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Green-Wood Cemetery
By Rachel Ephraim   - 04/01/2009

Park Slope Reader

I have only been in a cemetery a handful of times, most of which were tragic occasions. Why else would I go? It seems strange to plan a day to the wander around your local cemetery if you're not mourning, visiting a past loved one, or coming back from the dead as a zombie. But that's why I am a writer; I love the unusual assignments and consequent experiences that arise when researching a project.

On the first warm day of the season, armed with Alexandra Kathryn Mosca's appropriately titled "Green-Wood Cemetery" as my gravestone bible, I found myself with three friends lollygagging the 478 acres-sightseeing the dead.

Mosca writes in her introduction, "buried within it's grounds are some of the most important people in the life of the nation, as well as those who lived their lives in decent obscurity as toiling citizens of a great city" (7). And it's true: people such as John Matthews, father of the soft drink; William North, poet and author; Jean-Michel Basquiat, artist; Samuel Morse, inventor of the telegraph; Leonard Bernstein, composer and conductor; Henry Ward Beecher, abolitionist; and approximately 600,000 more lie like beach goers, covered with dirt instead of sunscreen, six feet below the expansive, bucolic landscape.

Let me preface my experience by stating that death, naturally, freaks me out. As a 24-year-old woman I have yet to accept my mortality. I hitch hike. I take the subway home at 3am, alone. I daydream about the life before me-the books I'll write, the children I'll have, and the places I'll go. So graveyards, like used car lots designed in grids of different makes and models, don't instinctively draw me inside the gates, even if the gates, as in this case, are 19th century Gothic Revival. While the architecture of those at the 25th street entrance is stunning, what's more curious are the birds that have built a plethora of nests in the spire's crevices. The noise coming from above is not nearly as distracting as the bright green feathers that flap about. They're beautiful. I soon learn from the guard that they belong to parrots that escaped from Argentina and have inhabited the arches for 40 years. Parrots? Better than ravens, I suppose.

Onward we go, ambling the well-kept lawns, happy to be shedding our winter apparel. The first mausoleum we encounter is John Anderson's, who Mosca informs, "made a fortune in tobacco, became a suspect in the 1842 murder of Mary Rogers, one of his young employees. The case was a tabloid newspaper sensation and even inspired a book by Edgar Allan Poe" (92). I kid you not, a cloud passes overhead. The mausoleums look like tiny houses, complete with stone walkways. They are beautiful in structure and appear inviting, as though there is someone inside cooking up a stew or drying flowers and darning socks. I take a quick peek inside and to my surprise it looks like a NYC sized walk-in closet, drawer stacked upon drawer, only there aren't clothes inside. I raise the big brass knocker, and in true Poe fashion, gently rapped against the chamber door.

"It's open."

"I'll be right there."

"One second, I'm just getting dressed," my friends chimed in from behind me. We are in stitches, until we see a group of about 20 on the hilltop, dressed in black. As we continue walking, hushed and reflective, we see freshly turned soil peppered throughout the hills and valleys. There are still many available spots to bury the deceased at Greenwood, although you won't find $7 prices, the going rate of the first plot, any longer. As I peruse the rates, which I'm told are very reasonable, I am shocked to hear that funerals costs thousands of dollars. I barely have money to live. But there is a more affordable option: the crematorium, situated next to a coy pond and decorated with luxurious carpets and lounges. The trendy practice did not reach Green-Wood until the mid-century and there are still many visible open slots to display an urn. I prefer the options soup or salad, but still, it's always good to have choices.

We continue to walk the land, visiting some of Brooklyn's most well known skeletons.

"What would you have written on your tombstone?" I ask. Mother, wife, daughter are popular choices, but seem so servile and boring to me. Maybe a quote from Whitman, I muse, but my boyfriend has a few other ideas in mind. "Oops...I'm dead," and "Is it dead in here, or is just me?" are just a few of his suggestions. Then my eye catches one that states simply, "artist." Has there ever been a more appropriately placed period?

As I head out, wanting only to return of my own volition, I know that there is more for me to do here. Maybe I'll come back when Henry Steinway's mausoleum opens to the public, a Steinway piano rolled in to fill the space with music. Perhaps I'll reenter to show my mom, a sculptor, Patrizio Piatti's artful stone carvings. Then again, I could come for bird watching, a guided trolley tour, a concert, a book discussion, a lecture, or an exhibit.

So even if you're just in the market for vintage baby names like Mildred, Mable, Adelaide, or Edna, pick up Mosca's easy to read book and head over to 5th and 25th street. You'll realize that Green-Wood is not just full of tombstones; it is full of stories: There's Sarah Kairns, mother of 22, 117 years old when she died in 1854 from asthma. And one of the spookiest tales that Mosca illuminates is that of Actress Laura Keene who performed on stage in 1865, the night President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. She writes, "Keene was acting in the play Our American Cousin when Lincoln was shot and quickly made her way to his box seat. Reportedly she was allowed to cradle Lincoln's head on her lap as he lay mortally wounded. Lincoln's wound stained her dress, and for a time the clothing was one of the most viewed relics of the incident. Keane was sometimes asked to model the dress, bloodstains and all" (96). That's my cue to leave.

The sun is going down and I wrap my scarf around my shoulders a little tighter. Although the day has been about others-where they've been and where they've ended, I can't help but think of what will become of me. We're all silent as we pass through the gates until someone pipes up, quoting The Big Lebowski after Donny's ashes have been scattered by Walter and the Dude. "F#$@ it man, let's go bowling," he says. And we do; Melody Lanes is located only blocks away.

To obtain more information on Green-Wood Cemetery, visit www.green-wood.com or pick up Alexandra Kathryn Mosca's book available at local retailers, online bookstores, or through Arcadia Publishing at www.arcadiapublishing.com. Better yet, get your copied signed. Mosca will leading a tour at GWC on April 26th at 1pm. Included in the tour is a copy of the book!

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