By the 19th century in America, church graveyards had grown overcrowded and derelict, the sites of grave robbery, prostitution, and other unseemly activity. The tides had shifted away from the emphasis the church once placed on death and damnation, especially after the high death toll on women and children in the Victorian era. People wanted to remember their dead in a loving manner, rather than a dark, depressing one.
Inspired by the inviting greenery of Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris and the Magnificent Seven cemeteries in London, Green-Wood Cemetery opened in 1838. It took advantage of the 478 acres of rolling hills and shady oaks, and offered Brooklynites a veritable park cemetery in which to visit their dead. Not only was it a peaceful spot for contemplation and remembrance, but it was also just a nice place to be amidst the grime of 19th century New York. People would plan day-long outings to Green-Wood, complete with picnics.
The cemetery instantly became a coveted place to spend the afterlife. Hundreds of New York’s famous and infamous are buried at Green-Wood. Just a few of the most notable interred include William and Henry Steinway of piano fame, F. A. O. Schwarz of expensive toy fame, Samuel Morse of code fame, Leonard Bernstein of orchestral fame, Boss Tweed of corruption fame, and Louis Comfort Tiffany of stained glass fame—among many others. The grounds also boast some impressive monuments, including pyramids, mausoleums, and an intricately carved Gothic entranceway.
Green-Wood is still a popular Brooklyn destination. It is equal parts park, cemetery, and historical resource. The cemetery conducts an extensive series of events (many with Atlas Obscura!), and makes its resources available to the public, including the undertakers’ ledgers. Green-Wood is still an active cemetery for burials and cremations (over 3,000 individuals are cremated there each year!). It will remain an important and beautiful part of Brooklyn’s history for years to come.
Know Before You Go
As this is a continuously functioning cemetery, please be respectful and be aware that some people are here to pay respects to lost loved ones. There are maps available, (as well as toilets) at the 25th Street Main Entrance. The slender of the two maps will indicate notable graves and monuments. Check website for tours and events.