On spending a day in the cemetery

On spending a day in the cemetery

Green-Wood's charms are deeply American - and somehow that's also Jewish

Green-Wood is marked by winding roads, arching trees, and artfully scattered gravesites.

It was a steamy Sunday a few weeks ago, the kind of day that covers your skin in greasy slime the second you walk out into it. The kind of day that’s made for sitting inside, curled up by your air conditioner with your iPad, gobbling content. Living in the twenty-first century.

But my sister is a Civil War buff – our mother, a librarian, gave her Rifles for Watie to read when she was in elementary school, and that was it for her. She was casting around for something to do and came up with a guided tour of Green-Wood cemetery. Her persuasiveness overcame our sloth, so her husband, my husband, and I went to Brooklyn to join her in a tour of the 1860s.

First PersonGreen-Wood Cemetery was established in 1838 – its age is apparent from the beginning, in the hyphen that divides its name. It’s huge and diverse; its winding paths, wooded glens, elaborate Victorian buildings, glacier-carved lakes, and apparently random architecture make it seem like a naturally evolving city of the dead, rather than one laid out by city planners wielding charts and straight-edged rulers. It houses the graves of all sorts of people, beginning with those born before the American Revolution, and it includes many Civil War veterans. It shelters Boss Tweed and Louis Comfort Tiffany, Horace Greeley, Henry Ward Beecher, and both Currier and Ives.

And (yes, there is a Jewish angle!) Leonard Bernstein and his family, among other Jews, are there too. The Bernsteins are in a plot at the top of a hill, separated from the other graves near them by shrubbery surrounding the graves. They are very near the statue of Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom. Looking very stern-featured and Art Deco in this incarnation, Minerva holds up a solemn frozen hand toward the Statue of Liberty, whose upraised arm is visible across the harbor, as if she were waving back.

(To add to the charming randomness, the grave behind Minerva belongs to Charles Higgins, the inventor of India ink.)

The Bernsteins are far from the only Jews buried in Green-Wood. There is a Jewish section, and Jewish graves are scattered throughout the almost 500 acres.

Green-Wood is open to everyone, of any religion. You just have to be dead to be buried there. This presents me with a paradox. Although I chose not to think about where I will be buried, I assume that some day I will join my daughter in Oradell, in the Jewish cemetery there. Insofar as I want anything for myself after I die, I want to be surrounded by other Jews. It would be the logical culmination of my life. But I adore the openness of Green-Wood, its quintessential American-ness. Everyone is there, in a jumble, Civil War veterans next to World War II veterans next to entire families felled by the influenza epidemic in 1918 next to the families whose names are familiar from Brooklyn street signs next to heroes of September 11, 2001. You can reconstruct family stories from the gravestones. (Of course, you might be entirely wrong, given that you’re making it all up, but that doesn’t stop an active imagination from trying.) There are Jews in that blend, just as we are in the world of the living, part of the huge stew that makes up this country.

Our customs, too, are finding surprising new homes for themselves. Many of the gravesites are for Italian Catholic families; the photos of formidably bearded men and black-garbed women glare harshly from some of the stones. (There are often pictures at the graves, sometimes incorporated into the stone; as far as I could see no one is ever shown smiling.) The gravestones often are topped with small rocks, as if they were Jewish graves. Apparently some non-Jews have begun appropriating the custom, as they also now frequently get married under a chuppah. As marriage and death are universal, so, it seems, is the symbolism that surrounds them.

We went to Green-Wood that humid summer Sunday for a tour of the graves of people affected by the draft riots of 1863, when many new immigrants in New York violently opposed the draft that would have sent some of them to fight the Civil War. They raged so brutally – at least 120 people were killed, some by lynching, and thousands were injured – that Union troops had to be sent directly from the killing fields of Gettysburg to contain them. Some of the victims of the riots were buried at Green-Wood. We have forgotten their history. We shouldn’t.

People often used to spend sultry summer days in the cemetery. They would think of it as a park, with memento mori conveniently built in. We don’t do that very much any more. Air conditioning has relieved us of the burden of looking for shade and stalking breezes, and we – and here by we I mean all of us Americans, Jews and non-Jews alike – are far less comfortable with death than our ancestors by necessity were.

Green-Wood is a lovely place to spend a Sunday afternoon. Its unexpected juxtapositions, its mashup of time and religion and ethnicity and style and taste, its frequent eccentricity, its lushness, its free parking, its openness, all are quintessentially American.

Just bury me someplace more Jewish.

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