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Green-Wood Cemetery

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by Joann Jovinelly (subscribe)
I'm a freelance writer/photographer living in the East Village neighborhood of New York City.
Published November 2nd 2010
Around the time of the Civil War, Brooklyn's Green-wood Cemetery, a national historic landmark, attracted as many visitors a year as did Niagara Falls—some 500,000 in fact. These days, it's difficult to imagine so many people seeking out a cemetery simply for its gorgeous views (it's one of the highest elevations in Brooklyn) though given its equal mix of beauty and tranquility, Green-wood remains one of New York's most beloved natural landscapes.

Though it's a prime destination for history buffs—it's the site of the first major battle of the Revolutionary War and is a permanent home to more than 500,000 New Yorkers—those seeking a peaceful respite from the grind of urban life can also take refuge among its 478 acres of flowering trees, lush grasses, and interesting architecture and monuments. It's also no surprise that there is an increase of visitors in the months leading up to Halloween, as Green-wood historians like Jeff Richman lead treks through the hills by flashlight on Saturday nights with live accordion music and a peek inside the cemetery's underground catacombs. Richman, as well as the group of historians on staff at Green-wood, take great pleasure in delighting visitors by giving them a sense of the lives of those buried on site, including hundreds of Civil War Union soldiers. Among the books he's written is one that traces primary sources like letters to individual plots, offering a detailed glimpse of some of those lives lost.

Architecturally, Green-wood also brings a lot to the table with its Gothic-styled entrance gate designed by Richard Upjohn in 1861, as well as its ornate chapel, built about 30 years earlier. The chapel interior was designed by Grand Central Terminal's architectural firm Warren and Wetmore in 1911. Once inside, get a closer look at the receiving tomb on the left, the exact place where dead bodies were temporarily laid to rest during winter months when the grounds were too frozen for digging.

It's no secret, however, that the draw for most visitors lies in locating the cemetery's most famous—and infamous—residents, including corrupt Tammany leader William "Boss" Tweed (1823-1878), notorious characters from the epic film Gangs of New York, and many others. Pick up a map from the guard at the main entrance or inside the chapel office and create your own individual tour. Stroll along romantically named pathways and note the gravesites of newspaperman Horace Greeley (1811-1872), abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887), inventors Samuel F.B. Morse (1791-1872) and Elias Howe (1819-1867), First Lady Alice Roosevelt (1861-1884), and even the unfortunate actress who happened to be on stage the night President Lincoln was assassinated, Laura Keene (1826-1873). More recent interments include famed painter Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988), war journalist Steven C. Vincent (1955-2005), and poet/musician Tuli Kupferberg (1923-2010).

If you'd prefer a guided tour, those are also available and include a popular historic tour by trolley every Wednesday at 1 PM (and the last Sunday of the month), which tells the tales of some of the site's most famous residents. That two-hour tour by historian Marge Raymond also details some lesser-known facts about the cemetery, first established in 1838. As a naturalist and birdwatcher, Raymond offers added information about the flora and fauna on the grounds, specifically its avian life, including a family of monk parakeets that have nested in the Gothic arch since the 1960s. Reservations are required for all tours and members of Green-wood's Historic Fund receive significant discounts.

Green-wood is also the site for many events throughout the year. Frequent music and dance performances take place on its grounds when weather permits, as well as book signings, sketching classes, poetry readings, military reenactments, and other related activities. Among the cemetery's most famous and well-attended events is its annual Halloween tour, "Murder, Mayhem, and Spirits," which takes place this year on October 30 and 31 at 1 PM. Reservations fill up quickly, however, so book your spot now!
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Why? Because cemeteries are more fun when you're alive.
When: 8AM-5PM, though some entrances close earlier.
Where: Greenwood Heights, Brooklyn
Cost: Free; Guided Tours Cost $15-$20
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