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The history of us: Tombstone tourism connects visitors to Long Island's past

Boulders mark the grave sites of artists Lee

Boulders mark the grave sites of artists Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock at the Green River Cemetery in East Hampton. Credit: Gordon M. Grant

“Tombstone tourism” — the pastime of spending a few hours on a fall day walking among the graves of those who have gone before — finds fertile ground on Long Island, with its rich array of destination cemeteries. And not just in October.

There is the expansive Long Island National Cemetery, which contains more than 350,000 interments in 365 acres. Then there is the tiny Green River Cemetery quietly tucked into just 3 acres in East Hampton. Such lesser-known landscaped gems as Locust Valley Cemetery and Memorial Cemetery of St. John’s Episcopal Church, in Laurel Hill, seem like parks.

But large or small, pristine or overgrown, Long Island’s myriad cemeteries — no one knows the exact number — tell rich stories of America’s past for those who know the best spots to visit.

Spending time among gravestones is not new. It was popular in the 19th century for families to spend leisure hours strolling and picnicking and lounging by small ponds in these rural and bucolic settings.

Today, tombstone tourism is driven by history buffs, photographers, genealogists and those simply looking to connect with the past and rediscover history.

Adrianne Rondinelli, 40, of West Hempstead is one of many taphophiles (or cemetery lovers) who share their cemetery photos on Instagram and other social media sites.

“I come from a history-loving family, so it began when I was young,” Rondinelli said. “My dad took us to Youngs Memorial Cemetery in Oyster Bay — after a trip to Sagamore Hill — to visit Theodore Roosevelt's graves. I'll never forget the gravestone of his grandson Dirck Roosevelt. I was fascinated with it. Also as a family, we put flags on graves at [Long Island] National Cemetery on Memorial Day Weekend once or twice. That definitely affected me.”

For Rondinelli, trips to cemeteries are part education, part relaxation. “Since I love history, I am curious to know who these people were and how they shaped Long Island to be what it is today,” she explained. “I find it peaceful to walk around the grounds, being in nature, reading the names and the different stones and epitaphs.”

Genealogist Linda Metzger, 42, of Shoreham said that her interest began in high school. “As I became older and my love of history and genealogy grew, cemeteries became a way for me to connect with my ancestors and those of my clients,” said Metzger, who runs The Long Island Genealogist, which specializes in ancestry research.

For Metzger, the past opens up as she wanders among the stones. “From ancient history to recent history, our cemeteries tell stories. Larger monuments give us insight into the status of individuals … It is also interesting to see where famous individuals are buried.”

Here are some of the best cemeteries to visit this fall on Long Island.

Long Island National Cemetery

There is poignancy to the sight of American flags fluttering in the breeze. If you happen to enter Long Island National Cemetery, on Pinelawn Road in East Farmingdale, on Memorial Day, you will see small flags in front of each of the 240,000 headstones.

The East Farmingdale grounds are filled with veterans and service members from the U.S. armed forces who fought in battles ranging from the Civil War to the present. Among them are 19 Medal of Honor recipients. Headstones that read “Unknown” are scattered throughout the cemetery. There are 39 group graves holding the remains of 112 people. Three of the graves, memorializing servicemen who lost their lives in airplane crashes, are within walking distance of the office. A special place has been set aside in Section 2C, along the back of the cemetery, for World War II prisoners of war.

There are also the graves of musicians and actors who served or were married to those who served. One of those was singer Helen Kane, the 1920s jazz singer who famously sued the “Betty Boop” creator because she seemed to be patterned after Kane, who lost the suit.

In December, volunteers for Wreaths Across America will visit the cemetery again as they lay wreaths on the graves at national cemeteries across the country. A spokeswoman for the organization said, “We have a saying that you die twice. The first time when you stop breathing, and the second time is when your name is spoken for the very last time. And that’s what these families don’t want to happen.”

Locust Valley Cemetery

Nestled in Nassau County’s northern corner, Locust Valley Cemetery was designed by Olmsted Brothers — the firm of John and Frederick. Their father, Frederick Law Olmsted, was the prominent 19th century architect who designed New York City’s Central Park. Like their other pastoral landscapes, the 34-acre cemetery is prized for its intimate garden setting and lush grounds. It is listed on the Smithsonian’s Register of American Gardens.

The cemetery has the graves of some the area’s most notable residents. Leroy Grumman, whose aeronautical firm was once Long Island’s largest corporate employer, is buried with his wife, Rose. There is publisher Franklin Nelson Doubleday, whose estate in nearby Mill Neck was designed by Olmsted Brothers. You can find legendary middleweight boxing champion Rocky Graziano and State Sen. Ralph J. Marino. You can also see the final resting place of Frederick T. Davison, Time magazine’s 1925 Man of the Year whose accomplishments include serving as president of the American Museum of Natural History.

Others are interred on the grounds beneath monuments that mix the sentimental and the whimsical: “It Was a Wonderful Life,” “My Peach on the Tree of Life,” and “Say Not In Grief That She Is No More But Say In Thankfulness That She Was.”

Memorial Cemetery of St. John’s Episcopal Church

You could easily miss Memorial Cemetery of St. John’s Episcopal. That would be a mistake. Set back off Route 25A in Laurel Hollow, it too was designed by Olmsted Brothers. Dotted with majestic oaks and birches, its 37 acres are filled with intimate alcoves, meandering paths and manicured gardens. “A cemetery is for the living, not the dead,” said cemetery superintendent John Papa.

For anyone who cares about local history, St. John’s is a must-visit. You will come across the burial sites of people behind some of the area’s most famous noncemetery destinations. Wealthy industrialists William Robertson and Mary "Mai" Rogers Coe are in one of six mausoleums. Their homestead is now the magnificent gardens at Planting Fields Arboretum in Oyster Bay.

The man behind Oheka Castle, philanthropist and financier Otto Kahn, rests here as well. The cemetery’s founder, John Divine Jones, may now be best known as the owner of the home that became Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

Among the other 7,000 graves you can visit: those of CBS chairman William S. Paley and his wife, Barbara (Babe) Cushing; Alfred P. Sloan Jr., the General Motors chairman; and New York City Mayor John Lindsay. If you hope to spend eternity in such rarefied company, keep in mind that grave sites are only available to church members.

Cemetery of the Holy Rood

“Rood” means both crucifix and a measure of land. And across the 67 consecrated acres of Cemetery of the Holy Rood in Westbury, religious symbols abound.

Among those buried at Holy Rood are many who dedicated their lives to public service and the advancement of humankind: William J. Casey, the former CIA director, and NYPD Det. and Malverne native Steven McDonald, Peter J. Ganci Jr. (FDNY chief of department who died in the 9/11 attack), George M. Skurla (president of Grumman Corp.) and fashion designer Oleg Cassini. One of the most surprising interments: Margaret Tobin Brown — aka Unsinkable Molly Brown — a Titanic survivor. A recent addition is Thomas Gulotta, the former Nassau county executive who died this year.

With Rood’s 65,000 grave sites filling quickly, in the mid-90s the Diocese of Rockville Centre purchased a 97-acre horse farm, Broad Hollow Farm in Old Westbury, once owned by the polo-playing Thomas Hitchcock family. After a 20-year legal battle, the former estate is projected to open in 2021 as the diocese’s fourth cemetery, Queen of Peace.

Grace Church Cemetery

Old Grace Church, on the north side of Merrick Road at Dover Road in Massapequa, was built by the Floyd-Jones family in the mid-19th century. The property encompasses two small cemeteries, one that surrounds the old church building. There you will find a mix of the old and new, the oldest stone, dating to 1869, bearing the name Sarah Secor.

The cemetery behind the church belongs to the Floyd-Jones family and is separated by a wooden arch and a row of bushes. No matter which way you turn you’ll be sure to spot the name Jones. Maj. Thomas Jones immigrated to Massapequa in 1692, and he and his many descendants left an indelible mark on Long Island history.

Jones’ grave site rests in the middle of the family cemetery. He is buried beneath a weathered red sandstone monument along with his wife, Freelove. Although the stone is partly covered with lichen, the inscription, which he helped write, is legible. Jones, who died in 1713, was initially buried elsewhere. Reportedly, only his skull was moved to the family plot.

Jones Beach is named in honor of the major, who once had a whaling station near the current state park.

St. David A.M.E. Zion Cemetery

St. David A.M.E. Zion Cemetery was the “the first integrated cemetery in Sag Harbor,” said Dr. Georgette Grier-Key, director of the Eastville Community Historical Society. The Sag Harbor burial ground became a place where African Americans, Shinnecock and Montauk Indians, as well as whites, came to be buried in the 19th century. The church of the same name was founded earlier in 1839. Among the church founders was David Hempstead, born on Shelter Island to enslaved parents. A steward of the church, he helped raise money to establish the cemetery in 1857 that is named for him. He is buried on the grounds as is St. David’s first pastor, Rev. J.P. Thompson, an abolitionist, who died in 1862.

In the 1980s, church trustees deeded the cemetery to the Eastville Community Historical Society. Grier-Key noted that two programs are underway to help maintain the cemetery: a headstone cleaning project for children and another in which people and businesses adopt a burial plot and help in its upkeep. 

“Cemeteries are important. They yield information people sometimes don’t have,” Grier-Key said.

Mount Ararat Cemetery

The word ararat is thought to have derived from the Sanskrit word for holy ground. And to many Long Islanders of the Jewish faith, the 86-acre Lindenhurst cemetery is just that. Founded in 1928, Mount Ararat was designed as a lawn cemetery, incorporating a grid pattern and wide roadways.

Monuments, with small stones left atop by visitors, are etched with the Star of David, eternal flames and menorahs; footstones bear the deceased’s Hebrew name. Among the 52,500 markers you will find some of Long Island’s most recognizable names: Fortunoff and Levitt. The Fortunoff plot is under a towering tree on a shady corner in Section 25. Max Fortunoff’s footstone reads, “He Lived the American Dream.” William Levitt, who created Levittown, is buried in Section 17. Also look for the graves of Jule Styne, who composed the scores of Broadway hits “Gypsy” and “Funny Girl,” as well as the Oscar-winning song “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend”; and comedian David Frye. Those who follow politics can seek out the graves of State Sen. Norman J. Levy and former Queens Borough President Donald Manes.

Oakland Cemetery

Occupying 26 acres at Jermain Street and Palmer Terrace, Oakland Cemetery is a microcosm of Sag Harbor’s diverse population. Olive Pharaoh, an American Indian Queen of the Montauketts, and Manucher Mirza Farmanfarmaian and Abol-Bashar, Tehran-born Iranian princes who were brothers, lie alongside writers, artists, musicians and 19th-century sea captains.

Notable interments include George Balanchine (co-founder of the New York City Ballet), prima ballerina Aleksandra Danilova, writer and actor Spalding Gray, playwright Lanford Wilson and Clay Felker (New York Magazine founder) as well as a cenotaph to journalist Shana Alexander. Also take time to visit the Broken Mast Monument, sculpted by Robert Eberhard Launitz in 1856, that commemorates whalers who died “in actual encounter with the monsters of the deep."

Green River Cemetery

What was once a sleepy cemetery for East End residents took on celebrity status after the burial of Jackson Pollock, who lived in nearby Springs. In 1956, Pollock, one of the foremost abstract expressionist artists, died in a car crash just a mile from the East Hampton cemetery. His grave is marked with a large boulder on which his signature is etched on a bronze plaque; the grave of his wife, Lee Krasner, sits adjacent with a smaller boulder. Since Pollock's burial, the cemetery’s 3 acres, at Old Stone Highway and Neck Path, have been filled with the graves of artists and writers, among them Abstract painter Elaine de Kooning, poet and art critic Frank O’ Hara, and experimental filmmaker Stan Vanderbeek. Like Pollock’s grave, many are marked by boulders. The graves of film director Alan Pakula and actor Peter Boyle are also here.

When Time Warner chairman Steven J. Ross was buried there in 1994, his widow, Courtney Sale Ross, made a bid for exclusivity. She purchased a sizable chunk at the cemetery’s back end that she decorated with potted palms for her husband’s funeral.

Youngs Memorial Cemetery

On a snowy January day in 1919, President Theodore Roosevelt was laid to rest in a small graveyard near his home, Sagamore Hill. Twenty-six steps lead to his grave atop a hill, signifying America’s 26th president. Generations of Roosevelts have joined him there in eternal repose.

Youngs Memorial Cemetery was established by Thomas Youngs, an early English colonist. In 1658, he designated the hill near his home overlooking Oyster Bay Harbor as a burial ground. Youngs’ descendants married into the families of other early Long Island settlers with such names as Jones, Weeks and Townsend, many of whom are buried on the grounds. One of those was William Jones Youngs, who in 1900 drafted legislation incorporating Youngs Cemetery. There is also a monument to slaves.

After TR’s death, his cousin Emlen Roosevelt purchased the cemetery’s unsold lots and donated them to the late president’s descendants. Emlen also bought up much of the surrounding land and gave it to the National Association of Audubon Societies, and it became the Theodore Roosevelt Sanctuary. Roosevelt family members who are interred elsewhere are commemorated by cenotaphs. One honors Roosevelt’s son Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr., who was killed in World War LL and buried in Normandy, France. Roosevelt’s second wife, Edith Kermit Roosevelt, was buried with him in 1948. A relatively recent Roosevelt burial was that of Margaret S. Roosevelt, wife of Olympic gold medalist Julian Roosevelt. Her grave marker notes that she was “A world traveler and the life of the party.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the memorial to Shana Alexander at Oakland Cemetery. There is a cenotaph to Alexander at the cemetery.

Cemetery tours

Budding taphophiles can try one of these group tours:

East Hampton: Oct. 29, from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Explore the historic South End Burial Ground with Village Historian Hugh King. Bring an LED flashlight to help illuminate your way. Tour begins at Home Sweet Home Museum (14 James Lane, East Hampton). Not suitable for children 11 and younger; 18-person limit; guests must be on foot and standing for about an hour, climb steps and navigate uneven, grassy ground; $15, registration required; 631-324-6850 or easthamptonhistory.org/events.

Smithtown: Oct. 26, from 10 to 11:30 a.m. Take the fifth annual Cemetery Tour in Setauket to the historic Caroline Church (1 Dyke Rd., Setauket-East Setauket). Join Bev Tyler, Three Village historian, for a tour of cemetery grounds, then church itself, founded in 1723. $5; registration suggested; call 631-265-6768; rain cancels.

Huntington: Oct. 26 and Nov. 9 at 4 p.m. Explore Huntington’s earliest public burying ground, established soon after the town was founded in 1653. The tour, which begins at the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Building (228 Main St., Huntington), tells the story of Huntington's history, including folk art and epitaphs. Family friendly; wear comfortable footwear. Historical Society members $10, nonmembers $15, children $5; call 631-427-7045, ext. 401, to reserve.

Compiled by Newsday Library Data Team

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