7 Things You Didn't Know about Greenwood Cemetery

Originally posted on July 29, 2022 3:00 pm
Updated on July 21, 2022 2:48 pm

Located right between Brooklyn’s Sunset Park and Park Slope lies the infamous Greenwood Cemetery. Founded in 1838, Greenwood was one of the first rural cemeteries in the U.S. By the 1860s, Greenwood had become known for its magnificent and beautiful structures and is a prestigious place to be buried. The cemetery is 478 acres, filled with glacial ponds, paths, hills, and most importantly, 560,000 “permanent residents.” What used to be a popular tourist location, is now considered a hidden gem, despite the size. Let’s dive into some secrets that you didn’t know about Greenwood Cemetery.

Greenwood Cemetery Facts

1. Cemetery celebrities

Buried on the grounds of the cemetery are some famous names that you might even know. Just below your feet lies Jean-Michel Basquiat, Leonard Bernstein, Horace Greeley, Boss Tweed, Charles Ebbets, Louis Comfort Tiffany, politicians, Civil War generals, inventors, and many other notable people from their times.

2. War history

Here lie thousands of Civil War veterans. According to the Greenwood Historic Fund, in September 2002, Greenwood’s historian Jeff Richman along with the Greenwood Historic Fund launched the Civil War Project to help identify veterans of the war. It was first thought that with the research, they would find about 500 veterans, but the numbers were far more than that. With the help of volunteers, news sources, pension records, New York State Military Museum records, online databases, Greenwood’s Burial registry, and numerous other sources, more than 5,200 Civil War veterans were buried on-site. This included generals and privates from both the Union and Confederate sides, members of the Sanitary Commission, nurses, and a 12-year-old drummer boy. The Greenwood Historic Fund says that this project is still ongoing, with the goal of identifying all individuals who had a connection to the Civil War.

There are also veterans from WWI and WWII buried at the cemetery, with the Greenwood Historic Fund seeking help to identify individuals.

3. Once a top NYC tourist attraction

During the mid-19th century of NYC history, Greenwood Cemetery was the place to visit. Since the cemetery opened in 1838, it was regarded as one of the first landscaped public sites in NYC. Visitors were attracted to this place as they would be to a park. People came in crowds to enjoy family outings, carriage rides, picnics, view sculptures, and walk along the shaded paths. The cemetery once attracted 500,000 visitors a year, making it the second most popular tourist attraction in New York State compared to Niagara Falls. Believe it or not, Greenwood Cemetery’s popularity helped inspire the creation of public parks like Prospect Park and Central Park.

4. A tale of loyalty and love

While the cemetery houses all kinds of people from different stories and backgrounds, one of the most heartbreaking stories lives right inside a tomb, with the key long gone. A Brooklyn merchant named Jonathan Reed was so devoted to his wife that when she died in 1893, he bought a mausoleum in the cemetery. She was peacefully laid to rest, while there was also an empty coffin for Reed when he would eventually pass. Reed furnished the tomb just like a living space, full of paintings, an oil stove, photos of Mary, and her knitting. For the next ten years, Reed never missed a day of visiting Mary. He would come in the mornings when the cemetery opened, talk to Mary, dine in the tomb, and read to her until he had to go home. Word got out and visitors would come by and observe Reed’s love for Mary. Finally, in 1905, he was found on the mausoleum floor with his arms outstretched towards Mary. He had died of a stroke and was laid to rest beside his wife. The tomb is now locked and hasn’t been opened since.

5. Amazing architecture

The prominent Gothic architecture is hard to miss when you enter through the main entrance of the cemetery. The cemetery itself was designed by one of the most prominent architects of the time, David Bates Douglass. The intention of the design was to create a peaceful and natural setting. To this day, much of Douglass’s plan is still in place with its road systems and plantings, but the roads have been paved since. There are several monuments and mausoleums in the cemetery as well. They are all designed in a variety of different styles including Gothic, Classical, Egyptian, and more. Some of these monuments and mausoleums were even designed by notable architects of the time such as Warren and Wetmore, Minard Lafever, and Richard Upjohn.

Upjohn designed the gates of the cemetery. The main entrance double-gate at 25th Street has panels depicting biblical scenes of death and resurrection. A fun fact is that since the 1970s, monk parakeets have lived on top of the main gates. It is said they scare off pigeons whose excrement is highly acidic and can wear away at the buildings.

There is a chapel that sits near the entrance of the cemetery. It was designed by Warren and Wetmore, the same people who designed Grand Central Station, and the chapel was completed in 1913. It’s built in a Gothic style and was made a city landmark in 2016.

6. Standing statues

Before Greenwood Cemetery was actually known as a cemetery, people didn’t think to bury their loved ones there. It was only known as a place to take day trips. But when DeWitt Clinton, the sixth governor of New York, and mayor of NYC was buried at Greenwood in 1844, people started to take the hint that this was a prestigious place to be buried. Clinton’s burial site is decorated with a huge, bronze statue of himself.

Another famous statue located at Greenwood is Lady Liberty’s sister, Minerva. The bronze statue of Minerva details the goddess of wisdom and strategic warfare. She stands on top of Battle Hill, commemorating the first and largest battle that resulted in a loss during the Revolutionary War. Minerva purposefully faces the Statue of Liberty, saluting the torch of freedom.

7. Greenwood’s trees

The Greenwood Cemetery is many things: a historic landmark, a sculpture garden, and a top attraction. But did you know that it’s considered an arboretum with one of NYC’s biggest tree collections? The cemetery is home to almost 7,000 trees. According to the Greenwood Historic Fund, an expert from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden even said that the cemetery has the best collection of mature trees in NYC. The two oldest trees are the Camperdown Elm and Sassafras. The Sassafras is believed to be the oldest of its kind in NYC. The tree may date back to when Greenwood opened in 1838. It actually appears as two trees within a small distance of each other, which is believed that it’s actually a survivor of what used to be a bigger colony of Sassafras. The Camperdown Elm found in the cemetery is actually the second oldest in Brooklyn right after the one in Prospect Park behind the boathouse. There are many incredible trees to look at when visiting the cemetery. When visiting Greenwood Cemetery, look for the tunnel of weeping elms or check out the two oldest trees.

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