Urban

An Urban System of Death

Competition for space in an ever-developing city isn’t only a problem for living New Yorkers; scarcity also troubles the dead. But where old housing, commercial, and cultural spaces may be obliterated to make way for the new, burial grounds alone hold the promise of permanence, thanks to a legal guarantee of undisturbed eternal rest. Educator and writer Allison Meier suggests the city’s cemeteries can be read as an index to its history, revealing growth spurts and shifting ideals about landscape, death, and design. Today, as space for interment within the five boroughs becomes ever more limited and expensive, and as concerns about environmental and spatial sustainability come to the fore, designers and cemetery stewards are beginning to envision new urban systems of death. When every inch is contested, how can space for contemplation and remembrance be preserved, even if space for “traditional” burial is not?

At least once a month, a pair of locked wrought iron gates open on Second Avenue. The humble entrance accesses a narrow alleyway, which transports visitors to a lush lawn, nearly hidden between the adjacent buildings. On a summer day, people arrive with dogs and books to wander the lawn or relax on benches, some reading weathered names carved on marble tablets embedded in the stone wall.

Visitors to New York Marble Cemetery, at 41½ Second Avenue. According to its website, “the cemetery is generally open to the public on the fourth Sunday of the month from April to October, and on other days throughout the year.” Photo via Wikimedia Commons

There are no headstones, but this is a cemetery, and the long dead New Yorkers beneath the ground — interred in the 156 Tuckahoe marble vaults which give the New York Marble Cemetery its name — are why this green oasis has evaded the rampant development of the East Village. Living New Yorkers likely don’t think of where the cemeteries are until there’s a funeral. Yet as the needs of the living have shaped its streets and infrastructure, so too has the burial of the dead formed the city we know today, whether through unexpected green spaces like this, or the more sprawling landscapes of tombstones that dominate huge sections of the outer boroughs.

“Overturn, overturn, overturn! is the maxim of New York,” declared Philip Hone, mayor of New York City from 1826 to 1827, in his diary, referencing the Bible’s Ezekiel 21:27. “The very bones of our ancestors are not permitted to lie quiet a quarter of a century.” When the New York Marble Cemetery was incorporated in 1831, cemeteries in Manhattan were at a time of change. It was the city’s first non-sectarian burial ground, and a small solution to a big problem. Following outbreaks of yellow fever, New York banned earthen burials below 14th Street, as the overcrowded churchyards of Lower Manhattan became linked to the spread of disease. Some cemeteries were relocated entirely, their dead reinterred further from daily life. For instance, the Little Green Street Burial Ground, a Quaker cemetery located at today’s Liberty Place in Lower Manhattan, had its bodies removed in 1826 to a vault on Houston Street. Later, in 1849, they were moved again to Brooklyn, in an area that’s now Prospect Park. (The little cemetery that predates this park is still operating, visible through a fence on Center Drive.) Other burial grounds adapted to the new regulations, including the New York Marble Cemetery where the dead were interred ten feet underground in marble chambers.

Fear of disease was a major reason New York changed the way it buried the dead, but it wasn’t the only factor. Land, too, was more in demand as Manhattan developed in the 19th century. Colonial churchyards were increasingly surrounded by homes and businesses. According to the New York City Cemetery Project, one burial ground, once part of an 18th-century Dutch farm, became so encircled by tenements it turned into something of a backyard with a garden, laundry, and rambunctious children playing among the tombstones. As the New York Times reported in 1879, the visibility of this small decrepit cemetery at Ninth Avenue and 50th Street from the New-York Elevated Railroad got its adjacent stop the nickname of “Grave-yard Station.” But as New York expanded, many small graveyards could not sustain equilibrium with their developing surroundings when city planners often thought the land occupied with old bones might be better used for the living. Even Trinity Churchyard, which survives today at Broadway and Wall Street and counts Alexander Hamilton among its eternal residents, was nearly bisected by a street in 1847. When the Board of Aldermen of the City of New York protested that “almost every old family that is or ever was in this city, has friends, relatives, or connections lying there,” Trinity was saved. Wealthy graveyards could also cope with development pressures by relocating their dead to new grounds that were a little more inconvenient to access. Other burial grounds were not so lucky. Marginalized and impoverished people saw their burial spaces — often informally established in undesirable places — obliterated and claimed for development, only to be rediscovered later. Lower Manhattan’s African Burial Ground, which has burials dating from the 17th to 18th centuries, was uncovered beneath a city block during the early 1990s construction of a federal office tower. The ongoing redevelopment project that includes an MTA bus depot in East Harlem is also considering the African burial ground beneath the structure. Potter’s fields — for the unclaimed, the poor, and sometimes those who died in epidemics — were established in areas that included today’s Washington Square Park, Bryant Park, and Madison Square Park, and some parks still have human remains resting below the recreational amenities.

In Manhattan’s Civic Center, a granite marker and educational center commemorate the site of a six-acre burial ground where upwards of 15,000 intact skeletal remains of enslaved and free Africans who lived and worked in colonial New York were uncovered during construction in the 1990s. The remains were removed for archaeological study and then reinterred at the site, now called African Burial Ground National Monument, in 1993. Photo via National Parks Service

Nineteenth-century diarist George Templeton Strong bemoaned that “in this city of all cities some place is needed where a man may lay down to his last nap without the anticipation of being turned out of his bed in the course of a year or so to make way for a street or a big store or something of that kind.” Matthew Dripps’ 1852 map of Manhattan shows the New York Marble Cemetery as part of a veritable cemetery district in today’s East Village: A Methodist Cemetery spans two lots on Second Avenue, while the Quaker cemetery and four other small burial grounds nestle between buildings. The same year the map was issued, burials were prohibited south of 86th Street; aside from the New York Marble Cemetery, only one other cemetery in this area survives today.

In the 1852 Matthew Dripps map of Manhattan, a cluster of cemeteries (outlined in orange) surrounds the intersection of Second Avenue and Houston Street. Image via David Rumsey Historical Map Collection

Almost two centuries later, the issues facing burial in the five boroughs are not dissimilar. Namely, how do you respectfully remember the departed in a city where every parcel of land is precious? The last new cemetery in New York City — Resurrection Cemetery, a Catholic burial ground in the Pleasant Plains area of Staten Island — opened in 1980. Cemeteries that once sat at the city’s edge are now surrounded on all sides by development; plots are running out, and each burial ground is utilizing all of its available resources to sustain operations. The Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral on Mulberry Street has reopened its 200-year-old crypt with a columbarium for urns, and one $7 million crypt to house a single family. The New York Marble Cemetery has two reclaimed vaults at $350,000 each. But eking out space for new burial has limited returns in the long run.

The estimated dead and living populations of New York City, citywide and by borough. Numbers of interments were calculated by combining available cemetery records, estimates by cemetery superintendents, and approximate burial capacity in cemeteries without available estimates or records. Images by Arianna Deane

There is always tension between the past and present, between development and preservation; never is it so sensitive as when you’re dealing with the presence of the dead. Yet, today, rather than the domain of city planners, cemeteries have mostly been developed by private entities and religious institutions. Burial grounds are largely exempt from property taxes, so as burial moved to the edges of cities, it became a business opportunity. When embalming rose in popularity during and after the Civil War — spurred in part by the tour of Abraham Lincoln’s embalmed corpse on his final train trip to Springfield, Illinois — care for the dead moved out of family homes, and into the hands of professionals, with all the rising costs associated with a booming new industry. While we often think of the typical American funeral service — with its presentation of the embalmed corpse resting on lacy pillows, the bountiful flower arrangements, the hulking metal casket, the interment in a sealed vault topped with a granite marker on a pristine green lawn — as “traditional,” in fact these rituals emerged from that relatively recent cultural and commercial shift.

The rise of the funeral business included the mass marketing of permanent graves. In other parts of the world, people are more comfortable with a final resting place being not necessarily eternally guaranteed. In Germany graves have long been recycled after decomposition. French artist Sophie Calle’s recent Brooklyn art installation “Here Lie the Secrets of the Visitors of Green-Wood Cemetery” involves a marble obelisk in which visitors can slip their secrets over the next quarter century. “In France,” Calle explained, “When they give you a grave forever, it means 25 years.” But in New York, lot owners have a right to permanent interment, and can only be removed with the written consent of the lot owners or family or, if unavailable, the supreme court of the cemetery’s district. This expectation of perpetual care emerged during what’s known as the “rural cemetery” movement, which reflected changing sentiments about mourning and a new relationship to landscape, prizing a curated experience of nature.

Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, designed in 1863 by landscape architect James C. Sidney, exemplifies the romantic ideals dominant in park and cemetery design at the time. Image via New York Public Library Digital Collections

Just as the dead were being evicted from Manhattan, a new vision of what a cemetery could be took hold. Sparked by the 1804 founding of Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, where the dead were interred among stately landscaped gardens, the rural cemetery movement reached the United States in 1831, with the establishment of Mount Auburn Cemetery outside Boston by a group of horticulturists. New York City’s first rural cemetery was Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, founded in 1838 on an undulating landscape overlooking the New York Harbor. The rural cemeteries’ serpentine paths and wooded landscapes didn’t just create a more contemplative place for mourning; they were an urban respite, and reflected a romantic, Evangelical Protestant view of death’s rewards, a belief in a future reunion in heaven. Reminders of the body’s decay were gone, hidden beneath the rolling grass with its carefully planted trees. Even the word “cemetery” — from the Greek koimeterion, or “sleeping place” — was fresh to the American vocabulary, supplanting the more visceral “burial ground.” The designs of the graves themselves reflected this new romanticism. Skulls, flying souls, and skeletons extinguishing the candle of life had grimly dominated colonial tombstones. Now, hands sculpted in marble clasped on tombstones of married couples; angels reached towards the heavens; inverted torches, with their flames still burning, suggested that although these lives had ended, their souls lived on.

Early American death motifs like skulls mark the graves in Lower Manhattan’s Trinity Churchyard, one of the few remaining colonial-era cemeteries in the city. Photo by Allison Meier

Green-Wood was started not by a church or the city, but under the leadership of Henry E. Pierrepont, a real estate entrepreneur and street layout commissioner for the newly incorporated City of Brooklyn. Less than a decade later, the New York Legislature passed the Rural Cemetery Act, authorizing commercial burial grounds throughout the state — including on the border between Queens and Brooklyn, where monuments to millions of dead stand like a frozen army. (In Calvary Cemetery alone, that 365-acre burial ground bordered by the BQE and Newtown Creek, there are around three million burials.) These Victorian cemeteries are their own islands of twisting paths, but their rise coincided with the rapid building of new transportation systems in New York. Ferries bore visitors to Green-Wood, while Woodlawn Cemetery, established in 1863 in the Bronx, had a dedicated funeral train.

By the end of the 19th century, most American cities had a “rural cemetery,” and their heavily designed landscapes that created the sense of being somewhere rustic without leaving the city inspired the leaders of the city parks movement. In New York City, many of the dead are still laid to rest in areas that were once outskirts. But the cemeteries’ once endless landscapes are approaching their limits. In 2010 city cemeteries were already confronting “gridlock,” according to the New York Times, which reported that “virtually no amount of money [would] secure a final resting place in the heart of a city that is fast running out of graveyard space.” Brooklyn’s Cypress Hills Cemetery and Green-Wood Cemetery have taken to removing paths to get a bit more burial space.

So where will future New Yorkers go when they die? By 2018, the Guardian warned that a “gentrification of the dead” could force all those except the super-rich outside the city limits for interment. These issues are not exclusive to New York City. Still, as the country’s densest metropolitan area, there are particular challenges, including the lack of unused land and the saturation of extant cemeteries. To mourn loved ones within the boroughs may mean rethinking memorialization entirely. The easiest answer to the limitations of space, and the rising costs of New York City interment, is to stop burying so many people. Indeed, trends in American death practices suggest a shift away from burial. By 2035, the National Funeral Directors Association projects that nearly four out of every five dead bodies will be cremated; some existing cemeteries have adapted to serve new needs, like Green-Wood’s Tranquility Gardens, built in 2006 with the advisement of a feng shui expert. But the diverse population of New York presents a range of specific burial needs, from the hillside burials preferred by Chinese communities, to the Jewish practice of burial within 24 hours of death. And even in a more cremation-friendly future, people will likely still want physical spaces to mourn their loved ones that are accessible from urban residential areas. Whether embalmed and buried beneath a granite marker, cremated and scattered to the winds, interred in the dirt wrapped in a shroud, or placed in an urn in a columbarium, these practices require dedicated spaces that are easy to visit and affordable to a large population: an urban system of death.

Distribution of the 47 active cemeteries in New York City (some cemeteries are contiguous or share land), and footprints of active cemeteries by borough. The largest, Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, has 478 acres to Central Park’s 843. Images by Arianna Deane

Another question is whether this cultural shift away from the permanent grave, which aligns with greater urban planning concerns about sustainability, will allow for the idea that, to the extent burial persists as a practice, interment may not necessarily be permanent. Interest in “green burial,” one model of spatially and environmentally sustainable burial, is on the rise. Amy Cunningham, founder of Fitting Tribute Funeral Services in Brooklyn, predicts green burial will “go from seeming the novel request of dying progressives concerned about the ultimate carbon footprint, to the mainstream end-of-life choice of many more baby boomers.” But at present, green burial faces spatial barriers similar to those of “traditional” practices. New York City has no cemetery dedicated to it, meaning those who want an interment in which the body will decompose naturally, without the concrete and metal burial vaults lining a grave, have to seek out one of only eight burial sites approved by the Green Burial Council (GBC) in New York State (the closest to New York City is Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, with its natural burial grounds along the Pocantico River).

More than a million unclaimed bodies are estimated to have been buried in the mass graves of Hart Island since the middle of the 19th century. Because the graves on Hart Island are untitled they legally may be reused, unlike the graves in conventional cemeteries. Photo by Melinda Hunt courtesy of the Hart Island Project

However, there is one site in New York City where people are buried in plain pine boxes and interred in the earth — and where the tradition of permanence holds less sway. On Hart Island, the city’s potter’s field off the coast of the Bronx, unclaimed bodies and stillborn infants, along with others who require a public burial, are stacked in long trenches by prisoners from Rikers Island. “Hart Island already is a natural burial facility and New York City has plenty of space because these are untitled graves, they can be recycled,” said Melinda Hunt of the Hart Island Project. Recently she collaborated with UK-based landscape architects Ann Sharrock and Ian Fisher on a landscape strategy that could transform Hart Island, now difficult to access as it is operated by the Department of Correction, into a green burial site open to all.

There may be options for green burial that don’t require transforming land into a permanent cemetery with impermanent graves. On the West Coast, Recompose, a public-benefit corporation formerly called the Urban Death Project, is considering how a greener burial could happen right in city neighborhoods, where space is limited. “While green burial is a lovely concept, it takes a significant amount of land,” said Katrina Spade, the company’s founder and CEO. The Recompose process — currently being prototyped and piloted in Washington State — converts bodies into soil. An aerated vessel and wood chips encourage bacteria to quickly break down the vessel’s contents. This soil could then be used for gardens, parks, or to return a person to the earth.

 

Rendering of a hypothetical Recompose facility, wherein bodies move through vertical chambers as they become compost over a four-month period. Image by Holt Studios courtesy of Recompose

Other designers are similarly thinking beyond current models for burial and mourning. At Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP) the DeathLab, a cross-disciplinary research and design initiative, has proposed suspending lights powered by biomass — meaning the chemical and biological components of the corpse which release energy as they break down — beneath Manhattan Bridge. Called “Constellation Park,” the conceptual project is intended as an act of collective memorial that is part of the city.

“I believe public spaces that support reflection are essential elements of our global cities, and cemeteries have the capacity to be both meditative and richly celebratory,” said Karla Rothstein, DeathLAB’s founder and director. In “Constellation Park,” the transformation of a body into light would take about a year, after which the small amount of inorganic remains would be returned to the family. “In our projects, the shared civic space and experience endures while the ephemerality of corporeal existence is elegantly honored and allowed to dissipate,” Rothstein said, “Loved ones have a place to return to that is both a tribute to the deceased and a reflection of the larger, vibrant community to which they belong.” While the dead still have a long wait to light up the Manhattan Bridge, an installation at Arnos Vale Cemetery in Bristol, England, through the Future Cemetery project, is demonstrating the concept.

The proposed Constellation Park at night, looking from Brooklyn toward Manhattan skyline, and during the day, integrated with urban life. Graphics courtesy of LATENT Productions and Columbia GSAPP DeathLAB
In the Sylvan Constellation at Arnos Vale Cemetery in Bristol, England, a Methanogenetic decomposition process allows for cyclical re-use of memorial vessels and illumination in perpetuity. Graphic courtesy of LATENT Productions and Columbia GSAPP DeathLAB

150 years ago, the rural cemetery movement created spaces for mourning that were also intended as community gardens. Before Central Park was established in 1857, you could pack a picnic and take a stroll in a rural cemetery; before the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened in 1870, works by artists like Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Daniel Chester French were admired in these ornate burial grounds. More and more, our old cemeteries are again becoming civic and cultural spaces: In Washington, DC, the Congressional Cemetery raises funds for maintenance through annual passes for dog walking; in Los Angeles, Hollywood Forever Cemetery regularly hosts film screenings. In New York, neighbors already treat rural cemeteries like parks, as their architects intended, taking a coffee by a glacial pond in Green-Wood, or jogging through Evergreens Cemetery in Bushwick. Still, there are the mourners who file in on the weekends, and the funerals that add more names to the lines of stones. Eventually these places will run out of burial space, and New Yorkers who desire that form of interment will have to settle for Staten Island, New Jersey, or beyond. In the cemeteries that remain, can equilibrium be found in the balance between the idea of burial permanence that emerged in the 19th century and the necessary function of these places as engaged community spaces?

“Cemeteries provide a very important function as the final resting place of the deceased, but I think they can also now serve as an additionally important place to interact with the natural world in an urban environment,” said Joseph Charap, director of horticulture at Green-Wood. Although these cemeteries may remove some of the old winding paths, and build modern facilities for cremation, the original intent for a meditative space remains. Unlike a park, this is a place for quiet personal experience, whether that be mourning or an intimate connection with nature. With a new meadow landscape of wildflowers and grasses that supports wildlife as it sprawls around mausoleums, and tree plantings that consider future warming temperatures and storm events, Green-Wood is fostering resilient and sustainable landscapes for Brooklyn. “This was the intention of the institution to begin with,” Charap said, “It was this idealization of nature, but it also was this community resource and could provide a world class arboretum in an urban environment.”

The city’s existing cemeteries are portraits of who the city is, and who it was. They are green islands for migrating birds and other animals, who burrow alongside headstones and perch on mausoleum roofs, and they are much-needed open space for the living. With stewards like Charap and others who maintain and program their spaces, they can have a vibrant future in the city. But what of the dead? New Yorkers may become more comfortable with other forms of memorial, and with the flipping of their eternal real estate. Or, like so many living New Yorkers who are pressed for space, the dead may seek options outside of the city limits. But for the living, cemeteries provide connections to history and natural beauty. Rather than taking space away from the New Yorkers of today, these realms of the departed are resources, offering respite and reflection in a city often lacking in both.

Allison Meier is a Brooklyn-based writer and speaker, focused on visual culture, architecture, and overlooked history. She moonlights as a cemetery tour guide at New York burial grounds, and is a licensed New York City sightseeing guide.


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