Sunday, December 20, 2015

211. Cemeteries and How They Entice

                   Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,
                   If Green-Wood don't get you, Woodlawn must.

    In mid-nineteenth-century New York it was the dream of every dowager, and the dream of not a few elegant gentlemen as well, to be “buried by Brown from Grace,” Grace being Grace Church, the fashionable Episcopal church that still lifts its Gothic spire skyward at Broadway and East 10th Street in Manhattan, and Brown being Isaac H. Brown, the sexton of Grace Church, and the city’s definitive arbiter of taste.  It was he and he alone who decided what the “in” thing was for funerals in a given year, what the flower arrangements should be, how the casket (not the coffin) should be decorated, how the dear one should be laid out, and whether or not the casket should include a plate-glass panel to allow the deceased to be visible.  His knowledge was vast, and his decree, absolute – until the following year, when his dictate might change drastically.  (For more on Brown, see post #32, November 4, 2012.)

     To the phrase “buried by Brown from Grace” one should add “in Green-Wood,” for Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn was the desired final resting place of the elite of Gotham: a spacious landscaped park with tombs and mausoleums of granite or marble adorned with sculpted weeping willows, winged cherubs, pensive female figures, draped urns, and broken lutes.  Gone were the simple gravestones of an earlier age, and the crowded graveyards of congested Manhattan, which for reasons of health had been displaced to the outer boroughs.  Gone too were the plain pine coffins from a carpenter’s shop, replaced by polished rosewood and mahogany caskets displayed on the sidewalks of Broadway in front of the elegant shops that offered them, caskets that provoked astonished stares and wonderment from visitors from the nation’s distant provinces.  By mid-century, burials of citizens of the better sort had to be done in style.  Let’s follow one of them of them and see how a dowager of that time might have departed this earth.

Green-Wood entrance in 1891.

     Mourning is duly performed in a draped parlor steeped in romantic gloom, the mourners in the bleakest mourning, dabbing their eyes and sniffling, with visitors signing a guest book recording the dear one’s dearest friends.  Hovering in the near-distance is Isaac H. Brown himself, red-faced, ample, bald, in elegant black, and lucky they were to get him (at a price), his eye vigilantly surveying the furniture, the flowers, and the casket with silver-plated handles and a calla lily cross at the foot, and at the head, a bed of moss and evergreen with the word MOTHER in violets.  When the mourners finish their viewing, at a nod from Brown the attendants close the casket’s lid, with the dear one elegantly visible through the panel of glass, and cushioned comfortably in velvet and lace, a hint of a smile on her face, suggesting, after this world’s tribulations, the deepest  sleep and peace. 

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The ultra in how it's done today (minus the dear one).
Robert Lawton
     Six sturdy pallbearers in gray kid gloves bear the casket down the steep brownstone stoop to a black-plumed plate-glass hearse, with the dear departed visible to all and sundry, showing bystanders the status and elegance of the family.  Following the hearse are a series of shiny black carriages (most of them rented), bearing the dear one’s family in solemn procession through the streets to the waterfront, where, accompanied by only the closest, dearest kin, who are determined to see the dear one through to the end, the hearse is put aboard a ferry and borne across the East River to Brooklyn. 

     There, on that alien shore, the retinue disembark and proceed through unfamiliar wilds to Green-Wood, whose Gothic gates loom large, topped with spiky spires, and panels showing appropriate funereal scenes, the whole effect suggestive of a medieval cathedral.  Beyond those gates, opening up to mournful eyes is a pleasing vista of hillocks and ponds and fountains and planted trees, and scattered discreetly among them, noble monuments dedicated to other dear departed of like status and elegance.  Awaiting the dear one is a mausoleum of the finest marble, bearing the family’s engraved name.  Here she can rest in peace with other dear ones close about her, and all around her the soothing presence of Mother Nature, offering tranquility and ease after a lifetime of struggle and strife amid the urban turbulence of the city of New York. 

File:Anders Zorn-The Widow.jpg     Less happy, perhaps, are the prospects for the feminine bereaved, who by the rigid dictates of society must cease to be seen in public for a matter of weeks, if not months, during which they remain sequestered at their domiciles, garbed in black that will gradually yield to a dash or two of purple.  As for the males, sober clothes and a band of black crape on the topper suffice, and no confinement at home, since they must, of course, see to the running of the world.

     By 1880 the funeral director was taking charge of the entire operation, and services were held at a funeral home or church, with sermons eschewing the old fire-and-brimstone rants designed to scare mourners into virtue and compliance, replaced now by shorter spiels meant to console the bereaved and assuage their grief; as for the deceased, to get to heaven now, they had only to die – a condition that still holds today.  Clearly, this transformation of the funeral and mourning reflected the transition of the final resting place from crowded urban graveyard to the vast and soothing expanses of the landscaped cemetery.  The whole sad business of seeing off the dead had become, if not pleasant, at least less challenging, albeit at greater cost.  

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Costica Acsinte Archive

     Ah yes, the cost.  According to James D. McCabe’s New York by Gaslight, published in 1880, a first-class New York funeral could cost $2,191, the biggest items being flowers, $100; rosewood coffin, $300; Green-Wood lot, $600; and granite monument, $900.  The smallest item was gravedigger, $5, and I’m sure the poor guy, who did the meanest bit of physical work, deserved more.  (In pondering these figures, bear in mind that an 1880 dollar would be worth $22.35 today.)  McCabe’s comment: “As only the rich can afford to live in New York society, so only the rich can afford to die in it.”  And die they did, with flair.

     The preeminence of Green-Wood as a final resting place was unchallenged throughout the nineteen century, its residents including such stellar names as editor Horace Greeley, jeweler Charles Lewis Tiffany, assorted richies of the time, and the century’s most famous preacher (and sinner), Henry Ward Beecher.  To which might be added another name of dubious repute, for once, when I was traipsing Green-Wood’s vast domain while doing research for a biography, I was amazed to come across a plot bearing the name TWEED and, within it in a commanding position, the grave of the Boss himself, who, even though hounded from office by reformers and fated to die in prison, was still deemed by his family to be deserving of a distinguished last resort.

     It is in the nature of preeminence to be rudely challenged.  By the early twentieth century a tidal wave of Gilded Age arrivistes were forsaking Green-Wood for its brazen rival, Woodlawn.  Founded in the farther reaches of the Bronx in 1863, twenty-five years later than Green-Wood, this Johnny-come-lately of cemeteries was almost as vast as its rival (400 acres vs. 478) and just as lovingly landscaped, but it had been number two for decades.  Still, it had already enticed to its enchanted precincts author Herman Melville, newspaper magnate Joseph Pulitzer, pioneer suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Admiral David Farragut of Civil War fame, and, for a dash of vinegar, the much maligned Mephistopheles of Wall Street, Jay Gould. 

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A Woodlawn entrance today.
     And that was just the beginning.  In the course of the twentieth century, it gathered to its bosom such notables as Hizzoner Fiorello LaGuardia, the beloved Depression-era mayor of New York; the onetime New York State governor and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Charles Evans Hughes; author Damon Runyon; composer Irving Berlin; and jazz musicians Miles Davis and  Duke Ellington.

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The Jay Gould Mausoleum.  Mephistopheles in the Parthenon.
Anthony 22

     Was Green-Wood worried?  You bet!  What followed, and still operates today, is a sort of Harvard-Yale rivalry, or should one say Macy’s and Gimbels, or Home Depot and Walmart?  “I’ve had to cede all the jazz musicians to Woodlawn,” Green-Wood’s current president, Richard Moylan, recently lamented to a New York Times interviewer; himself a fan of classic rock, Mr. Moylan is cut to the quick when he loses a stellar musician to his rival.  But there is hope: Leonard Bernstein was buried in Green-Wood in 1990, and today, with Brooklyn in the forefront culturally, Mr. Moylan has a wish list of prominent Brooklynites whom he hopes to snag. 

     But he’s doing more than wishing.  For the last eight years Green-Wood has hosted an annual benefit gala to raise money for the maintenance of its historic grounds.  Cocktails are sipped genteelly in an area bordered by the entombed remains of the cremated, whose proximity seems not to dismay the patrician imbibers, old-school richies who view anything trendy with disgust.  The result of the latest gala: $80,000, which followed a gift of $1 million for the restoration of a greenhouse that will become a visitor center.  No question, after a long decline in prestige, Green-Wood is becoming again a place of aspirational burial, the desired last resting place of the city’s socially prominent, especially the newly arrived of Brooklyn’s bohemian elite.  Watch out, Woodlawn; Green-Wood has risen from its ashes, and I don’t mean those of the cremated.  Its spiky Gothic gates are wide open; they beckon, they entice.

      A personal note:  In distant Illinois there is a cemetery plot where my father, mother, and brother are interred, with space for a fourth deceased: guess who?  But I won’t join their merry company, for my partner Bob and I are planning to be cremated, with the ashes strewn over the waves of the cold Atlantic.  No urn, no cremains; we will vanish from this earth.

     All through my childhood my family would drive past that cemetery en route elsewhere, and my brother David often quipped, “That’s a place people are just dying to get into,” which was true enough.  When my mother, long a widow, died, my brother and I had dealings with a local funeral home.  “You can be the skinflint from New York,” he advised me, being well aware of funeral home ploys and strategies.  At the home, while waiting to see the director, we were served coffee.  When we were summoned to the director’s sanctum, David announced loudly, “Bring the coffee, Hal.  It’s the only free thing you’ll get in this place.”  (My brother was not noted for tact.)  The director took this in stride; he was probably used to eccentrics and crazies.  When we were shown de luxe caskets at a hefty price, I inquired quietly, “Do you have anything else?”  “Yes,” said the director gently, then went into another room and returned wheeling in a somewhat plainer item, which we inspected briefly and bought.  The burial itself was routine, nothing fancy.

     Years later, when my brother died, I dealt with the same director in the same funeral home.  This time there was no fuss about the coffin; having recorded our choice on the previous occasion, he simply offered a similar bit of merchandise.  But then he mentioned embalming.  “Is this necessary?” I asked.  “Oh, you want your brother to look his best, do you not?”  I didn’t argue.  They wanted me to provide clothing for the deceased, including a tie.  He didn’t wear ties, and I had none to spare, so the home generously provided that item themselves.  Whether it was included in the itemized bill they sent, I never noticed; maybe not.  Again, the burial was routine; being a carless visitor from New York, I wasn’t even pressured to go to the cemetery.  But the cemetery is still discreetly after me, occasionally sending offers of flowers at a bargain price; I decline.  My clan never went for the fancy stuff; skinflints, if you like, or just unpretentious, not given to pomp.  So it goes.

     Coming soon:  Con men, cheats, and thieves: random notes on people who have tried to cheat me and others, and miscreants who have flourished in New York, where they are legion.  And after that, Fear of Falling.

     The book:  Once again, many thanks to all those who bought my collection of posts.  Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble and elsewhere.

No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World

     ©  2015  Clifford Browder


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