Located right between Brooklyn sunset park and park slope lies the infamous Greenwood Cemetery. Founded in 1838, Greenwood was one of the first rural cemeteries in the United States. By the 1860s Greenwood had become known for its magnificent and beautiful structures and is a prestigious place to be buried. The cemetery covers 478 acres, filled with glacial ponds, paths, hills and, most importantly, 560,000 “permanent residents”. What was once a popular tourist spot is now considered a hidden gem, despite its size. Let’s dive into some secrets you didn’t know about Greenwood Cemetery.
Greenwood Cemetery Facts
1. Cemetery celebrities
Buried on the cemetery grounds are some famous names you may even know. Right below your feet are Jean-Michel Basquiat, Leonard Bernstein, Horace Greeley, Boss Tweed, Charles Ebbets, Louis Comfort Tiffany, politicians, Civil War generals, inventors, and many other personalities of their time.
2. History of the war
Here rest thousands of veterans of the Civil War. According to Greenwood Historical Fund, in September 2002, Greenwood historian Jeff Richman and the Greenwood Historic Fund started the Civil War Project to help identify veterans of the war. It was first thought that with the search they would find around 500 veterans, but the numbers were much higher than that. With the help of volunteers, news sources, pension records, New York State Military Museum records, online databases, the Greenwood Burial Register, and many other sources, more than 5,200 Civil War veterans were buried on site. This included generals and soldiers from the Union and Confederate sides, members of the Sanitary Commission, nurses, and a 12-year-old drummer boy. The Greenwood Historic Fund says this project is still ongoing, with the goal of identifying anyone who had a connection to the Civil War.
There are also World War I and World War II veterans buried at the cemetery, with the Greenwood Historic Fund seeking help in identifying the individuals.
3. Once one of New York’s top tourist attractions
In the mid-19th century of New York history, Greenwood Cemetery was the place to visit. Since the cemetery’s opening in 1838, it has been considered one of New York’s first landscaped public sites. Visitors were drawn to this place as they would be to a park. People came in droves to enjoy family outings, horse-drawn carriage rides, picnics, to see sculptures, and to stroll along shady paths. The cemetery once drew 500,000 visitors a year, making it the second most popular tourist attraction in New York State compared to Niagara Falls. Believe it or not, the popularity of Greenwood Cemetery inspired the creation of public parks like Prospect Park and Central Park.
4. A story of loyalty and love
While the cemetery is home to all kinds of people from different histories and walks of life, one of the most heartbreaking stories lives inside a tomb, the key to which is long gone. A Brooklyn merchant named Jonathan Reed was so devoted to his wife that when she died in 1893, he purchased a mausoleum in the cemetery. She was peacefully buried, while there was also an empty casket for Reed when he eventually passed away. Reed set up the tomb as a living space, filled with paintings, an oil stove, photos of Marie and her knitting. Over the next ten years, Reed never missed a day visiting Mary. He came in the morning when the cemetery opened, talked to Mary, dined in the tomb and read to her until he had to go home. Word spread and visitors passed by and observed Reed’s love for Mary. Finally, in 1905, he was found on the floor of the mausoleum, his arms outstretched towards Mary. He had died of a stroke and lay next to his wife. The tomb is now locked and has not been opened since.
5. Stunning architecture
The prominent Gothic architecture is hard to miss when entering through the cemetery’s main entrance. The cemetery itself was designed by one of the most prominent architects of the time, David Bates Douglass. The design intent was to create a peaceful and natural setting. To this day, much of Douglass’ plan is still in place with its road networks and plantations, but the roads have since been paved. There are also several monuments and mausoleums in the cemetery. They are all designed in a variety of different styles including Gothic, Classical, Egyptian, etc. Some of these monuments and mausoleums were even designed by notable architects of the time such as Warren and Wetmore, Minard Lafever and Richard Upjohn.
Upjohn designed the cemetery gates. The double main entrance gate on 25th Street has panels depicting biblical scenes of death and resurrection. A fun fact is that since the 1970s monk parakeets have lived above the main doors. They are said to scare away pigeons whose droppings are very acidic and can wear down buildings.
There is a chapel that is located near the entrance to the cemetery. It was designed by Warren and Wetmore, the same people who designed Grand Central Station, and the chapel was completed in 1913. It is built in a Gothic style and was erected as a city landmark in 2016.
6. Standing statues
Before Greenwood Cemetery was known as a graveyard, people would not think of burying their loved ones there. It was only known as a place for day trips. But when DeWitt Clinton, the sixth Governor of New York and Mayor of New York was buried in Greenwood in 1844, people began to think it was a prestigious place to be buried. Clinton’s burial site is decorated with a huge bronze statue of himself.
Another famous statue located in Greenwood is Lady Liberty’s sister, Minerva. The bronze statue of Minerva details the goddess of wisdom and strategic warfare. It stands atop Battle Hill, commemorating the first and largest battle that resulted in loss during the Revolutionary War. Minerva deliberately faces the Statue of Liberty, saluting the Torch of Liberty.
7. Greenwood Trees
Greenwood Cemetery is many things: a historical monument, a sculpture garden and a major attraction. But did you know it’s considered an arboretum with one of New York’s largest tree collections? The cemetery is home to nearly 7,000 trees. According to the Greenwood Historic Fund, an expert from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden even said that the cemetery has the best collection of mature trees in New York. The two oldest trees are the Camperdown Elm and the Sassafras. The Sassafras is believed to be the oldest of its kind in New York. The tree may date back to the opening of Greenwood in 1838. It actually appears as two trees a small distance apart, which appears to be a survivor of what was once a larger Sassafras settlement . The Camperdown Elm found in the cemetery is actually the second oldest in Brooklyn second only to the one in Prospect Park behind the Boathouse. There are many amazing trees to look at when visiting the cemetery. When visiting Greenwood Cemetery, look for the tunnel of weeping elms or see the two oldest trees.