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.
In 1875, Ahawath Chesed, a prosperous German Jewish congregation now known as Central Synagogue and located on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, 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.
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 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.
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.
Mount Judah Cemetery is one of several Jewish burial grounds clustered along the Brooklyn-Queens borderline. Located just off the Jackie Robinson Parkway, the 37-acre cemetery is divided into two sections that straddle Cypress Avenue in Ridgewood, Queens. It was incorporated as Highland View Cemetery Corporation in 1908 and the first burial took place there in 1912. Among the 54,000 individuals buried at Mount Judah are two young men who represent the range of human experience—they led very different lives that, sadly, each ended in violence and turmoil.
In the early 1920s, there were two gangs fighting for domination over the Jewish Lower East Side, one led by Jacob “Little Augie” Orgen and the other by Nathan “Kid Dropper” Kaplan. Their feud was considered one of the bloodiest New York City had known at that time, resulting in at least 20 killings and concluding with Kaplan’s murder in 1923. With Kaplan’s death, Orgen, at just 21 years old, became one of the city’s major labor racketeers and bootleggers.
The sole black sheep in a respectable immigrant family, Orgen’s criminal career began in 1917 as a knife fighter and, later, gunman, for gangster Benjamin Fine. Orgen was arrested 14 times and served four terms in prison over the next decade. On October 15, 1927, three gunmen shot and killed Orgen, and wounded his bodyguard Jack “Legs” Diamond, in a barrage of gunfire near the corner of Delancey and Norfolk streets on the Lower East Side. Over 1,500 people gathered the next day for his funeral, including his grieving family, mob associates who had come to play their last respects, and police detectives looking for his killers (no one was ever convicted of the crime). His grave is in the Krashnosheltz society’s section at Mount Judah, and his mother and father lie nearby.
Just across from the Krashnosheltz society’s gate at Mount Judah is the B’nai Wolf Goodman Family plot, which includes the graves of Andrew Goodman and his parents. Goodman was from an intellectually and socially progressive family who lived on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. During the summer of 1964, when he was a 20-year-old anthropology student at Queens College, Goodman volunteered for the Freedom Summer project, a campaign to register black voters in the Deep South.
On Goodman’s first day in Mississippi, he and two other civil rights workers, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner, disappeared when they went to investigate the burning of Mount Zion Church in Philadelphia, Miss. Their bodies were found six weeks later in a nearby earthen dam. They had been abducted, shot, and killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan. The national outrage in response to their deaths helped bring about the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In 1966, Goodman’s parents created the Andrew Goodman Foundation to encourage social action. James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014.
Sources: Mount Judah Cemetery; “‘Little Augie’ Slain by Rival Gangsters,” New York Times Oct. 16, 1927; “Funeral of ‘Little Augie’…,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle Oct. 17, 1927; “Gangland Pays Last Tribute to Little Augie,” New York Herald Tribune Oct. 18, 1927; The Rise and Fall of the Jewish Gangster in America (A. Fried, 1993); “Slain Rights Workers Mourned by Thousands at Services Here,” New York Times Aug. 10, 1964; “Three Who Mattered,” New York Daily News, June 21, 2014; Andrew Goodman Foundation.
Following the closure of its First, Second and Third cemeteries in Manhattan during the first half of the 19th century, in 1851 Congregation Shearith Israel established a seven-acre cemetery in the Cypress Hills area that straddles the Brooklyn-Queens border. The Fourth Shearith Israel Cemetery is one of three burial grounds that form Beth Olam Cemetery, which is co-owned by Shearith Israel along with two other Manhattan synagogues. B’nai Jeshurun, NYC’s second-oldest Jewish congregation, founded in 1825 by a faction that seceded from Shearith Israel, has a four-acre burial ground within Beth Olam; Shaaray Tefila, an offspring of B’nai Jeshurun that formed in 1845, has two acres. Beth Olam is located on the west side of Cypress Hills Street, just south of Jackie Robinson Parkway, in the Ridgewood-East New York neighborhoods. About half the property lies in Queens and the other half in Brooklyn.
Several thousand members of Shearith Israel, B’nai Jeshurun, and Shaaray Tefila are interred at Beth Olam, including a number of the congregations’ spiritual leaders. Benjamin Nathan Cardozo, U.S. Supreme Court Justice from 1932-1938, is buried in the Shearith Israel cemetery at Beth Olam, as is his uncle and namesake, Benjamin Nathan, a vice president of the New York Stock Exchange whose 1870 murder remains one of the city’s famous unsolved crimes. Poet Emma Lazarus, whose sonnet “The New Colossus” is inscribed at the base of The Statue of Liberty, is also interred at Beth Olam. The chapel near the entrance to the Shearith Israel section at Beth Olam is the work of Calvert Vaux, the co-designer of Central Park. Commissioned in 1882, the small, red brick chapel is the only religious building that Vaux is known to have built.