930s. Charles “Lucky” Luciano, credited with creating the structure of the modern American Mafia, was interred in the family mausoleum at St. John’s in 1962. In addition to Luciano, more than 20 infamous crime figures are laid to rest here, including some of the most notorious mob bosses in recent history. Among them are Joe Profaci, Vito Genovese, Carlo Gambino, Carmine Galante, Joe Colombo, and celebrity mobster John Gotti, widely considered the last of the classic Mafia chiefs.

A pine box containing the coffin of Charles "Lucky" Luciano is wheeled toward the family mausoleum, Feb. 1962. The crypt is inscribed, "Luciana," his real surname.
A pine box containing the coffin of Charles “Lucky” Luciano is wheeled toward the family mausoleum, Feb. 1962. The crypt is inscribed, “Luciana,” his real surname (Getty Images)
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Mario Cuomo’s tomb at St. John’s Cloister (Mary French)

Although St. John’s Cemetery is distinctive for its assemblage of deceased mafiosi, it is perhaps most significant as the burial place for two dedicated public servants and icons of contemporary American politics. Geraldine Ferraro, the former Queens congresswoman who was the first woman nominated for U.S. vice president by a major political party, was buried here in 2011. Ferraro ran with Walter Mondale on the Democratic party ticket in the 1984 presidential election, becoming a symbol for women’s equality. Also interred at St. John’s is Queens native and three-term New York governor Mario Cuomo. Cuomo, a powerful and eloquent speaker whose keynote address at the 1984 Democratic convention made him a national political star, was entombed in St. John’s Cloister mausoleum in January 2015.

Geraldine Ferraro's gravesite at St. John's Cemetery.
Geraldine Ferraro’s gravesite at St. John’s Cemetery (Mary French).
Location of St. John's Cemetery in Middle Village, Queens
Location of St. John’s Cemetery in Middle Village, Queens (OpenStreetMap)

View more photos of St. John’s Cemetery.

Sources: “St. John’s Cemetery,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Nov 21, 1881, 4; Wolverton’s 1891 Atlas of Queens County, Long Island, Pl 30; “Our Cities of the Dead,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Apr 28, 1895, 28; “Middle Village Journal – Sleeping with the Giants of the Mob,” New York Times, July 22, 2001; St. John Cemetery (Catholic Cemeteries, Diocese of Brooklyn); “Cemetery has a Mob of Mafiosi,” Daily News, Feb 26, 2008; “St. John Cemetery in Queens,” The Velvet Rocket, Jan 18, 2012.

Remsen Family Cemetery

View of the Remsen Family Cemetery,1923
View of the Remsen Family Cemetery,1923 (New-York Historical Society)

Situated on a triangular lot near the busy intersection of Woodhaven Boulevard and Metropolitan Avenue in Forest Hills, the Remsen Cemetery is a remnant of Queens’ colonial past and is the final resting place of a family of Revolutionary War patriots. The 2.5 -acre site, bounded by Trotting Course Lane and Alderton Street, originally lay within the property of the Remsen family, who immigrated from northern Germany in the 17th century and established a farm in the area that was then known as Hempstead Swamp.

Tombstone of Jeromus Remsen (1735-1790), ca. 1910 (BHS)
Tombstone of Jeromus Remsen (1735-1790), ca. 1910 (Brooklyn Historical Society)

The cemetery is believed to have been used as the family burial ground from the mid-18th through the 19th centuries. In a 1925 survey of the cemetery, the graves and brownstone gravemarkers of eight Remsen family members were identified, dating from 1790 to 1819. The oldest known grave is that of Colonel Jeromus Remsen, from 1790. Col. Remsen fought in the French and Indian War and, as a colonel of the Kings and Queens County Militia in the Battle of Long Island, he commanded the 7th New York Regiment in the Revolutionary War. His cousins Abraham Remsen, Luke Remsen, and Aurt Remsen were also Revolutionary War officers.

View of the Remsen farm, ca. 1920 (New-York Historical Society)

By 1925, all of the Remsen property had been sold off and the Remsen House, which was near the cemetery, was torn down to make way for residential development. Most of the cemetery’s old tombstones disappeared with time and vandalism, although the local American Legion post and other civic groups strove to maintain it over the years. In 1980, new marble gravemarkers were erected by the Veterans Administration to honor Col. Remsen and the other Revolutionary veterans buried there. A World War I memorial, with two doughboy statues flanking a flagpole, also was created at the site to commemorate Forest Hill’s service in that war. Remsen Cemetery was designated a New York City Landmark in 1981 and is now owned and maintained by the NYC Parks Department.

Location of Remsen Cemetery between Trotting Course Lane and Alderton Ave in Forest Hills
Location of Remsen Cemetery between Trotting Course Lane and Alderton Ave in Forest Hills (NYCityMap)
View of Remsen Family Cemetery, April 2016
View of Remsen Family Cemetery, April 2016 (Mary French)
New marker at gravesite of Col. Jeromus Remsen
Gravesite of Col. Jeromus Remsen (Mary French)

View more photos of Remsen Family Cemetery

Sources: “Revolutionary Colonel’s Grave, Ruined by Vandals, Now Faces Tax Lien Sale,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Apr 30 1929, 2; Description of Private and Family Cemeteries in the Borough of Queens (Powell & Meigs 1932), 62-63; Remsen Cemetery (LPC Designation Report 1981); “Cemeteries of Greater Ridgewood and Vicinity” (R. Eisen, Greater Ridgewood Historical Society Lecture, Aug. 1988); “Remsen Cemetery A Step Closer To Becoming An Official City Park,” Queens Chronicle, March 4, 2004; Legendary Locals of Forest Hills and Rego Park (M. Perlman 2015), 14.

Washington Cemetery

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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.

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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)

View more photos of Washington Cemetery

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

Jesuit Cemetery, Fordham University

The Jesuit Cemetery at Fordham University, June 2014
The Jesuit Cemetery at Fordham University, June 2014 (Mary French)

His body was laid to rest in the cemetery at Fordham, which holds the dust of many of the most intimate friends of his religious life. This, his first American home, from which he had gone forth in the early dawn of his priesthood with the new glory of sacerdotal dignity still shining on his brow, now opens her arms to receive him back, worn out in the service to which he had been sent. (excerpt from eulogy of Father Theodore Thiry, 1889)

Hidden behind a hedge on the campus at Fordham University in the Bronx is a small cemetery that stands as a symbol of the Jesuit history and tradition on which the university was founded. It is the final resting place for a group of men with a deep spirituality and an outstanding record of devotion and scholarship, many of whom left behind family and country to follow God’s call.

Shortly after the Catholic archdiocese of New York established Fordham in 1841 (originally named St. John’s College) as a seminary and a college for the general public, the scholastic functions were given to the Jesuit order, a religious group with a great deal of experience in higher education. Five Jesuit priests from St. Mary’s College in Kentucky were recruited in 1846 to staff the institution. Other Jesuits soon joined them, and St. John’s continued as a small liberal arts college for men until it expanded and was renamed Fordham University in 1907.

As was typical of many religious institutions of the time, the Jesuits set aside a plot of land at Fordham for burial purposes. The cemetery was a burial ground for the deceased from Fordham as well as from other Jesuit institutions in the region. The site of this “original” cemetery at Fordham was a hillside near Southern Boulevard, on property that is now part of the New York Botanical Garden. The first burial took place there in July 1847 when Brother Joseph Creeden, a 26-year-old Irish-born novice, died two months after entering the Jesuit novitiate. Over the next four decades, another 60 Jesuits were interred near him, as well as nine students, three seminarians, and three college workmen. One of the Jesuits buried in the old cemetery was Father Eugene Maguire, who died at St. Mary’s College, Kentucky, in 1833 and whose remains were transferred to Fordham in 1850.

Location of the original Jesuit cemetery at Fordham, near Southern Boulevard, 1868
Location of the original Jesuit cemetery at Fordham, near Southern Boulevard, 1868 (Beers 1868)

The loss of the property on which the old cemetery was located created a crisis among the Jesuits regarding their past burials and future ones. Although they considered transferring their burials to St. Raymond’s Cemetery, members of the Jesuit community requested that the graves be retained on college property to respect the dead by having them “apud nos” (among us). A suitable site in the campus vineyard was found and the graves from the original cemetery were relocated there in January 1890. The new gravesites were marked with marble tombstones, replacing the wooden crosses that had been used as markers in the old cemetery.

Permit for transfer of remains from the old cemetery to the new cemetery at Fordham, 1890 (Hennessy 2003)
Permit for transfer of remains from the old cemetery to the new cemetery at Fordham, 1890 (Hennessy 2003)

Between 1890 and 1909, 64 more Jesuits were buried in the new cemetery. Father William O’Brien Pardow, a prominent speaker and retreat master whose funeral was attended by thousands of mourners, was the last person buried in the cemetery at Fordham, in January 1909. Thereafter, the graveyard was largely forgotten although not completely neglected – in the 1950s, a stone and brick wall surmounted by a symbol of blessing was erected on the south side of the cemetery and a number of burials were relocated within the site to facilitate the building of Faber Hall.

By 1998, the cemetery was a campus eyesore and curiosity; many of the tombstones were disintegrating or vandalized and it was widely believed that the site was a “phantom cemetery” containing monuments but no human remains. Archival records proved otherwise, and a committee was appointed to preserve the cemetery’s sacred character. The site was renovated and beautified, and low granite markers replaced the deteriorated tombstones. Now well kept and orderly, the graveyard recognizes a community created by a common history and shared vision.

The Jesuit Cemetery at Fordham, ca. 1970 (Fordham Archives)
The Jesuit Cemetery at Fordham, ca. 1970 (Fordham Archives)
Location of the Jesuit Cemetery at Fordham University, between University Church and Faber Hall.
Location of the Jesuit Cemetery at Fordham University, between University Church and Faber Hall
The Jesuit Cemetery at Fordham University, June 2014
The Jesuit Cemetery at Fordham University, June 2014 (Mary French)

View more photos of the Fordham Cemetery.

Sources: Beers’ 1868 Atlas of New York and Vicinity, Pl. 11; “The Old Cemetery in Fordham University,” (Falco 1971), Bronx County Historical Society Journal 8(1):20-25; How the Jesuits Settled in New York: A Documentary Account (Hennessy 2003); “Who’s Buried at Fordham?,” The Ram, Nov 4, 1976 p. 2; “Thousands Mourn for Father Pardow,” New York Times Jan 27, 1909; Fordham University: History & Mission; Fordham University: Rose Hill Campus Map; Fordham University: Cemetery Chronology.