Places that Matter

Green-Wood Cemetery

click on image for slideshow
Photo courtesy of Green-Wood Cemetery
Photo courtesy of Green-Wood Cemetery
NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project co-director Ken Lustbader places a flag at the grave of Leonard Bernstein, 2016
Front gate, Chester Burger
Front gate close-up, Chester Burger
Grave stones, Chester Burger
Brooklyn Theatre Fire Monument, Chester Burger
One sculpture on the Civil War Soldiers' Monument, Chester Burger
Altar to Liberty, Chester Burger
Spring scene at the cemetery, Chester Burger
Green-Wood Cemetery, Autumn, Beth Higgins 2006, Beth Higgins
Green-Wood, Winter, Beth Higgins 2003, Beth Higgins
Green-Wood Cemetery, Angel, Beth Higgins 2006, Beth Higgins
Hillside, Saskia Kuchnicki, 2015
National Historic Landmark cemetery founded in 1838
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Place Matters Profile

Written by Saskia Kuchnicki for Place Matters and the Fall 2015 Local and Community History course of NYU's Archives and Public History Program
“You are about, kind reader, to enter and explore a still yet populous Village of the Dead. Through its labyrinths of roads and footpaths- of thicket and lawn- you will need a guide. Take one that will be silent and unobtrusive, and not unintelligent.”
(Cleaveland, Green-wood: A Directory for Visitors,1857)
Sprawling across the highest natural point in Brooklyn, it is no wonder that Green-Wood Cemetery still draws large crowds almost two centuries after its establishment. The cemetery is home to five hundred and seventy thousand ‘permanent’ residents whose headstones and mausoleums are as remarkable as the highly curated sculptures and landscape. Situated in the “wooded heights of Gowanus," the cemetery is nestled in hills carved out by a glacier some twenty thousand years ago. The cemetery’s architects took advantage of the rubble left in its wake, which supplied gravel for the roads that curve around the site’s glacial ponds.  
Founded in 1838 and designated a National Historic Landmark in 2006, the cemetery has found ways to remain relevant over the years, even as the city changes around it. By staying true to its historical values while appealing to new and diverse audiences, Green-Wood has remained a vital piece of Brooklyn’s ‘living’ history.
In the years prior to Green-Wood Cemetery, the deceased were interred on the grounds of churches and meeting houses or within the church itself. In the early nineteenth century, New York City experienced population growth that presented challenges to urban cemeteries. In 1822, there were twenty-two burial grounds that lay south of Manhattan’s City Hall. With outbreaks of yellow fever, the fear that these overcrowded cemeteries were contaminating well water spurred legislation in 1823 that outlawed burials south of Canal, Sullivan and Grand Streets. In 1851, this law was expanded to include all burials not in private vaults below Eighty-Sixth Street.
As other cities experienced similar growth and challenges, a solution came to light. With its origins in Europe, the rural cemetery movement first found roots in American soil at Boston’s Mount Auburn Cemetery in 1831. The ‘rural cemetery’ was a burial ground located outside of the city whose landscape emulated English landscape gardening.
After a visit to Mount Auburn in 1832, Henry Evelyn Pierrepont, known to some as the “first citizen” of Brooklyn, became a keen advocate of the movement. Pierrepont played a significant role in the materialization of Brooklyn after its incorporation as a city in 1834. As Chairman to the Commission organized to plan the streets, avenues and park spaces of Brooklyn, Pierrepont decided early on to isolate two hundred acres in the rolling hills above Gowanus Creek for a future cemetery. During the depression of 1837, a drop in real estate prices enabled the city to purchase the land that would become Green-Wood Cemetery.
The land became incorporated as the Green-Wood Cemetery on April 11th, 1838, with a name that “indicated that it should always remain a scene of rural quiet, and beauty, and leafiness, and verdure." Under previous ownership by the Bennet, Bergen and Wyckoff families, the area had been pasture-ground and woodlands. With the major exception of the Battle of Long Island, which took place in the area on August 26th, 1776, the grounds perfectly captured the intentions of the rural cemetery movement. Landscape architect David Bates Douglass designed a plan for Green-Wood that would ‘improve’ upon this sylvan stage but remain true to its unique assets. Although his plans were officially adopted by Green-Wood’s Board of Trustees on March 4th, 1841, Douglass began devising the landscape when he surveyed the land in 1838 with Henry Pierrepont. His legacy extends beyond the forty miles of pathways he crafted throughout the cemetery to the very essence of what green space in the city would come to mean.
In the mid-nineteenth century, the movement came to represent a shift in the way Americans thought about nature. Previously, nature had been thought of as hostile and uncouth. As Americans began to travel and understand their surroundings, attitudes towards nature shifted dramatically. Places such as Green-Wood Cemetery came to symbolize a belief that goodness and nature are connected. These spaces became a sanctuary and urban residents sought them out to escape the chaos of city life. Visitors felt they were in the presence of life, not death, though their ideas about the latter had shifted as well.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Protestant society viewed death with fear, as it was believed that very few would find their way to heaven after passing. In the nineteenth century, death was considered peaceful and beautiful. Green-Wood’s idealized natural landscaping was meant to create a harmonious effect that promoted the ideas of sanctuary, solitude, and moral contemplation.
In Green-wood Illustrated, published in 1847, Nehemiah Cleaveland described those who sought Green-Wood for these qualities:
To its silent solitudes the thoughtful would come to meditate: -here the man of business and care would often reassure his hesitating value: -and here, amid the thousand witnesses of mortality, and in all the soothing influences of the scene, the gay and reckless would read lessons of wisdom and piety.
While many who toured Green-Wood sought solitude and contemplation, others enjoyed its grounds for recreation, spending Sundays picnicking with their families or strolling along the paths. As Green-Wood’s reputation grew, it became a source of pride to New Yorkers and eventually to the nation. By the 1850s, the cemetery had become an American tourist attraction, second only to Niagara Falls. In 1860, five hundred thousand people visited the site over the course of the year. People were not only attracted to Green-Wood’s accessible natural beauty but to the collection of impressive sculptures and monuments found throughout. Among these are the works of Daniel Chester French and Augustus Saint-Gaudens, founders of the National Sculpture Society which sought to educate the public on good sculpture.
Over the years, architectural features have reflected the cemetery’s evolution in use and aesthetics. Walking throughout the grounds one finds revivals of Egyptian, Romanesque and Renaissance traditions, among others. During the Civil War, architects Richard Upjohn and Son constructed the brownstone Gothic Revival Arches at the entrance-way at Twenty-Fifth Street and Fifth Avenue, relocated here in the 1850s. The spires that reach towards the heavens, now occupied by a colony of monk parakeets that arrived sometime in the 1960s, referenced the idea of a church. In 1911, The Gothic Revival chapel was constructed by the architecture firm Warren and Wetmore, who also collaborated on Grand Central Terminal. Other leading architects, such as John Russell Pope and McKim, Mead & White, contributed to structures in the cemetery as well.
In the American conquest to counter the ills of industrialization, rural cemeteries provided encouragement for the formation of other green spaces within city limits. The public parks movement emerged in the mid-nineteenth century and parks began to supplant rural cemeteries as sites of leisure. Cemeteries continued to evolve over the late nineteenth and early twentieth century through the lawn and memorial park movements. Many older cemeteries combine features from each period, Green-Wood included. While the original northeastern section of the cemetery embodies rural cemetery influences, the Oaklawn addition has been designated for imbedded tombstones of the memorial park tradition. The western and southern expansions of Green-Wood feature flat open spaces seen in the lawn cemetery movement.
Throughout the changes enacted at Green-Wood Cemetery it has remained a desirable burial site. As the New York Times wrote in 1866, “it is the ambition of the New Yorker to live upon Fifth Avenue, to take his airings in the (Central) Park, and to sleep with his fathers in Green-Wood.” Green-Wood’s famous “permanent” residents include prominent politicians, baseball legends, artists, veterans, and inventors such as designer Louis Comfort Tiffany, artists Jean-Michel Basquiat, Emma Stebbins and Violet Oakley, politicians DeWitt Clinton and William Magear “Boss” Tweed, composers Louis Moreau Gottschalk and Leonard Bernstein, Steeplechase founder George Tilyou, medical pioneers Susan Smith McKinney-Wood (New York's first African American doctor) and Richard Isay (pyschoanalyst and LGBT rights activist), and clergyman and social reformer Reverend Henry Ward Beecher. The cemetery is also the final resting ground for over five thousand Civil War veterans, many of whom were only just discovered and whose graves were marked in recent years.
Today, Green-Wood Cemetery has become something of an ‘outdoor’ museum. Visitors stroll through the site’s now four hundred and seventy-eight acres, pausing by the four lakes or the top of Battle Hill where a bronze sculpture of Minerva looks out on the harbor. They have access to vast genealogical resources and can participate in programs and tours. Green-Wood is a place where the curious and contemplative can discover stories of the past and create new experiences in the present as they take part in Green-Wood’s ongoing, ‘living’ history.
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Bellafonte, Ginia, “Green-Wood is the Brooklyn cemetery with a velvet rope,” The New York Times, October 30, 2015, accessed November 27, 2015,
Bender, Thomas, “The "rural" Cemetery Movement: Urban Travail and the Appeal of Nature,” The New England Quarterly 47:2, (1974): 196-211.
Cleaveland, Nehemiah, Green-wood Illustrated: Issue 1, (New York: R. Martin, 1847).
Cleaveland, Nehemiah, Green-wood, a directory for visitors, (New York: Pudney & Russell, 1857).
Cleaveland, Nehemiah, Green-Wood Cemetery: a history of the institution from 1838 to 1864. (New York, 1866).
Huth, Hans, “The American and Nature,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 13:1/2 (1950): 101-149.
McDowell, Peggy and Richard E. Meyer, The Revival Styles in American Memorial Art, (Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Press, 1994).
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Richman, Jeffrey, Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, New York’s Buried Treasure (Lunenberg, Vt.: Stinehour, 1998).
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