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A Final Resting Place and Its Afterlife: Woodlawn Cemetery Is Transforming Into a Cultural Institution…But for Now, Bring Out Your Dead

aerial photo 1921 A Final Resting Place and Its Afterlife: Woodlawn Cemetery Is Transforming Into a Cultural Institution...But for Now, Bring Out Your Dead

Aerial photo of Woodlawn Cemetery from 1921. (Courtesy Resnicow Schroeder)

This is how life works: a person is born and then begins dying.

The person lives for a short period of time or an average period of time or a longer than average period of time. One day, either suddenly or after a long or short period of suffering, or maybe peacefully in his or her sleep in the way that is referred to as natural, the person dies. The person has a family or has no family or has a family but does not speak to them. Perhaps the person is remembered by a lot of people he or she never even met, but more likely, the person dies and is only remembered by close acquaintances and family (this is probably the case even, or really especially, with the family that is not on speaking terms). Then those people in the family or those close acquaintances also die and they are remembered or not remembered by their own separate close acquaintances and family and so forth. Every person becomes an “it.” What do we do with it, the family or the close acquaintance asks, as in, “What do we do with the body?” Worldwide, around two people die every second. Close to 120 people, give or take, have died in the time it has taken you to read this paragraph—that is a lot of “its” to deal with.

There are more than 1,700 not-for-profit cemeteries listed on the New York State Division of Cemeteries website, and about 30 of them are inside the limits of New York City. At some point in the near future, “near” being relative to, well, eternity, all of them will run out of space if they haven’t already. This is one consequence of the fact that everyone dies, though probably not one that you spend much time thinking about.

Depending on whom you ask, Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, which began a lengthy 150th anniversary program this year that will culminate in 2014 with an exhibition at the Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University, has anywhere between 20 and 100 years left as an active cemetery (that’s the industry term for a place that still has open burial plots for sale). Some 300,000 people are buried there—Herman Melville, Fiorello La Guardia and Miles Davis among them—and there will be many more to come. It was only in the last decade or so that many of America’s cemeteries, taking a cue from Mount Auburn in Cambridge, Mass. (the final resting place of the poet Robert Creeley), began establishing themselves as nonprofits and, paradoxically for places that are so literally about the past, thinking about the future. Probably more than any other cemetery in the country, Woodlawn has already taken major steps toward preserving itself as a kind of outdoor museum: in 2006, the cemetery donated its papers to Columbia’s Avery Library (in all, they comprise 800 linear feet). In 2011, the U.S. Department of the Interior designated the cemetery as a National Historic Landmark, making sure that, like the mausoleums that bear the names of certain long-forgotten, once-powerful families, it will survive long after its active life is over.

Susan Olsen, Woodlawn’s historian for the past 11 years, drove me around the cemetery in a Lexus last week and told me about the monuments and how cemeteries have changed over the decades.

“We have 20 acres left at Woodlawn,” she said, “and we’re very cautious with this space, as far as the use of in-ground burial as opposed to above-ground burial. Compared to most New York cemeteries, we’ve got a considerable amount of land left, but it’s the changing demographics of how people are using that land that is important.”

She said the trend in burial right now is cremation and that it’s “hugely on the rise.” For a cemetery that’s eventually going to run out of unused space, that’s a good thing: When Ms. Olsen started working at Woodlawn, back when the cemetery buried about 1,200 bodies in the ground and cremated as many more each year, there was 50 years of space left; the annual cremation rate has risen to 2,500 and Ms. Olsen now estimates Woodlawn has another 100 years of new sales.

The first cremation in America took place in Washington, Pa., in December 1876. The body was that of Baron De Palm; the crematory was built by Francis Julius LeMoyne. At the time, it was seen as a pagan ritual and caused a media sensation, until a few queasy journalists decided to watch the body burn. Cremation, no longer taboo, takes up less space, but comes with its own problems.

“Our biggest challenge,” Ms. Olsen said, “is people thinking, ‘Oh, I’ll just scatter these. I don’t need to have this space where I commemorate the person I’ve lost.’ We are trying to get the public to realize it’s important to memorialize everyone.”

The car pulled up to Miles Davis’s grave, a simple but large stone with a trumpet and several bars of music engraved on it. Davis wanted to be buried here for the same reason jazz musicians from all over the world do: because it’s where Duke Ellington’s grave is. They want to be buried as close to Ellington as possible. The constellation of graves around Ellington’s includes Lionel Hampton, Max Roach, Illinois Jacquet and George Wein, the founder of the Newport Jazz Festival, who isn’t dead, but his wife Joyce is, so the numbers on the other end of the hyphen after his birth year are still blank. The different pockets of Woodlawn are miniature neighborhoods—the jazz musicians are in one corner, the philanthropists in another, the industrialists in their own precinct, all the monuments communicating and competing with one another. Ms. Olsen calls it a “little city.”

When Woodlawn was established in 1863, its owners weren’t sure if the idea of a cemetery would take off. They used Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, which is 25 years older and still one of Woodlawn’s major competitors, as a cautionary tale: Green-Wood developed a large chunk of its land into grave sites all at once and went millions of dollars into debt; Woodlawn took a more scattered approach, which led to its metropolitan-like development.

In the late 1800s, cemeteries were tourist attractions because of their unprecedented rural landscapes and giant concrete monuments, which resembled chapels or houses and were often as expensive as a large apartment in Manhattan. As we drove past the Coster mausoleum, Ms. Olsen said casually that it was “one of our lawsuit mausoleums.”

Cornelia Coster, who died April 1, 1894, left her entire $400,000 estate to Woodlawn for the purchase of a plot of land and the construction of a mausoleum for her, her husband—who died some years before her—and her parents. Her will was executed the night before she died and, in 1903, it was contested by her relative Charles A. Sands on behalf of his mother, Elizabeth Sands, the half-sister of Ms. Coster’s father. The charge was that Ms. Coster was of an unsound mind when she wrote the will—she was declared insane by the court in 1892, though the ruling was retracted one year later. Predictably, though perhaps unfortunately for her relatives, Ms. Coster’s wishes prevailed.

Family feuds aside, it’s because people put so much money into their monuments that Woodlawn has attracted the attention of architectural scholars and curators. Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen, curator of American decorative arts at the Metropolitan Museum who is helping organize Woodlawn’s 150th anniversary exhibition, went out to the cemetery a few years ago hunting for stained glass windows by the famed but short-lived Tiffany Studios. She discovered that her mother-in-law, who is buried in a family plot at Woodlawn, has Tiffany stained glass inside her own mausoleum and that one design drawing that was in the Met’s collection was actually a plan for a window of the Kate A. Harbeck mausoleum. That structure, designed by architects John Merven Carrère and Thomas Hastings, is 90 feet high—larger than most rural churches (or, certainly, New York apartments).

One of the problems with organizing an exhibition around an active cemetery is that it’s still a kind of sacred ground, and very personal for people. Charles Warren, an architect who is co-curating the exhibition at Columbia, said they are working on convincing families to loan things like stained glass while the objects are in the process of restoration.

“It’s a great idea, but it’s a difficult one,” he said. “There are 300,000 people buried there. Any one person can cooperate or not. The big mausoleums—they’re buildings. They’re chapels. Some of them have astonishing interiors and stained glass. Making them available to the public can be a sensitive thing. It has to be handled very carefully.”

Mr. Warren was also involved in getting the Woodlawn archives to Columbia’s Avery Library, one of the great fine arts and architectural archives in the world. He was researching a book and digging through the dusty archives, where, he said, “Roll after roll of remarkable drawings were being pulled off of these old shelves. It worried me.” He called Janet Parks at Avery.

“I think I went there thinking, ‘So what is it you want to show me here?’” Ms. Parks said. “But then I saw this incredible, unbroken record.”

It is, for the time being anyway, the largest collection Avery has ever accepted. Woodlawn saved everything, from receipts for concrete to scribbles on paper scraps doing out the math for some measurement, to extensive blueprints that are works of art in and of themselves. One particularly good find I made when I looked at the archives was this note about the Harbeck mausoleum from 1919, written on Woodlawn letterhead: “Dear sir, the mausoleum of Mrs. Harbeck was struck by lightning on Saturday … the filial with its base is about 10 feet high. This was moved horizontally several inches and some of the caved projections broken off and thrown to the ground … Apparently no damage has been done to the interior.”

Ms. Olsen said she had no idea what kind of treasure trove she had been sitting on, but she also said, ultimately, the archives are so extensive because of laziness. When Woodlawn’s Manhattan office space closed in 1982, its entire contents were stashed in the cemetery basement—no one felt like sorting anything out.

It’s rare for a functioning cemetery to donate its records, but Woodlawn straddles a delicate line between burial ground and the embrace of an interested public. For now, though, there’s still plenty of space available. Land sells for $220 per square foot. You could buy an empty mausoleum designed by John Russell Pope (he did the Jefferson Memorial) for about $4 million. Or a casket burial, which starts at $7,100. Or not. Ms. Olsen mentioned that a lot of people don’t reserve a space for themselves in a cemetery while they are still alive. They’re superstitious.

mmiller@observer.com

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