50 Favorite Places #16
Leonard Bernstein, Louis Comfort Tiffany, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Horace Greeley are buried there. So is “Bill the Butcher,” the thuggish nativist killer depicted in Gangs of New York. The names on its tombstones echo those of Brooklyn streets – Suydam, Havemeyer, Joralemon – and call to mind half-remembered pages from U.S. history texts – DeWitt Clinton, Boss Tweed, various lesser Burrs. It contains the highest point in Brooklyn. Its 7,000 trees beckon migratory birds in the spring and fall, while raucous green parrots nest year-round in the Gothic spire of its main entrance.
It was, at one time, the nation’s second-busiest tourist attraction, after Niagara Falls.
Until recently, it was hard to imagine Green-Wood as a busy tourist site. I began to visit the cemetery on a regular basis a few years ago, around the time I started birding seriously, but the draw for me has always been its beauty and history as much as its birds. Also, frankly, the opportunity for solitude in this big and chaotic city. On many of my visits, I’d see just a dozen other souls – sometimes fewer – spread across its nearly 500 acres.
That’s changed. Unlike many of the city’s other cemeteries, Green-Wood has remained open during the pandemic, even increasing access via secondary gates that are normally kept closed during the week. And Brooklynites have been streaming in. On a sunny day (we’ve had a few – very few – of those lately), couples lounge beneath flowering trees, children play, masked strollers wander serpentine paths, and a few doofuses behave badly . . . so badly that the cemetery has threatened to close itself to the general public.
But that’s not my topic here, other than to note how bitterly ironic it would be if a place that has long offered solitude were to be undone by social distancing.
Without a doubt, Green-Wood today feels different than it did a few months ago. The change isn’t only, or even primarily, from the sudden influx of visitors, but rather from the weight – and the rawness, dear God, the rawness – of the grief it holds. Green-Wood is still a working cemetery. A year ago – three months ago, even – one could easily forget that fact as one meandered from the Sylvan Water to the Twilight Dell or one of Green-Wood’s other poetically-named places. Back then, in the “before,” I crossed paths with a funeral procession perhaps once every three or four visits.
Then came Covid-19. In April, it wasn’t unusual to witness three or four funerals in a single morning. Or to see empty graves and the giant hoists that lower coffins into them, awaiting the next round of burials. Green-Wood’s most essential workers are no longer its landscapers and arborists, but its gravediggers.
Is it strange, or callous, or otherwise inappropriate, to continue to go there? I don’t think so. Green-Wood has always been a place of grief. Its polished new tombstones, bearing recent dates and, often, flowers and flags and tchotchkes, stand at a short distance from weathered ones, flowerless, flagless and tchotchke-less, inscribed with heartbreaking simplicity. “Mama.” “Father.” “Our Elsie.” Wander a bit, and the old grief accumulates. So many disasters, like the Brooklyn Theatre Fire of 1876, now mostly forgotten. So many women who died young (but also: so many widows who outlived their husbands by decades). So many children buried by their parents. So many men cut down in their 20s in so many Civil War battles, interred beneath the humblest of markers.
For me, at least, the effect of so much accumulated grief is paradoxically comforting. Just as time has worn away the lettering on the old stones on what’s called the “Hill of Graves,” it also smooths grief’s rough edges. Spend enough time in the cemetery, and one becomes a scholar of loss, conversant in changing funerary fashions – from obelisks and draped urns to Art Nouveau carvings to laser-engraved portraits of the deceased – but also aware of the unchanging need to remember. At Green-Wood, different funereal cultures mix in a way I think of as being very New York City. Those laser-engraved portraits were a Russian innovation, as I understand it, but you can now find them on markers bearing names that are decidedly non-Russian. The Jewish custom of leaving small stones behind when you visit a gravesite has been widely adopted; piles of pebbles accumulate below Christian crosses.
And the stories! Here lies Indrik Ratik, 1825-1864, sailor on the Imperial Russian Navy Frigate Alexander Nevsky. Here, two brothers, one of whom died in the Civil War, the other in Florence, Italy, 30-some years later. Names, dates, sometimes place names, perhaps a phrase or two: the skeleton on which the story of a person, and the history of a time, can be hung.
Fifty years or a century from now, what story will all those graves from the year 2020 tell?