Category Archives: cemetery

Winter Finally Arrived and I Saw the Snow in Green-Wood Cemetery

Green-Wood Cemetery

I love New York in snow, and this past year winter barely arrived, so I was excited to see snow in the forecast last week. It was only a dusting, but in the morning I visited nearby Green-Wood Cemetery to walk through the grounds glimmering with snow. Here are some of my photos from the winter morning, before the flakes melted away and the paths were trodden down with visitors.

By the way, if you want to join me on some winter cemetery exploration (who knows, maybe we will get more snow and sun), I’m leading a visit to Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery next Sunday with Atlas Obscura. The theme is “The Awful Dead,” so we’ll be visiting the graves of some of the coldest hearts (for winter, of course) of mob bosses, murderers, and just horrible people, and also stopping inside the usually off-limits catacombs. So sign up!

Green-Wood Cemetery

Green-Wood Cemetery

Green-Wood Cemetery

Green-Wood Cemetery

Green-Wood Cemetery

Green-Wood Cemetery

Green-Wood Cemetery

Green-Wood Cemetery

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Jersey City and Harsimus Cemetery

The world is strewn with cemeteries more or less forgotten, and while in Jersey City in New Jersey (after visiting the abandoned train station and discovering the site of the Black Tom Explosion), my adventurous friend Hannah and I walked to one of them. (If you are keeping track, this is a lot of walking for one afternoon. We estimated 8 to 10 miles.)

The Jersey City and Harsimus Cemetery is a small burial ground at around six acres, with a healthy population of woodchucks burrowing around the graves (really!) almost beneath the rumble of a highway. It gets its curious name of Harsimus from a nearby neighborhood, which derived it from a Lenape phrase meaning something like “Crow’s Marsh.”

The cemetery was established in 1829, the inaugural cemetery for the first cemetery company to start up in New Jersey (this was the time on the cusp of the rural cemetery movement and privatization of burials away from churchyards). Like the other cemeteries established in the mid-19th century, it was laid out to be a garden as well as a place for interments. Unfortunately, it was abandoned in 2008, although luckily a group of volunteers, the Friends of the Jersey City & Harsimus Cemetery, have now dedicated themselves to its upkeep. (There’s also a caretaker who lives in the house you see above.) Still, it’s far from its former garden cemetery glory, but there is a beauty in its decay.

The most interesting area of the cemetery is this sort of secluded area nestled between two forested areas. The woodchucks love it, too, and you have to watch your step or risk twisting an ankle in one of their burrows.

See! Hopefully they aren’t stealing flags off military graves like those rascally woodchucks in upstate New York.

That flag looks unstolen, at least.

Here is some documentation of me exploring and being careful for woodchuck burrows, care of Hannah’s camera.

Apparently Charles F. Durant, the first American to go up in a hot air balloon and the man who brought the silk worm to the US, is buried in the cemetery, but I didn’t see him. Many of the graves are overgrown or toppled, and others lean precariously. However, you can still detect the waves of immigration from the names, with old Dutch and English graves transitioning to Italian, German, Polish, and Russian. Immigrants to Ellis Island would often come directly to New Jersey to travel by train to the rest of the United States or even stay, so it’s not surprising to see such a diversity of surnames. There are also many Civil War soldiers, and even, oddly, some military relics that turn up, as it was used as a training ground for World War I and II.

At one point, the Jersey City and Harsimus Cemetery was so popular with visitors that tickets were charged for entry to stroll the grounds and appreciate the monuments, but now traffic is light. The cemetery friends do seem to be making an effort though to get people in with concerts and other events, which I think is great. That’s really the only way for cemeteries to survive total neglect is to get them to become a place for the living as well as the dead to appreciate the history contained in their grounds.

It looks like someone has also tried some decorating.

If you find yourself in Jersey City, stop in and check it out, there really is an amazing collection of graves here, each with stories that I’m sure are waiting to be uncovered. There is a guard you might find at the entrance, this cat with a rather furrowed brow who watched us suspiciously, but it was probably just looking out for the place. Someone has to. (Good thing it has a bit of help, too.)

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London Day 7: Cross Bones Graveyard for the Outcast Dead

[Continuing my London adventure recaps from my April trip…]

On Redcross Way in London is a red fence covered with ribbons and fake flowers, an ongoing memorial to the “outcast dead” buried under what is now a concrete lot. This place, known as the Cross Bones Graveyard, was used as a burial ground for prostitutes in medieval London, and then later for paupers into the mid-19th century when it closed in 1853.

The lot itself is off limits to the public, although the gate was unlocked so I snuck around for a quick photo of the memorial inside. Otherwise, it is totally empty, and without the tatters of fabric, strands of plastic beads, and left messages you would have no idea it was a cemetery for an estimated 15,000 people. It’s quite close to the bustle of Borough Market, but the street is much more silent and less traveled. It was in fact forgotten entirely until the 1990s, when it was rediscovered during the construction for the Jubilee subway line, which uncovered 148 skeletons in a mass grave. These skeletons included many stillborn babies, and most of the skeletons showed the effects of poor health and disease.

The prostitutes buried here in the Middle Ages were known as the Winchester Geese, and although they were buried on unconsecrated ground, they worked freely under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Winchester on the South Bank of the Thames at the Liberty of the Clink. The Liberty of the Clink was actually the estates of the Bishop, taking its name from the nearby Clink prison, and the church even made money off the prostitutes due to licensing. Although this area is now within the City of London, it was formerly outside the city boundaries and thus away from its rules. In addition to the brothels, there were other marks vice such as pubs, theatres, bear-pits, and of course prisons like the Clink.

Around the 1760s, it was a graveyard for paupers of a parish in Southwark. The ribbons on the fence are sharpied with the names of the dead, a memorial led by the Friends of the Cross Bones Graveyard, which also holds a monthly vigil.

The graveyard is part of a planned development project by Transport for London and Network Rail, which could potentially surround the cemetery with modern buildings (I think it’s unlikely they would just build over it with the public backlash it would cause). Whatever construction takes place will have to be delicate, as the graves are so close to the surface that teeth sometimes turn up in the soil (one reason it was closed was that the burials were done so shallowly as to cause a health risk as the corpses rotted in the air).

It’s impossible to look at the Cross Bones Graveyard and not think of other spontaneous memorials, whether it’s a street corner at a car crash decorated with photos and flowers for a victim, or even the Oklahoma City bombing memorial, although to compare these all on the same level of loss is impossible and oversimplifying. However, they are all driven by this need to create something to remember in places that without any sort of memorial would be anonymous to the loss attached to them.