A Leisurely Sunday Stroll through Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery

As Halloween is fast approaching I thought I would take you on a leisurely Sunday stroll through Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery. Cemeteries often have the reputation of being spooky or haunted, and Green-Wood likely has it’s share of ghosts, but it’s a lovely, serene place for an afternoon walk.

Founded in 1838, Green-Wood Cemetery is a National Historic Landmark, not only because of its longstanding role as one of the city’s cemeteries but also its status as the site of a major Revolutionary War battlefield, the Battle of Long Island. In the 19th century, New York City residents would pack picnic lunches and spend weekend afternoons wandering the cemetery’s park-like grounds. In fact, in the second half of the 19th century, as many as half a million people a year visited the cemetery. Today, it is still a great place to spend an afternoon. The cemetery is large, encompassing 478 acres (1.9 square kilometers). I spent almost five hours meandering along the paths among the graves and still did not see the entire cemetery. (More than 500,000 people are buried in the cemetery, just to give you a full sense of its magnitude.)

The grandest entrance to the cemetery is this Gothic Revival structure on the northern side, accessible from Brooklyn’s Fifth Avenue. The gate was built in the 1860s.

A closer view shows detailed religious carvings above each entryway. The gate above was designed by Richard Upjohn, while the carvings were by John M. Moffitt.

Throughout the cemetery we come across many mausoleums – in fact, Green-Wood Cemetery has one of the largest collections of mausoleums in the United States. They represent a range of architectural styles and tastes, and many offer beautiful details as well. Here is just a sampling of what we discover.

Here’s my favorite mausoleum, an Egyptian-inspired pyramid with statues of Mary and Jesus, a male Catholic saint (anyone know who it is?), and a sphinx.

Then there were the monuments and memorials. First, there was this one to DeWitt Clinton, former governor of the state of New York in the 19th century and credited with building the Erie Canal.

There’s this Revolutionary War monument by sculpture Frederick Ruckstull titled Altar to Liberty: Minerva.

Or how about this monument dedicated to New York City soldiers and sailors who fought in the U.S. Civil War? It has some beautiful details.

Then I found this simple memorial with a tragic story I hadn’t hear before. In 1876, a fire at the Brooklyn Theater killed at least 278 people, although some accounts say that the number was closer to 300. This monument marks the common grave of the 103 victims who were never identified.

There are so many more to discover but I will show this one last one, a bronze statue by sculptor John Coleman titled “The Greeter,” which marks the grave of 19th-century artist George Catlin. Catlin was most famous for his depictions of the American West and Native American culture.

Green-Wood Cemetery is home to the graves of numerous famous people, but my favorites were some of the most simple. Here is composer Leonard Bernstein’s grave, among the most humble I saw in the cemetery. Visitors have left the small stones on his grave in his memory.

And here is the grave of Louis Comfort Tiffany, most known for his stained glass windows and other glass art. (As you can see, he outlived two wives.)

Although I’m not the biggest baseball fan, I loved the gravestone of Henry Chadwick, known as the father of baseball. Visitors had also left offerings at his grave, this time baseballs that are now in various states of deterioration, and there was a giant stone baseball on top of the pillar. (I felt a little sad for Chadwick’s wife, the former Jane Botts, who had to share this monument rather than having something that celebrated her life independent of her husband’s.)

I found graves of two founders of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. They are significantly different from each other. My favorite of the two was this one, James M. Hart’s.

Here’s a close-up view of the decorative plaque.

The other one is Henry Bergh’s another pyramid with an interesting sculpture by Wilhelm Hunt Diederich and John Terken titled “Humility of Man Before a Group of Ageless Animals.”

The cemetery grounds have gentle hills, providing ample opportunity to stretch my legs. At the top of one, I caught this view of the Manhattan skyline, a little hazy in the distance.

Not far from this spot, I found these flowers laying on a park bench. A small plaque on the bench had this poignant inscription: In loving memory of our mummy, Ranjani, 1952-2011.

On one hill is this unusual art installation by Sophie Calle, titled “Here Lie the Secrets of the Visitors of Green-Wood Cemetery.” Visitors are invited to write their secrets on sheets of paper and insert them into the slot on the obelisk. Calle will return to the cemetery periodically over the next 25 years to remove the secrets and “cremate” them in ceremonial bonfires. The art installation is unexpected in the middle of a cemetery.

Now I think we’ll wander further, admiring some of the other statues and gravestone throughout the cemetery.

And finally, we’ll stop by the chapel, which was completed in 1911.

The chapel’s interior is small but intricately decorated, with beautiful stained glass windows.

Want to visit Green-Wood Cemetery yourself? You will find directions on the cemetery’s website, here. If you wish to tour the cemetery on your own, you can pick up free maps at the entrance. The cemetery also offers ticketed trolley tours on Wednesdays and Sundays. You can find more information about the tours here.

I think this would be another good post for Jo’s Monday Walks. Have you checked out Jo’s blog? I recommend it!

22 thoughts on “A Leisurely Sunday Stroll through Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery

  1. You obviously needed five hours to explore this amazingly diverse place. So many dead and so many ways of memorialising them. That’s a great view of the city, building echoing the shape of the gravestones. Are family mausoleums still accepting residents? And did you post a secret? A nice play on taking your secrets to the grave!

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    1. This is still a very active cemetery, with many mausoleums still in modern use. I did post a secret – I couldn’t resist participating. It seems so strange to have interact art in a cemetery, but yet intriguing at the same time.

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  2. Very grand! You obviously had to be somebody to end up there. The combination of Jesus and the Sphinx is very unusual (is it not Mary with the infant Jesus and the adult Jesus with the lost lamb?) I love wandering old cemeteries, in fact we did just that on Saturday. We were looking for a particular grave and there was no map so we totally failed. Found some interesting things we weren’t looking for though!

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  3. I have a confession to make, Susan. I hate Halloween and am more than glad to have almost escaped it here in the Algarve. Not quite because it’s definitely catching on. 🙂 🙂 But the sculptures and tombs in your post are lovely, and not at all haunting. Many thanks for sharing- I should be back next week.

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  4. What a fabulous post. Cemeteries are interesting places, and some of the monuments and mausoleums fantastic. Your post reminds me of my youth, when I used to go for long walks in highgate Cemetery in North London. It was a little wild and overgrown in those days, which made it all the more interesting.

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  5. Pingback: Jo’s Monday walk : Culatra- an easy amble | restlessjo

  6. What a compendium of pictures you’ve put together of this place. I had no idea George Catlin, whom I associate so much with the West, is buried in Brooklyn. As I scrolled through your photographs of fancy mausoleums, I thought about some people’s vanity in trying to make an impression even after death. Just as I was thinking that, I got to the picture of Leonard Bernstein’s simple stone; what a contrast with the flamboyance he projected when alive.

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  7. What an amazing place! There are two towns in Iowa – within the same county – named DeWitt and Clinton, both of them named after DeWitt Clinton. Yeah, I know. I never claimed they were original there during that time. Anyway, it was really cool seeing where he was buried. Thank you for posting!

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