UNDERNEATH IT ALL

People are dying to live here—but the dead have been moving out of Manhattan since the mid-19th century.

During an era when a growing urban population was crowding out Manhattan cemeteries, the legislature of New York passed the Rural Cemetery Act in 1847, authorizing commercial burial grounds in rural New York.  Existing graveyards in Manhattan were abolished and law’s enactment led to the development of a large concentration of cemeteries in Queens and Brooklyn. As an effect, burying the dead—for the first time, had become a commercial business.

Today, Queens is home to 29 cemeteries and over five million graves, making the the population of the dead twice the size of the living population.

grnwoodBrooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, New York City’s largest, founded in 1838, was one among the few rural cemeteries established prior to the Rural Cemetery Act. Before the Moses era, the rural cemetery provided a place for the general public to enjoy the outdoors amidst art and sculpture previously available only for the wealthy.

On the Cemetary’s website, Green-Wood’s historian, Jeff Richman, quotes an 1866 article in The New York Times that noted “Green-Wood is as permanently associated with the fame of our city as the Fifth Avenue or the Central Park.”

Today, the cemetery is alive and functioning. The website assures its prospective residents that, “your selection at The Green-Wood Cemetery, wherever it is situated, is guaranteed in perpetuity by the Laws of New York State.”

In 2005, however,  The New York Gazette quoted Green-Wood’s President, Richard Moylan, on the issue of Green-Wood’s space availability. “Our end isn’t imminent, but it’s coming, and to start thinking about it when you’re out of space is too late.”

And while Green-Wood’s website claims to be in the burial business, the cemetery functions  like an outdoor museum rather than just a graveyard itself. Half the bodies have been there for longer than a century, many of which belong to notable figures.

So, if the lifestyles of the famous now-dead appeal to you, the cemetery’s walking tour might just be the Sunday stroll you’ve been waiting for. It’s sort of like the Green-Wood version of Hollywood Star Tours–except you’re treckking through a graveyard, not The Hills.

The concept of charging money for gravestone tours may sound creepy, but when any cemetery runs out of space, it loses its primary source of income. Green-Wood no can longer see itself only as a place to bury the dead simply because the 478-acre cemetery is the resting place to half a million bodies. As Green-Wood becomes squeezed for space and cash, it needs to get creative about the ways to pay for properly maintaining their residents.

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