New York Times: Where the Bodies Aren’t Buried

July 19, 2009

Kestutis Demereckas, a tall, broad son of Lithuania who favors classic white headstones over the shiny black ones, stood grinning over a coffin-size patch of grass in Green-Wood Cemetery that was marked with nothing at all. Below the grass, in a shady part of Section 79, near the center of the sprawling cemetery, was his most recent discovery in the final resting place of half a million bodies stacked three deep.

It was not the grave of another in a series of Green-Wood’s “notable residents,” whom Mr. Demereckas helps the cemetery research and promote, like the heavy-lidded pianist and matinee idol Louis Moreau Gottschalk, who died at age 40 in Brazil in 1869 after — or, some say, while — performing a piece titled “Morte!!”

Nor was it one of Green-Wood’s more infamous or more colorful residents: not William Poole, better known as Bill the Butcher, the Five Points gang leader shot dead in 1855; not Joey Gallo, the Mafioso gunned down while celebrating his 43rd birthday in Umberto’s Clam House in Little Italy in 1972; not Lola Montez, who bewitched audiences with her Spider Dance, wherein she tore off clothing as if a tarantula had crawled up her sleeve, and who since 1861 has lain beneath a headstone bearing her given and less-bewitching name, Eliza Gilbert.

No, Mr. Demereckas was standing over something far rarer at Green-Wood, which is a national landmark and Brooklyn institution. Not a body, but the absence of one. Dirt — a plain patch of earth long enough and wide enough in which to dig a fresh grave. An empty spot.

Because at Green-Wood Cemetery, founded in 1838, space below ground for the newly departed is running out. Mr. Demereckas, an engineer who grows roses in his backyard and has spent the last 17 of his 54 years working at the cemetery, literally knows where the bodies are buried. Now he needs to know where they are not.

“Sometimes I work three or four days, only to find no room,” said Mr. Demereckas, who speaks four languages, including English (delivered with a heavy accent), and is known by co-workers as Kestas. It is painstaking work that requires locating, with accuracy to the inch, graves that are more than 100 years old and often unmarked. “Nobody thought, ‘Someday Kestas will come looking for graves.’ ”

Burials at Green-Wood, New York City’s largest cemetery, peaked in its earliest years; more than half the bodies have been there for more than a century.

Things slowed in recent decades, with the rise in popularity of cremation and the proliferation of cemeteries in and around New York. Since 2000, Green-Wood has had an average of 1,300 burials a year, compared with 7,100 a year between 1856 and 1863. And most of those 21st-century burials have been in plots purchased years ago.

The 478-acre cemetery, roughly bounded by Fifth Avenue, 20th Street, McDonald Avenue, Fort Hamilton Parkway and 37th Street, sold 232 graves and lots last year, 185 in 2007. Three bodies are generally buried atop one another in a single lot that can cost $9,000 to $20,000, depending on the size and distance from neighbors. A roomy family parcel for nine can fetch $60,000.

For decades, Green-Wood has added new plots by closing roads and paths deemed less valuable than the precious square footage below. That requires permission from the New York State Association of Cemeteries, which regulates the industry.

In 1994, Mr. Demereckas created 338 lots in Section 5, back to back in the curving telltale shape of Dale Avenue, which they replaced. He has since added hundreds more graves where people once strolled between them, this year grassing over Nannie Wood Path and Lilac Path in Sections 8 and 5, near the traffic of 37th Street in the outside world, yielding 110 grave sites.

That is relatively easy. You know at the outset there are no bodies under the path. The real challenge is finding havens hidden among the headstones.

So far this year, Mr. Demereckas has created 21 new lots in the neighboring central sections numbered 70 and 79. He foresees 12 more— 15 if he is lucky — in another central area, Section 80.

“When we started, we closed paths and roads and it was enough,” he said. “Now, closed last path. We have to find space in between. I’ve done little bit before, but not to this scale.”

Mr. Demereckas moved from Lithuania to New York in 1989, shortly after marrying an American woman, and settled in an apartment near Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. He held a variety of jobs before hiring on at Green-Wood in 1992 as a groundskeeper, to help pay the bills while he was studying engineering at New York University.

“I didn’t think to stay more than one season,” he said. But when he was put on a waiting list for an engineering job with the city, Mr. Demereckas returned to Green-Wood to find that Louis Pagan, a longtime surveyor who lost a hand in World War II, had retired.

“I asked for the job,” Mr. Demereckas recalled. “They didn’t know me. I was grass-cutter.” He shrugged at his good timing. “They gave me job.” Eugene Adamo, a Green-Wood vice president, said the cemetery briefly used outside surveyors for its occasional road-closings until Mr. Demereckas took over.

“Once Kestas became familiar with the old lot books and things of that nature, you saw the difference in the work,” Mr. Adamo said. “Everything was more precise.”

The city eventually called with a job offer, but Mr. Demereckas was happy where he was.

He learned the cemetery foot by foot, hill by hill, stone by stone.

He has his favorite grave markers, like the haunting sculpture, cast in bronze, of a woman slumped in grief, a fallen bouquet at her side, said to honor a woman slain at her wedding. He has become an expert in stories like the one behind the Gothic Revival tabernacle and arched canopy of Charlotte Canda: She was thrown to her death from a horse-drawn wagon in Greenwich Village on the way home from a party on her 17th birthday in 1845. When her father discovered that Charlotte had made sketches for a graveside monument for an aunt, he hired sculptors to build it for her own grave. Several feet away lies Charles Albert Jarret, Charlotte’s fiancé, who killed himself the next year.

And Mr. Demereckas has made dark discoveries, one of them when he went looking for space in what is known as the Hill of Graves, on the west side of the cemetery. “I have to check lots, and I asked, ‘Why are these lots so small?’ And I find out. Babies.” As much as he savors the thrill of exploration and love of the cemetery’s history, Mr. Demereckas enjoys just walking around the place. He pauses for things of interest, living and dead: waving to a digging crew, watching a hawk fly off with a mouse hanging from its beak. “I work outside,” he said. “It’s nice. The bosses can’t call.”

He pointed out the grave of James Davis, a New York city councilman shot dead in City Hall in 2003. His killer, a political rival named Othniel Askew, was fatally shot by a police officer moments later and was also buried at Green-Wood — until Mr. Davis’s family found out, and demanded that Mr. Askew’s remains be removed.

An old man stood at a grave nearby, staring down at the stone. “We made that foundation, for a girl,” Mr. Demereckas said in a low voice. “He is the grandfather, I think. I see customers when I’m working.”

Nine years ago, Mr. Demereckas was on his annual visit to his small hometown, Laukuva, in the western part of Lithuania, when his father suffered a stroke. Two weeks later, he was dead, at age 77.

Mr. Demereckas visited the local cemetery, only to be told there was no space available. But he saw plenty of room on the property; it just had not been properly surveyed. “I said, ‘I can help,’ ” he said. “I staked out lots. That was enough for more than half a year.”

He hoped to mark the grave with a replica of a favorite Green-Wood monument: a large stone cross over which a girl is draped, as if exhausted by sadness. “It’s pretty simple: Memory, love, respect,” Mr. Demereckas said, standing before the stone, which itself stands over the graves of a lawyer, Howard A. Sperry (1853-1940) and his family. “Death is not a happy thing, no matter what you think is after.”

“I had sculptor that could make,” he recalled, “but cost, I could not afford.”

So he placed a simple wooden cross over the grave, which was his father’s wish, instead, and later designed a modest stone of red granite, with his parents’ names and dates of birth and death. He wanted to include a mention of his father’s military service, but his mother, before she died in 2002, said no, keep it simple.

In 1997, Mr. Demereckas’s wife, Ruta, with whom he has three children, fell ill at age 39, and needed a bone marrow transplant. She asked him to find her a grave at Green-Wood.

He hated the idea, but he could not refuse her. They drove around the cemetery together, Mr. Demereckas dutifully pointing out lots. “I know ground,” he said. “I wanted a spot with nice sand.”

He found just such a spot, where Sassafras Avenue meets Vine Avenue, near the top of the cemetery, amid old trees and old graves.

And he did nothing. “I said no. I’m afraid for bad luck.”

His wife made a full recovery.

“First thing I do is to look at map,” Mr. Demereckas said of the complicated quest to find empty ground among the existing lots.

He often consults 1875 and 1895 surveys of the cemetery, veritable works of art, from the intricate inking of the roads and paths to the gentle swirls of cursive labeling of each clear rectangular lot. They are signed in neat script by a surveyor named Lindsay Wells, Mr. Demereckas’s predecessor at the job by more than 100 years.

“I have incredible respect for this man, Lindsay Wells,” Mr. Demereckas said. “When I saw, first time, drawings, I was very impressed. I was jealous.”

He looked to see where Mr. Wells was buried, and was puzzled to find no sign of him in the cemetery he seemed to have loved. “It’s strange,” Mr. Demereckas said. So strange that he kept looking, then: “I found him!” he said on a recent afternoon.

The plot was not listed in Mr. Wells’s name in the first record book he had consulted because, Mr. Demereckas said, “he bought an addition to a relative’s lot, in Section 58,” not far from the entrance — prime real estate even back when he was buried in 1898. He located the spot on a map, then sped out to see it. The gray, granite headstone bearing Mr. Wells’s name included a phrase: “I have kept the faith.”

“He worked for Green-Wood 52 years,” Mr. Demereckas said. “Imagine. He was very responsible. Very, very serious.”

He turned back to the 1895 map — Mr. Wells’s last — and found the spot he was standing on. “He marked that lot with his hand,” Mr. Demereckas said with amazement. “Three years before he died. He found the space.”

In seeking empty space today, Mr. Demereckas uses recent maps and records to determine how many burials have taken place in each lot. Some have no headstones, and many lot markers — small plates in the ground at the four corners — have been lost to time.

To the naked eye, a patch of grass may look untouched, but the map will show that several burials took place there decades ago. To find the exact spots in the ground, Mr. Demereckas must start from the nearest marked grave and measure out, estimating four by nine feet for every grave and a narrow space in between. “You start to work like puzzle,” he said. “You leave alleyway for error. Not for my error, but for somebody’s error.”

Back when the cemetery first opened, a lot was 14 feet by 27 feet, with room for 36; nowadays it is more likely to be 9 feet by 4 feet, for three. Mr. Demereckas is occasionally frustrated by lots that were purchased decades ago but barely filled. “I see lots for 12, with just one burial — no stone,” he said. “We would like to try to buy back, but we can’t find relatives.”

Measurements complete, Mr. Demereckas takes his maps outside for a reality check. Sometimes, he worries about detracting from existing graves. “Extra space I would like, but I’m leaving extra spaces for little urn gardens,” he said. “I am trying not to go through every square inch to use.”

One afternoon, a foreman beckoned Mr. Demereckas to a spot where a crew was creating a new set of plots. Three long cardboard tubes the width of a basketball lay near a 9-foot-deep hole. Each would be placed vertically into the ground and filled with concrete, heading a stack of three coffins placed atop one other in the plot, forming the foundation for the headstone.

“I just wanted to make sure the measurements were right,” said the foreman, Lester Masajada, 35. “When you pour the concrete, that’s it.”

He and Mr. Demereckas conferred over a map, and the tubes were placed into the hole. Then Mr. Masajada signaled to Vincent Palazzo, sitting in a backhoe squeezed between old headstones like a giant bug on the grass, to replace the dirt in the hole and secure the tubes.

“They buy them as fast as we make them,” Mr. Palazzo said. “They want to keep the job going, they have to close more paths.”

As recently as 2002, Green-Wood estimated that it would be out of space by 2008. Then Mr. Demereckas started making new lots; now there are enough to last another seven or eight years. Still, Mr. Demereckas expects to be the man who plots its last grave.

“When I retire, there’s nothing to do,” he said. “There will be nothing left. Mr. Obama could ask. We have nothing.”

Many cemetery employees choose to spend eternity there, with a discount for themselves and loved ones. Some do not get to choose: in the gently curving line of headstones that used to be Dale Avenue, there is one for Danny Ortiz, who died in a motorcycle accident in 1995. He had been part of a digging crew at Green-Wood, with no way of knowing, as he worked on Mr. Demereckas’s first closed-off path, that he was digging his own grave’s foundation. Beneath the headstone, a second, smaller stone reads, simply, “Digger.”

Mr. Demereckas is asked a question from time to time by friends, by colleagues, by visitors to the grounds. The most personal one of all.

Maybe it is the memory of the search for his wife’s grave, or maybe it is simply the idea of driving by the spot every day, but he cannot — or will not — buy his own grave at Green-Wood.

“For me?” he said, and shook his head. “I don’t know.”

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