Tag Archives: nonsectarian 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

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

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 in midtown Manhattan, 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.

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

The Marble Cemeteries

The New York Marble Cemetery and New York City Marble Cemetery are the city’s two oldest non-sectarian cemeteries. Perpetually confused with one another since they were created in the early 1830s, these private cemeteries were formed by businessmen seeking to provide alternatives to churchyard and public graveyard interments after burials were prohibited in lower Manhattan by city ordinances in the 1820s. Featuring underground vaults that are the size of small rooms and made of Tuckahoe marble, the two Marble cemeteries were built in the area of Second Avenue between Second and Third streets in the East Village, a neighborhood that developers hoped would soon become a fashionable residential locale.

The two cemeteries were initially popular and members of a number of distinguished families were entombed there; however, by the 1870s rural cemeteries in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx were preferred and the Marble cemeteries primarily were used as storage vaults for bodies awaiting burial at these places. Sporadic entombments continued in the Marble cemeteries until the 1930s; both were designated NYC Landmarks in 1969 and now are open to the public on special occasions.

Location of the Marble cemeteries in 1852. The half-acre NY Marble Cemetery was incorporated in 1830; the slightly larger NYC Marble Cemetery was built one block away in 1832.
Location of the Marble cemeteries in 1852. The half-acre NY Marble Cemetery was incorporated in 1830; the slightly larger NYC Marble Cemetery was built one block away in 1832 (Dripps 1952)
Aerial view of the Marble cemeteries in 2012.
Aerial view of the Marble cemeteries in 2012 (NYCityMap)

New York Marble Cemetery

View of the NY Marble Cemetery in 1893.
View of the New York Marble Cemetery in 1893. Most of the 2,060 interments in the cemetery took place between 1830 and 1870; the last was in 1937 (King 1893)
View of the NY Marble Cemetery, May 2008.
View of the New York Marble Cemetery, 2008 (Mary French)
The entrance to the NY Marble Cemetery, in a narrow alley at what was once known as 411⁄2 Second Avenue.
The entrance to the New York Marble Cemetery, in a narrow alley at what was once known as 411⁄2 Second Avenue (Mary French)
Most of the 2,060 interments in the NY Marble Cemetery took place between 1830 and 1870; the last was in 1937. All burials are in 156 below-ground vaults made of solid white Tuckahoe marble. The names of the original owners are on plaques surrounding the walls.
All burials in the New York Marble Cemetery are in 156 below-ground vaults made of solid white Tuckahoe marble. The names of the original owners are on plaques on the surrounding walls (Mary French)

View more photos of the New York Marble Cemetery.

New York City Marble Cemetery

View of the New York City Marble Cemetery. Unlike its predecessor, it permitted family monuments and individual markers to identify the underground vaults.
View of the New York City Marble Cemetery in 1893. Unlike its predecessor, it permitted family monuments and individual markers to identify the underground vaults (King 1893)
View of the New York City Marble Cemetery in May 2008.
View of the New York City Marble Cemetery entrance on Second Street, 2008 (Mary French)
Vault marker in New York City Marble Cemetery. The site contains 258 vaults.
Vault marker in New York City Marble Cemetery. The site contains 258 vaults (Mary French)
View of a vault door looking down from ground level (Courtesy New York City Marble Cemetery).
View of a vault door looking down from ground level (New York City Marble Cemetery).

View more photos of the New York City Marble Cemetery.

Sources: The Last Great Necessity: Cemeteries in American History (D.C. Sloan 1991), 40-42; King’s 1893 Handbook of New York City, 506, 511; Dripps’ 1852 Map of the City of New-York extending northward to Fiftieth St; NYCityMapNew York Marble CemeteryNew York City Marble Cemetery.