Roslyn Cemetery final home to diverse group

Gravestones at the Roslyn Cemetery in Greenvale, which Gravestones at the Roslyn Cemetery in Greenvale, which was founded in 1861. (March 18, 2012) Photo Credit: Newsday/Karen Wiles Stabile

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Shana Tehrani's brother Ebrahim was buried last February, far from his Iranian birthplace, in a small cemetery with towering old trees off Northern Boulevard in Greenvale.

There, aging gray slabs of early Long Island families -- the Bogarts and Valentines, Onderdonks and Nostrands -- abut grave sites of newer Long Islanders of all religions, creeds and nationalities.

The Roslyn Cemetery isn't the only ethnically diverse burial ground on Long Island, but its gentle slopes offer a striking display of the changing face, in life and death, of Long Island from waves of immigration over the last century and a half.

Muslims and Jews, black, white and Asian, Russian Orthodox and Greek, Italians and Chinese, Germans, Japanese and Swiss have all found a corner of this 14-acre cemetery founded in 1861.

A tall monument marks the family plot of its most famous inhabitant, William Cullen Bryant, the 19th century poet and New York Evening Post editor who died in 1878. Walk farther along and graves appear with the distinctive Russian Orthodox St. Andrew's Cross. Gravestones are inscribed in Spanish, Cyrillic, Persian and Chinese. A stone with a menorah sits amid neighbors with crosses.

Here and there, photographic portraits appear on headstones. Persian graves bloom with an abundance of flowers and relatives come to pour water over the headstones and sprinkle rose water.

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"It's such a multicultural place and I think it's beautiful," said Tehrani, of East Hills. "I think the way we learn in America to accept each other no matter what religion we are. In the cemetery, we can have the same thing."

She added, "Every time I go there, I feel that he's in paradise and in peace."

In recent times, few congregants from the Roslyn Presbyterian Church, which owns the cemetery, have chosen to be buried there, said its pastor, Dennis Carter. Church members have more typically gone to the larger cemeteries in Port Washington or in Suffolk County.

But the nonsectarian burial ground has proved to be a haven for those who may not fit into religiously oriented cemeteries, or whose relatives in local neighborhoods wanted to keep them close. About 5,000 are interred there, with about 500 plots remaining.

 

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Appeals to 'locals'

Shazard Mohammad, owner of Islamic Burial at Bergen Funeral Services in South Ozone Park, Queens, said most of the 600 burials he handles each year go elsewhere, such as the Muslim section of Washington Memorial Park, a nonsectarian cemetery in Mount Sinai. But 20 to 25 go to the Roslyn cemetery because it appeals to "locals that live out there," he said. "If they want to visit their loved one, they are 10, 15 minutes away."

There are clusters of distinct ethnic and religious groups at the Roslyn Cemetery, but no hard boundaries.

There are two sections with a concentration of graves for the local Russian Orthodox community centered in Sea Cliff, where refugees fleeing the Soviet Union started to settle in the 1920s.

On a recent weekend, the Rev. Leonid Kishkovsky of The Church of Our Lady of Kazan in Sea Cliff swung an incense censer over the coffin of Tamara Vassiliev, 88, as members of the church choir sang. Vassiliev, born in Russia and raised in Latvia, lived for many years in Great Neck and taught Russian literature at Hunter College.

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After Easter, the choir comes to sings hymns at each grave in the two sections, leaving a red Easter egg, embracing each departed parishioner in their celebrations.

"It doesn't stop with death," said Fred D'Amato, 73, of Westbury, a convert to Russian Orthodoxy. "We're all still a community. God is alive so we're alive."

Near the cemetery entrance stands the tall pillar of the Civil War Memorial, topped by a statue of a Union soldier, the names of veterans carved into its base. The original statue installed in 1902 was stolen in 1992 and replaced 13 years later by a similar version.

Close by -- in the oldest and most central area called "God's Little Acre" -- is the family plot of Bryant. Frances Hodgson Burnett, the English-born author of "The Secret Garden" and "Little Lord Fauntleroy" lies buried, since 1924, under the staring eyes of a statue named for her son Lionel, who died young. Local political leaders, landowners, artists and scientists -- including Roger and Peggy Gerry, who led the historical restoration of Roslyn starting in the early 1960s -- keep her company. Farther away, writer Christopher Morley is buried.

 

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Not all residents are dead

One of the oddest features of the cemetery is the presence of a small inhabited house now on the National Register of Historic Places, the restored 19th century East Gate toll house from the old North Hempstead Turnpike that predated Route 25A. The church rents it to a private tenant, who must sometimes contend with cemetery visitors who mistake it for an office banging on the door.

(The house's advantages are its quiet and its picturesque landscaping, said the tenant, who asked not to be identified. The negatives, besides the door-banging: no place for a barbecue grill and lawn chairs, no postal or garbage service, and "forget takeout food deliveries -- they think it's a hoax.")

But it is the kaleidoscopic array of ordinary people new and old that imbues Roslyn Cemetery with its sense of American history.

Joan Gay Kent, now retired to Greenport from Port Washington, where she was active in civic and cultural organizations, recalls going there with her parents to decorate the graves of her grandparents and great-grandfather for the holidays and to plant flowers in the summer. Her parents are buried there now.

"It was representative of family, togetherness," she said. "It had a certain snob value to be buried in the Roslyn Cemetery rather than the bigger cemeteries for the older families . . . it was like belonging to a certain church or a certain country club. It was traditional to the family."

 

Friends and family

Margaret "Maggie" Bonavoglia, of Greenvale, was 61 when she was buried in the cemetery in 2010, next to the plot of the man who was her husband Michael's best friend and best man at his wedding, Joe Graziose. Now, Bonavoglia's husband and living children have bought plots near her.

"It's close to the house and we can go whenever we want," said her daughter Laura, 36, who lives with her father. "I go a couple of times a week. It's a nice cemetery, very peaceful."

A short walk in one direction or another brings a visitor to the faded stones for the Kirbys, Seamans and Motts, and newer markers with such names as Kalas, Peng, Podkanowicz, Moore, O'Neill and Singh.

"Is there a better example of multiculturalism, so many people of such diverse backgrounds whose commemorations for eternity are in such direct proximity," said Franklin Hill Perrell, executive director of the Roslyn Landmarks Society.

On a recent sunny Sunday, Mike Nouravi and his wife, Mandy, were in from New Jersey to visit the grave of his sister Mahnaz, known as "Kobie," a hairdresser who lived in Smithtown and Queens and died in 2005 at age 46. They put down fresh flowers and sprinkled her headstone with rose water.

"It is right by the road, and it looks like I'm just entering my sister's house. She opened the window and I hear bird calls passing by," Nouravi said. "I feel like I'm in her house and it gives me relief."

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