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History, landscaping, architecture: Tales told in NYC's cemeteries

This May 2, 2013 photo shows the chapel

This May 2, 2013 photo shows the chapel at Brooklyn's Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. Credit: AP / Mary Altaffer

When New York City was hit with the 1918 influenza pandemic, the deaths were so numerous that the bodies were taken by horse-drawn carts to the cemeteries under the cover of night, apparently to stifle any public panic.

Burials were sometimes in mass graves with no tombstones or else with markers bearing simple, poignant inscriptions like "Our Babies" to mark the death of children.

"It must have been a kind of eerie feeling to know it was done at night," said Donato "Danny" Daddario, a supervisor at The Evergreens Cemetery in Brooklyn, who has researched the influenza burials.

The old flu graves are all over The Evergreens, and Daddario can point them out with ease because he is one of a dedicated group of aficionados who have made the history, landscaping and architecture of city cemeteries a passion.

Graveyard enthusiasts, known as taphophiles, have been promoting the cultural and other aspects of cemeteries at a time when many of the institutions are running out of space and looking to rebrand themselves. Some, like Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn and The Evergreens, have formed historical foundations to raise money to fund cultural programs.

"People mentally have a picture of a cemetery as stark and boring," said Marge Raymond, a Brooklyn singer. Raymond and Ruth Edebohls conduct tours at Green-Wood, where former governor DeWitt Clinton and composer Leonard Bernstein are buried.

When Raymond first visited Green-Wood years ago on a bird-watching outing, she fell in love with its 478 acres of rolling, glacier-sculpted hills, 7,000 or so trees and the amazing architecture of the mausoleums and tombstones.

"Green-Wood is an experience there are not enough adjectives to describe," she said.

"To me, it is an outdoor museum, but in many ways it is so much better than the rest of the city," said Edebohls, 71. "Things aren't knocked down and built over."

Retired architect Allan Smith of Queens grew up in a family of German immigrants who would routinely visit cemeteries on all important holidays. Around the family plot, he planted red geraniums.

"At an early age, I was used to the cemetery, unlike young people today who are afraid to step into them," he said.

Smith was attracted to the design elements he found in tombs emulating Roman, Greek and Egyptian temples. As a member of the Woodhaven Historical Society, he became familiar with the important people buried at the 225-acre Cypress Hills Cemetery, on the Brooklyn-Queens border, such as baseball legend Jackie Robinson, and soon was sought to lead school tours.

Through his own interest in local history, Ira Kluger, 57, of Brooklyn, discovered that many famous merchants, judges and doctors whose lives he researched were buried in 13-acre Canarsie Cemetery.

"I do feel a sense of connection," said Kluger about his tour through the cemetery. "Sometimes I am struck by the fact that they are dead."

Daddario and his colleague Anthony Salamone, a cemetery sales representative and former assistant superintendent, have worked for decades at The Evergreens, which has 225 acres. On tours, they point out unusual sites like the 19th-century mausoleum where a man named Jonathan Reed would visit his dead wife, Mary, every day, open a casket panel and read to her, Salamone recalled.

"It was a man in love, who missed his wife," he said.

Daddario, 52, and Salamone, 68, believe cemeteries can bring history to life and connect young people to the past.

"If no one shows them, I don't know how they are going to do it on their own," Salamone said.

Experts agree that the city's cemeteries, most of which date to the 19th century, are running out of space.

Some will have to reinvent themselves or go back to being parks. Others, like Green-Wood, are building upon their historical archives to help historians and genealogists.

"Cemeteries in Brooklyn and Queens had a life expectancy of 200 years. We are coming to that [point] now," Daddario said.

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