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.
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.
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.
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.
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