Our group of nerdy Brooklynites (and aficionados) who met up for a walk of Brooklyn Heights in May again convened for some historic ambling. This time we went to my neighborhood for an exploration of Green-Wood Cemetery. I’ve mentioned Green-Wood many times before here, including recently in reference to the Battle of Brooklyn, and after a snowstorm and some winter wandering. We started at the Gothic entrance gate at 25th Street, which has a colony of green monk parrots living it is towers. The popular story is that the parrots escape from JFK in the 1960s, where they were being shipped to be sold as pets, and eventually made the cemetery their home.
It was a very hot day (temperatures here have been getting above 100 degrees), but we were ambitious and saw a good portion of the old section of the cemetery. Green-Wood was started in the mid-1800s when the putrid conditions of the church and city cemeteries forced graves to start being created outside of the city. The rural cemetery movement, which Green-Wood had a huge influence on, was focused as much on creating a beautiful park as on a memorial to the dead. It was hugely popular in the 1860s and 70s, making it the second most popular tourist destination in the States after Niagara Falls. The old section of Green-Wood has winding paths over hills amid shady oak trees. It’s believed that if Green-Wood had not been so popular, we wouldn’t have had Central Park.
After walking by the obelisk marking the Brooklyn Theater Fire of 1876, under which the 103 victims of the flames are buried, we stopped at Parsons’ Pyramid. The tomb of amateur Egyptologist Albert Ross Parons has a mix of Egyptian and Christian icons, including the symbol of Osiris over the door.
We continued our climb up to Battle Hill, which was a site in the Battle of Brooklyn and has the statue of Minerva gesturing at the Statue of Liberty, as well as the Civil War Soldiers Monument. At this height, there are also gorgeous views of Manhattan.
We wound back down the hill toward the Chapel, designed by by the same people who did Grand Central Terminal. Inside, we savored the air conditioning and the ornate ceiling and stained glass. Next to the Chapel, we saw the unsettling Receiving Tomb, where bodies would be stored in winter when the ground was too frozen to dig. Outside the Chapel is also Valley Water, one of the glacial ponds at Green-Wood. About 18,000 years ago, the glacier that cover much of what is now New York City started to melt, and as it moved it left behind boulders (such as those seen in Central Park) and carved hills in the land. This is what left the elevated area in Brooklyn, including Green-Wood Cemetery, and these ponds. At the corner of Valley Water, we saw the graves of Clifton and William Prentiss, brothers who were fatally wounded on the same day during the Civil War as they fought on opposite sides.
We stopped by the ultra-modern Tranquility Garden, made of steel, granite, and glass around a koi pond. It’s designed for cremated remains, which are held in small pavilions decorated with orchids. It is quite tranquil, with an edge of something rather creepy.
The tomb of John Matthews, inventor of the soda fountain, is one of the most elaborate and insane in Green-Wood. It’s towering and covered with carved gargoyles, forest animals, dogs, and cats.
And below all that boisterous flora and fauna, John Matthews is in repose, looking up at carvings from his life. People have left him coins around his hand, more than enough for a few boat trips in the netherworld.
We ended our walk at Sylvan Water, another of the glacial ponds. It’s ringed by mausoleums and we sat on the steps of one by the water.
We recovered from the heat in a nearby Mexican restaurant and are already plotting our return to Green-Wood Cemetery in the fall, when we plan to visit some of the more distant corners of the cemetery. If you’re interested in joining us, let me know!