Places that Matter

New York Marble Cemetery

Chris Neville
Chris Neville
New York's first burial place unaffiliated with a house of worship
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Enclosed by surrounding buildings for more than 150 years is a rare, undisturbed physical vestige of an earlier era in New York City. The New York Marble Cemetery was the first burial place in the city that was unaffiliated with a church. Built in 1831, at a time of urban epidemic, the mid-block lot was also unique for its grid of underground vaults that took the place of traditional--and potentially contaminant--earthen burials. There is now an active movement to restore the cemetery and encourage its continued use by the many families that own a stake in it.

Gripped by dread of contagion, New York City outlawed earthen burials south of Canal Street in 1830. Outbreaks of yellow fever had been regular since the early 1700s, and cholera had recently hit the city, foreshadowing a historic epidemic in 1832. The solid marble walls around the bodies at the new Marble Cemetery would presumably prevent the leaching of microbes into the soil. Moreover, a body could simply be inserted into its slot, instead of disturbing old burials, as was often necessary in overcrowded cemeteries elsewhere in town.

Non-sectarian, in-town vaults like the Marble Cemetery experienced a short wave of popularity in the 1830s. The neighborhood around the Bowery and close to Houston Street, then on the edge of the city, housed several such cemeteries--one other still exists, the New York City Marble Cemetery on Second Street (almost impossible to differentiate by name, it was built a year later because the first Marble Cemetery had filled immediately). During the 1840s and 50s, people continued to build similar private burial grounds in the area. There were also Methodist, Presbyterian, and Quaker burial places in the neighborhood, and an African Burial Ground on Chrystie Street. Since church ownership was simpler than ownership by a group of individuals, the sectarian burial grounds were easy to sell-off in later years. The complexity of the increasingly dispersed joint ownership of non-sectarian cemeteries is one of the reasons the Marble Cemetery is still intact.