Meet the Permanent New Yorkers in the Cities of the Dead
From mansion-sized mausoleums to the world’s first pet cemetery, Jessica Ferri takes readers on an informative and often lyrical tour of New York’s cemeteries.
I live near Miles Davis.
Well, nearly. Woodlawn Cemetery, a crown jewel of 19th century New York, is just out my window. Sir Miles lies farther beyond the fence, but no matter. I like to think my good days—writing that keeps ’em awake—have something to do with the “Bitches Brew” of genius and infamy across the road.
Over 310,000 people rest there, many in the country’s greatest collection of private mausoleums: 1,352 structures in all, a lot of them designed by architects such as McKim, Mead & White, Sir Edwin Lutyens, Cass Gilbert, and James Gamble Rogers. Many are landmarked.
Jay Gould, the railroad robber baron, lies in an Ionic temple on over half an acre. His crypt is soldered shut; perhaps his family worried he’d escape and finally “hire half the working class to kill the other half,” as he promised before his death in 1892.
Irving Berlin has a long, elegant flat stone that befits a guy from the Lower East Side. Herman Melville, cash-strapped and out of fashion at the end, would be easy to miss but for the large blank scroll that marks his monument. It might as well say, I’ll be back.
I once tripped across a family of midwives. Cursory research found the son-in-law got rich patenting granny’s colic cure. It all went south when babies started dying of codeine, though. I like to think they come to trouble him at night.
People still get buried here. Fresh graves are visible on hillsides near the subway station, among soldiers, shopkeepers, society dames, silent movie comedians, Wall Street refugees, politicians, artists… not all rich or (in)famous, but sharing New York swagger. Why not end up at the weirdest party in town?
I imagine Sinatra dropping in: We’re kings of the hill. Top of the heap.
I haven’t hung out at Woodlawn much since my Dad died in 2012, far too young. Now people half his age drown in their own blood. Memorial art is gorgeous, but I have deadlines, ballgames, books, booze. Who wants to run into a funeral? Life is for living.
But Silent Cities, by Daily Beast contributor Jessica Ferri, will send me back to the land of the dead.
In a strict sense, it’s not a cemetery guidebook; it isn’t obsessed with old dramas, architecture, or where to find Congressman William McAdoo. Ferri instead combines judicious history and criticism with personal reflections on grief and remembrance.
She visits over a dozen major New York cemeteries in a variety of moods. She’s an expectant mother pondering life and death. A parent craving quiet. A journalist looking for a story, art, fresh air. She has a fine critical eye—a statue conveys “both the need and offer of comfort”—and her tone balances between wry and reverent.
She quotes Melville:
“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”
"I sometimes feel about cemeteries," Ferri writes, "the way Melville felt about the sea."
But Ferri aims higher than travelogue or self-revelation. For her, reckoning with cemeteries is part of dealing with cities, the country, life and death itself.
“It’s inevitable that burial rituals and methods will change as technology changes,” she writes. “But the erasure of cemeteries from national consciousness is an erasure of American history.”
Ferri pointedly calls Woodlawn an “outdoor museum”—because museums are for everyone. But it’s easy to walk there alone for hours. Elsewhere she finds First Shearith Israel Graveyard, the oldest Jewish cemetery in North America, locked and deserted, wedged into an alley “like a misplaced library book.”
“How does one begin to navigate the future without a solid knowledge of the past?”
She visits Calvary Cemetery, Queens, “much to the surprise” of the three million dead who outnumber the borough’s living residents. Their graves mirror New York’s immigrant history. Often literally; many have portraits.
Countless Catholic priests lie together, brothers in death. Civil War casualties, born in Ireland, died for a country they barely knew. Jews who left Europe in time to prosper and grow old. What did they leave behind? What did they build here?
While cemeteries are keystones of history, psychic magnets, Ferri notes their limits. Most people are mourned, but how can we touch grief with a few feet of stone or metal?
So she travels to Hartsdale Pet Cemetery in Westchester County, which bills itself as America’s oldest animal cemetery. The heart-stopping epitaphs there—You made us a family—make us consider how animals set us free.
Though Ferri is a careful observer and a restrained writer, her editor occasionally fails. The Victorian ideal of a “Good Death” is defined in almost exactly the same way twice within ten pages. Francis E.G. Coy, who went down with the Titanic, is recorded as “Frances.” And so on. But these minor errors don’t distract.
New York has forever drawn pilgrims in search of the intangible. For Ferri, it seems to be a crack in the wall between life and death. Silent Cities is her subjective, pointillist, companionable argument that the story of any city must include its dead.
Finding them takes effort. Our spirits must wander like theirs. We can only meet them halfway, in shadow, one or two at a time. They’ll shake our hands, clap our backs. Thank us for making the journey.
But look around, they say. Time is running out.