Calvary Cemetery in Queens is something of a shadow city to New York. With over 3 million interments (roughly the population of the city of Chicago, to give the staggering number a visual), it not only has more burials than any other cemetery in the city, but also in the United States.
New York City’s population of the dead, like its living souls, has mostly relocated to the outer boroughs due the overcrowding and high real estate prices of Manhattan. Many of the island’s cemeteries were exhumed (although the bodies were not necessarily all collected, resulting in some skeletons lingering in the ground) during the past 150 years and reinterred in these new cemeteries, but there remain a few burial grounds embedded in the urban landscape of Manhattan, from gated lots so small as to be unnoticed, like First Shearith Israel Graveyard, the only surviving 17th century structure in Manhattan, to Potter’s Fields that have since become parks, including Washington Square Park and Bryant Park. The borough’s remaining active cemetery is Trinity Cemetery in Washington Heights, which, with Trinity and St. Paul’s churchyards in Lower Manhattan, is part of the Episcopal Parish of Trinity Church burial grounds, a group of three cemeteries that maintains a historic and artistic presence for memorial history in the city.
Stepping through the gates of Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, you are first awed by the sheer number and size of the mausoleums that tower over its more than 400 acres. Once you begin to explore this 19th century city of the dead, you discover the incredible details that went into all these personal memorial estates, from the ornate metal gates to the bronze, granite and marble statuary, and then peaking through the doors you see bursts of color in delicate stained glass. You notice the sculptures of familiar cemetery motifs of angels and mourning ladies, but also highly personal tributes by some of the most recognizable 19th and 20th century artists.
Some of the most beautiful sculpture in New York is dark adornment to the city’s cemeteries, stunning reminders of transience conveyed through the semi-permanence of stone and metal. This is the story of Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, one of the most elegant in the country.