Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn was founded in 1838, and by 1860 was the second most popular tourist attraction in New York State, with over half a million visitors per year (Niagara Falls was #1). Its popularity as a public park spurred on the creation of Prospect Park in Brooklyn as well as Manhattan’s Central Park. It was designated as a New York Landmark in 1966 and became a National Historic Landmark in 2006. Now with over 600,000 “permanent residents,” Green-Wood is still a wonderful place to visit, as I did recently near sunset.
It is easy to get to Green-Wood via subway (get off the R at 25th Street in Brooklyn, or get off the N at 36th Street and walk for about 15 minutes). Entering the main gate on 25th Street, it is impossible not to be impressed by the enormous brownstone gates. An escaped colony of monk parrots has lived in and around the gates since the 1970’s, but unfortunately I was not able to spot (or hear) any.
The cemetery is huge, at 478 acres. It is also really gorgeous and peaceful. Like Prospect Park and Central Park, which it influenced, it is a beautiful place to explore on foot and experience nature while being surrounded by the city.
The monuments reflect a variety of styles. Many are very grand, suggesting that even if you can’t “take it with you,” you can still show “it” off after you are gone.
On the site of the Battle of Brooklyn, from the Revolutionary War, there is a memorial to the soldiers of the Civil War.
Near the Civil War memorial is a statue of Minerva, dedicated to the soldiers of the American Revolution. She waves out to the Statue of Liberty, which can be glimpsed off in the distance when you look from underneath her arm.
There are many famous residents of Green-Wood, including the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat; Samuel Morse, creator of the Morse Code; and Leonard Bernstein.
There is a public artwork by Sophie Calle in Green-Wood. Visitors to the cemetery are invited to write one of their secrets on a slip of paper and insert into a monument that is inscribed “Here lie the secrets of Green-Wood Cemetery.” As the grave becomes filled with the secrets, the artist returns to cremate them in a ceremonial bonfire. Yes, I put a secret in – and it is a surprisingly satisfying thing to do.
The sunset the evening I was there happened to be spectacular. And from higher vantage points, the skyscrapers of lower Manhattan shimmered in the last rays of the sun off in the distance.
The New York Times in 1866 remarked that “It is the ambition of the New Yorker to live on Fifth Avenue, to take his airings in [Central] Park, and to sleep with his fathers in Green-Wood.” This is certainly a statement of its time (even ignoring the gender specificity), in that many a New Yorker today would rather live in TriBeCa, take airings on the High Line, and be cremated and have their ashes scattered just off Montauk. That being said, Green-Wood still does have plots available if you are interested in becoming a “permanent resident” one day. And for now, it provides a beautiful place to appreciate the life we are currently fortunate enough to be enjoying in this splendid city.