Cemeteries Around the World: Green-Wood Cemetery

The Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York was founded in 1838 and was one of the first rural cemeteries in America. The idea for the cemetery was conceived by social leader, Henry Evelyn Pierrepont.

Now a national historic landmark, the 478 acre landscape has become a popular tourist attraction and was the inspiration behind the creation of New York’s Central and Prospect Parks. The burial ground’s popularity saw a surge in the early 1860s and today, it welcomes roughly 500,000 visitors a year and is second in size only to Niagara Falls.

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Famous Residents

The cemetery is home to one of the largest collections of 19th and 20th century statuary and mausoleums. With 560,000 graves, many New Yorkers who died in the second half of the 19th century have been laid to rest there including a large number of notable celebrities and people. The 163 public figures buried at Green-Wood include artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, Rock of Ages musician Thomas Hastings, relatives of 26th American president Theodore Roosevelt, Two Orphans actress Kate Claxton and inventor of the Morse code, Samuel F.B Morse.

The non-sectarian burial site has one rule: no one who has died in prison or was executed for a crime can be buried there. However, former New York State senator William M. Tweed – more commonly known as Boss Tweed – is the only exception to the rule. He was convicted for stealing millions of dollars from taxpayers through political corruption and died in the Ludlow Street Jail.

City History

Prior to being a cemetery, Green-Wood was where the Battle of Long Island was fought in 1776, and now remains a Revolutionary War historic site. A Revolutionary War monument, Altar to Liberty: Minerva, was designed by Frederick Ruckstull and erected at the cemetery in 1920. It is placed at the highest point of the cemetery grounds, which sits 200 feet above sea level, and from that point, the sculpture faces the Statue of Liberty.

Green-Wood offers a genealogy service – dubbed Green-ealogy – due to its extensive amount of records which date back to 1840. As one of New York’s oldest and largest cemeteries, it is estimated to have connections to over 20 million people who are alive today. To bolster its archival sources, in 1999, non-profit organisation the Green-Wood Historic Fund was set up to purchase historical materials and objects. These include transfer records, affidavits of heirship, memorandum files, last wills and testaments, burial orders, heirship books and lot books, all ranging from various dates and eras.

Special Features

Green-Wood cemetery has catacombs which are open just once a year to the public for a guided tour. They consist of 30 vaults, many of which are owned by families. The cemetery also erected a memorial on 16 December 2010, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1960 Park Slope plane crash, which took the lives of 84 people.

A time capsule was uncovered at the cemetery in 2013 by a construction worker. It was a small metal box buried behind a wall and dated 1954; it contained the books A Handbook for Green-Wood (1867) and Green-Wood Illustrated (1847), both written by Nehmiah Cleaveland, the cemetery’s first historian.

The cemetery is also home to a flock of Argentinian Monk Parrots and has been since the 1970s, except no one is sure how they got into North America. Some theories suggest that the birds were released when a worker curiously opened an unmarked crate on its way to JFK Airport – other theories suggest the worker had ties to the Mafia and was looking to make a profit on the crate’s contents.

 In 1973, the US government attempted to rid the 

country of the intruders but only managed to kill half. The rest sought refuge at Green-Wood and have remained there ever since.

Green-Wood was recognised as New York’s first public park. The gates of the cemetery were designated a New York City landmark in 1966, and the cemetery was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1997. It was granted National Historic Landmark status in 2006.

Established in: 1838
Cemetery architect: David Bates Douglass
Based in: Brooklyn, New York City
Number of graves: 560,000
Size: 478 acres

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