A lot of people live in New York, which is part of what makes the city so great. But it comes with a corollary that’s a bit of a downer: a lot of people die there, too.
Luckily, back in the mid-19th century, someone had the foresight to set aside some future prime real estate for some pretty cool cemeteries, among them Green-Wood in Brooklyn, Woodlawn in the Bronx and Calvary in Queens. They’re all worth a visit, but for different reasons: Green-Wood has the most beautiful grounds, Woodlawn has the most intriguing monuments, and Calvary has the best views.
If you think visiting cemeteries is a bit creepy, you would never have made it as an 1860s tourist. At that time, Green-Wood Cemetery — an early example of the “rural cemetery” movement imported from Europe — had become one of the country’s premier attractions, ranking up there with Niagara Falls. Half a million people visited a year, and that’s just counting the live ones.
In his book “Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery: New York’s Buried Treasure,” Green-Wood’s historian, Jeff Richman, notes that New York at the time had few public parks and little public sculpture, which partly explains the attraction. He also 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.”
And that was before so many famous people were buried there, among them F. A. O. Schwarz of toy fame, Samuel Morse of code fame, Charles Ebbets of Dodgers fame, Boss Tweed of corruption fame and Louis Comfort Tiffany of stained glass fame. It was also before the monk parrots were there — in one of the oddest twists of cemetery history, the squawking green guys escaped from a shipment at Kennedy Airport and settled into the ornate towers of the entrance gate, where they squawk still.
Mr. Richman has also written two attractive booklets, for sale at the cemetery, that offer extraordinarily precise and detailed two- to three-hour walking tours.
Woodlawn Cemetery is also a vast bucolic (albeit landscaped) refuge, but its vibe is entirely different: elaborate, often columned mausoleums make you feel at times as if you’re wandering through a scaled down amalgam of ancient Greece and Egypt.
Some of the mausoleums were designed by famous architects like John Russell Pope of Jefferson Memorial fame and the firm McKim, Mead & White, and are indeed impressive. But even Susan Olsen, the executive director of Friends of Woodlawn Cemetery, a nonprofit group, acknowledges that it’s a bit much. “We’re the McMansion of cemeteries,” she said
Among the many names buried with impressive memorials, there’s the Ionic-columned tomb of Augustus D. Juilliard, industrialist and benefactor of the Juilliard School, and the Egyptian-style temple, flanked by two sphinxes, that houses F. W. Woolworth. (James Cash Penney is buried nearby, and although the Woolworth mausoleum is many times grander, Mr. Penney has the last laugh: his stores are still in business.)
Not all the famous were so ostentatious. The La Guardia family monument, near which the former mayor and airport namesake Fiorello is buried, is modestly tucked under two charming mini-evergreens. Duke Ellington and Miles Davis are across the road from each other; Mr. Davis’s grave is the more noticeable, engraved with a trumpet and a line of music from his piece “Solar.”
Woodlawn doesn’t have the fancy guidebooks of Green-Wood, but the guards will give you a map that shows the way to its most famous residents (bring a magnifying glass). If you have a special interest in, say, Medal of Honor winners, you can call Ms. Olsen in advance (718-920-1470) and she’ll map out a walk for you.
Calvary Cemetery is not as prepared for visitors. There are no free maps readily available highlighting the gravesites of famous residents, although findagrave.com will even tell you what section, lot, range and grave number many of the politicians, entertainers and mobsters are in. (But it’s still impossible to find them.)
But Calvary — or more specifically First Calvary, the part south of the Long Island Expressway and west of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway — is best admired for its dramatic setting: tucked in among highways, residential neighborhoods, industrial buildings and Newtown Creek, with views of Manhattan rising as a backdrop.
The best views are from Sections 7 and 48 — use the posted map to help you. Section 7 is more spectacular, as elegant obelisks and other monuments point skyward in the foreground, blending in seamlessly with the skyscrapers of Midtown far beyond, as if Ms. Chrysler and Mr. E. S. Building were buried in the distance. Section 48 has cleaner city views, but its headstones are mostly smaller and simpler, reducing the drama quotient.
If you stick around for a while, impure ideas may enter your head. Like, how much would this land be worth to real estate developers? And wouldn’t it make a great horror film to have some wrong-headed futuristic city administration allow condos to be built over the cemeteries, causing Fiorello La Guardia and Miles Davis and F. A. O. Schwarz and a handful of mobsters to rise from their graves to haunt the living?
Note: Once these thoughts do occur to you, it is time to move on to the next item on your weekend agenda.
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Green-Wood Cemetery, 500 25th Street, Brooklyn; (718) 768-7300; www.green-wood.com. Winter visiting hours: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Subway: R train to 25th Street; walk one block to cemetery.
Woodlawn Cemetery, the Bronx. Enter at Jerome Avenue at Bainbridge Avenue; (718) 920-0500; www.thewoodlawncemetery.org. Visiting hours: 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Subway: No. 4 train to Woodlawn.
First Calvary Cemetery, Long Island City, Queens. Enter at Greenpoint Avenue and Gale Street; (718) 786-8000; Web site not currently working. Hours: 8 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. Subway: No. 7 to 33rd Street; walk down 33rd Street, go left on Hunters Point Avenue and right on Greenpoint Avenue. Or leave the subway at the Hunters Point exit and take the Q67 bus to Greenpoint Avenue.
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