Culture + Style

To Die For: A New York City Cemetery Odyssey

When it comes to crafting an itinerary for a trip to New York City, a list of usual suspects quickly emerges. The city’s rich collection of culture, cuisine and commerce generate plenty of options, not to mention the simple pleasure of sitting at a café table and watching the colorful crowds of Gotham citizens pass by.

But some parts of New York City are rarely explored, by visitors or even locals, though they remain packed with culture, history, even a bit of celebrity. A band of stunning cemeteries host the memory and legacy of centuries of past New Yorkers, a history which documentarian Heather Quinlan digs into in her documentary, “Look Who’s Dead.”

Below she details some of the city’s burial ground history and highlights.

new york cemeteries
Set on sweeping land and often higher promontories of Brooklyn and Queens, New York cemeteries can offer some of the most arresting views of Manhattan. (Photo: Marriott International)

New York is said to be a city of a million stories. Indeed, some of the city's cemeteries have their own tales to tell. Perhaps only in New York could a cemetery be lost ... and found.

A visit to one or more of these resting places delivers a new perspective on the history of New York, as well as commanding vantages of the cityscape, and a welcome respite from the exhilarating but sometimes exhausting kinetic energy of this urban hive.

A trip to a cemetery might sound morbid, perhaps because we are haunted by a long history of horror and ghost stories set in them.

But rather than an encounter with the menacing undead, what you will discover there is a surprisingly vibrant atmosphere — one that invites you to take in an evolving array of different architecture and design and draws you in to the drama of families and the advance of immigration.

Of course, it’s also one that might be your only guarantee of a celebrity sighting.

When you walk into a cemetery, you will need to—pardon the pun—ground yourself. Like any visitor to a new land, you need to learn the language. While not as impenetrable as Egyptian hieroglyphs, the markings on various grave stones do have some secret symbolism and language embedded in them.

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Documentarian Heather Quinlan is setting her sights six feet under with a new project about New York cemeteries, called “Look Who’s Dead.” (Photo: Marriott International)

A hand facing up means a soul reaching toward heaven. A hand facing down means God reaching for a soul. If you see a carving of a lamb, chances are you’re looking at a child’s grave. The same can be true for a tree stump, which was a popular symbol during the late 19th and early 20th centuries for a life cut short.

To the Chinese, chrysanthemums symbolize longevity, as do evergreens, while the Irish are entwined with the clover, its three leaves symbolizing the Holy Trinity. And don’t forget daisies—while they represent the purity of the Virgin Mary, daisies are also a less virtuous term for death, as in “pushing up daisies.”

This panoply of language and symbol cues also map out the organization of many cemeteries that mimic the city’s various ethnic neighborhoods. In a Catholic cemetery 100 years ago, you would see the quintessential “Catholic” names: Murphy, or DeVito, or Franciszek, or even Schmidt. Those names are still there, but they’re now joined with Garcia and Park and Lee. Each new wave of immigrants brings their own ornamentations and rituals to the graveyard.

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Just as you hear multiple languages while making your way around New York, the gravestones of the city’s cemeteries capture that diverse mix of cultures. (Photo: Marriott International)

Chinese Buddhists prefer to be buried on a hill—the topography lends itself to good Feng shui—and are celebrated during Qing Ming, a time for tending to graves that stretches back more than 1,000 years. Family members clean the site, burn ritual offerings, leave flowers, and have a graveside picnic with an entire roast pig or chicken on the menu.

Traditionally, Jewish cemeteries adhere to aniconism—the ban on representing people, whether they be sculptures of Abraham or photos of the newly departed. Harry Houdini, arguably the world’s most famous escape artist, circumvented Jewish law when Machpelah Cemetery allowed a statuary bust of him to be put atop his family plot.

new york cemeteries
You might expect something a bit more ribald from a larger-than-life figure like Mae West, but her final resting place is in a private mausoleum complete with stained glass and angels. (Photo: Marriott International)

A trip to a cemetery might sound morbid, perhaps because we are haunted by a long history of horror and ghost stories set in them.

Houdini is just one of many famous figures buried in some of New York’s storied cemeteries. Mae West is venerated in a dramatic mausoleum in Cypress Hill Cemetery. In Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, Miles Davis joins a band of jazz greats, including his hero Duke Ellington. Montgomery Clift is buried in a humble and somewhat secluded Quaker cemetery in Prospect Park Brooklyn. And hardcore baseball fans make the pilgrimage up to Gate of Heaven Cemetery, just north of the city, to visit the resting place of Babe Ruth.

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Babe Ruth’s grave is one of the few places on the planet that New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox fans can coexist peacefully. (Photo: Marriott International)

His shrine evokes the full character of the Babe, including collections of weathered baseballs left in tribute, and an empty Budweiser can or two. Babe’s contemporary, Lou Gehrig is buried in Kensico Cemetery, just across the street, and like the real man himself, his grave is a quieter affair.

New York is said to be a city of a million stories. Indeed, some of the city’s cemeteries have their own tales to tell. Perhaps only in New York could a cemetery be lost … and found.

In a tale demonstrating just how far New York City has come from its own brush with economic death in the late 60s and early 70s, a woman in Brooklyn noticed something curious in what looked like a junk-filled, overgrown vacant lot near her home. Some minor excavation revealed a grave stone. And after the volunteer work of a few troops of Boy and Girl Scouts, as well as the assistance of descendants of the people buried there, a cemetery was excavated and brought back to life. Founded in 1668 and the fourth oldest existing cemetery in New York, Prospect Cemetery can now be visited in Jamaica, Queens.

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A statue of Minerva waves at the Statue of Liberty. (Photo: Marriott International)

The urban crush of Manhattan compelled the creation of cemeteries in what was then the more rural outer boroughs of Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. While these boroughs have developed significantly since then, the wide swath of land in this collection of cemeteries still offers visitors a hint of what the terrain was like before the city took root.

They offer some unobstructed views of the city from high promontories. And with their meandering lanes, willowy trees, and open space, they provide a reflective and peaceful place to escape from the energy and chaos of the city itself.

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Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn opened in the mid 19th century and emerged as the final resting place of some of the city’s wealthiest citizens. (Photo: Marriott International)

In fact, the Green-Wood Cemetery which was opened in the mid-19th century attracted people to its lushly landscaped grounds and was described by some at the time as New York’s first public park. Some of the design visions for Green-Wood shaped the eventual Central Park in Manhattan.

A visit to a cemetery invites us to ponder the history of New York and to appreciate the individuals from all walks of life who helped conjure up this spectacular place. It is an opportunity to put yourself into the context of these many stories.

The representations on graves large and small — from the most ornate mausoleum to the humblest slate — invite us to take in this legacy, to interpret the impressions the deceased hoped to leave behind. They also ask us to consider that those buried below truly lived, that they mattered, and that they were vital parts of the story that created the New York we stand in today.

Watch Filmmaker Heather Quinlan Reveal the Allure of NYC’s Cemeteries

Marriott TRAVELER co-produced this story and video as a part of a paid partnership with Pop-Up Magazine. Marriott TRAVELER is a proud sponsor of its Fall 2018 tour.