Cemetery Travels

Serendipity in the Cemetery: Unearthing Unexpected Stories

Some of my best cemetery finds have come my way through pure serendipity.

Walking through a cemetery can be a solemn and, at times, an eerie experience. The silence, the weathered tombstones, and the weight of history all cast a mysterious cloak over the atmosphere. Yet, amidst the somber surroundings, there are occasions when serendipity sweeps in to unearth unexpected stories that lie quietly beneath the gravestones.

Cemeteries are not solely the resting place of the departed: they are also a testament to the lives lived, the triumphs and struggles woven into the fabric of humanity. Each tombstone tells a unique tale, often with fragments of personal narratives that time has erased. But sometimes, amid the rows of weathered memorials, a serendipitous find sheds light on forgotten stories, connecting us to the past in ways we never imagined.

One might stumble upon a gravestone adorned with flowers, meticulously maintained despite the passage of time. Curiosity piqued, we learn that a distant relative, unknown before this moment, still tends to the resting place of their ancestor. Suddenly, the deceased becomes more than just a name etched in stone; they become our own. 

Other discoveries lead us on unexpected journeys of history and heritage. Beneath an ancient oak tree, we might uncover a tombstone that reveals the tale of a forgotten war hero. Their valorous deeds etched into the stone speak volumes of forgotten battles fought and sacrifices made. The find reminds us how easily the brave can slip into anonymity, the echoes of their courage fading into the annals of time.

Sometimes the discoveries in a cemetery go beyond individual stories and reveal hidden marvels of art and craftmanship. Ornate statues guarding mausoleums, intricate scuptures carved with love and respect, quietly highlight the enduring beauty of human expression. Serendipity unearths these masterpieces, invoking awe and appreciation for the talents of long-gone artisans whose skilled hands crafted these timeless tributes. Patrizio Piatti was among them. One of the foremost sculptors of the 19th century, he is buried beneath this simple monument in Green-Wood.

Moreover, chance encounters and serendipitous finds can also present opportunities for introspection and reflection. A crumbling, forgotten tombstone brings to attention the transience of life, urging us to live purposefully and cherish the moments we have. The juxtaposition of old and new, of faded memories and bustling life beyond the cemetery gates, grasp our attention and provoke contemplation on our own finite existence.

Serendipitous finds in a cemetery offer us more than merely a glimpse into the lives of those who came before us. They provide a reminder of our shared humanity and the interconnectedness of past, present, and future. These chance encounters prompt us to ponder the quiet stories that lie just beneath the surface, encouraging us to apprecaite the lives that shaped our own.

So, the next time you find yourself strolling through a cemetery, let serendipity guide your steps. Embrace the unexpected finds and absorb the stories they reveal. For within these hallowed grounds, there exists a treasure trove of untold tales waiting to be discovered, reminding us of the beauty and complexity of the human experience.

Trinity Cemetery Uptown 

Nestled amidst the bustling streets of Upper Manhattan lies the only active cemetery remaining in Manhattan -- historic Trinity Cemetery. A hidden gem of tranquility and serenity, this beautifully landscaped burial ground comprises four city blocks and offers visitors a chance to discover the rich history of New York City, its notable figures and architectural gems that has stood the test of time. 

As I wandered beneath a canopy of trees, the landcape transformed into a majestic tapestry of history. Among the graves I encountered was the final resting place of  Clement Clarke Moore. The author of the Christmas classic,  A Visit From St. Nicholas, his tombstone stands as a testament to his cherished contribution to literature. 

Moore is in good literary company with novelist Ralph Ellison, publisher E.P. Dutton, and Alfred Tennyson Dickens, son of Charles Dickens, all buried on the grounds.

Another notable grave is that of John James Audubon, the renowned American ornithologist and artist whose estate was adjacent to the cemetery. A 16-foot tall Celtic cross, adorned with animal carvings, towers over his grave. A work of art in itself, the pays homage to Audobon's tireless efforts to document and preserve the avian species of North America. 

To ensure that he would forever remain in the city he so loved and for which he served as a three-time mayor, Edward I. Koch purchased his plot seeveral years before his 2013 death. Koch's burial went a long way in provided renewed interest in the cemetery where the Astor family, actor Jerry Orbach, and entertainer Cuba Gooding Sr. repose for all eternity.

As my journey through Trinity Cemetery came to an end, I left with a profound appreciation for the preservation of history and the stories that lie beneath our feet. This peaceful haven in Upper Manhattan offers not only a sanctuary for the departed but also a place for visitors to reflect, learn, and connect with the rich tapestry of New York City's past. 

Trinity Cemetery serves as a reminder that remembrance is essential, and that even in the city that never sleeps, tranquility and grace can be found. 

Ferncliff 's Magnificent Stained Glass 
                                                                               Posted on August 31, 2023

This summer I made a couple of trips to Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York. My first visit was solely to do research and take photos for an article I was working on for August's American Cemetery & Cremation magazine.  Ferncliff is known for their magnificent community mausoleums, as well as an extensive roster of notables. Within their mausoleums are a number of private rooms which contain stunning personalized stained-glass windows. With their intricate designs and vibrant colors, they add beauty and elegance to the sacred space. Exploring the community mausoleums and admiring the artistry brought back fond memories for me, because Ferncliff was the subject of my very first cemetery profile back in 1999. Here are some of the highlights of my exploration. 

Touring Locally 
                                          Posted on March 20, 2023

Sometimes some of the most interesting finds are right in your own backyard. Such was the case when I recently went exploring in Roslyn Cemetery, one of my local cemeteries. It's been a while since I visited, and I saw some new monuments and revisited some older ones. 

While the cemetery is small in size, it is filled with history. So much so, that it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is the final resting place of William Cullen Bryant, Christopher Morley,  Bessie Abott and Thomas Watson Story, and Frances Hodgson Burnett, and her son Lionel. 

The grounds are diverse with --often unique -- memorials to those of many cultures, including Russian, Iranian, and Asian Indians. 

Thomas Waldo Story followed in the footsteps of his father William Wetmore Story, finding success as a sculptor. He was married to opera singer,  Bessie Abbott.

Poet William Cullen Bryant is buried beneath an obelisk with his wife, Fanny. 

Christmas in the Cemetery 
                                                                 Posted on December 28, 2022

As a funeral director,  I am well aware that there is never a good time to lose someone we love. But a loss seems particularly difficult to bear --or recall-- when the holiday season is upon us. All around us, people are absorbed by "the magic of Christmas," and there is an ever-present sense of gaiety. But not for those who mourn. Yet, many of those people find a sense of solace by visiting cemeteries and decorating family graves and mausoleums for the season. Seeing such poignant displays of love and remembrance, reinforce the continued connection that cemeteries offer.

Here's a smattering of some of the beautifully decorated --whether with a small ornamented tree or a simple holiday wreath --mausoleums and graves I've come across at Christmastime. 

Green-Wood Cemetery in Fall 

I've just visiting Green-Wood for the umpteenth time. Given that I've written a book about the cemetery, as well as a number of articles, it might seen like there's nothing new to see. But that's definitely not the case. Its 478 acres always offer a previously unseen historical and/or architectural gem along with a new perspective on oft-photographed favorites. What's more, seeing the grounds through a friend's first visit (as I did yesterday) is illuminating. 

             Green River Cemetery   Posted on August 25, 2022

This summer I finally made it to East Hampton to visit Green River Cemetery. It had been on my list of cemeteries to visit for a long time. And while I'd read a lot about it, and included it in an article I wrote for Newsday about tombstone tourism on Long Island, seeing it was something else. Many of the graves are marked by boulders, rather than  tombstones. It may have been a traditional begun by Artist Jackson Pollock, and his wife Lee Krasner.

Actor Peter Boyle, too, chose a boulder to mark his final resting place.

As does Steven J. Ross, the former CEO of Time Warner. 

The tragic deaths of brother and sister Courtney and Robert Steel stopped me in my tracks. Courtney was killed by a drunk driver less than two years after her brother died of cancer at the age of 19. 

Hartsdale Pet Cemetery
                                                          Posted on January 15, 2022

On a cold day in early March of 2021, I visited Hartsdale Pet cemetery for the first time. I was looking for a different kind of cemetery profile, and this more than fit the bill. Despite the chill, I was fascinating by the often elaborate memorials, and sentimental epitaphs which honor beloved pets of  many kinds. Cats, dogs, birds, rabbits....even a tiger, are commemorated here with unconditional love and devotion.  

Not surprisingly, my article about Hartsdale --the cover of American Cemetery magazine's Nov. 2021 issue-- became one of my most popular profiles. 

Green-Wood Cemetery in June
                                                                                              Posted on June 30, 2018

In mid June, I spent an enjoyable afternoon giving friends a long-awaited tour of Brooklyn's Green-Wood Cemetery. With so much to see, I did my best to hit the high points: DeWitt Clinton, Leonard Bernstein, Elias Howe and his dog Fannie, Henry Steinway, Civil War Soldiers' Monument, VanNess-Parsons....and many more.

We drove to some sites and walked to others (lots of Fitbit steps for me) stopping to get a closer look at random monuments, and to read a number of poignant inscriptions. Over the years, I've traversed Green-Wood's 478 acres countless times, researching my book about the cemetery, giving public and private tours, as well as serving in my capacity as a funeral director. Yet, each and every time, I make a new find or learn of one before my visit that I must see. The Badger monument was one such grave site.                                

On Christmas Eve, in 2011, hearts broke across the country as we watched the awful news about a Connecticut house fire which claimed the lives of three young sisters and their maternal grandparents. I only recently learned that the girls --Lily, Sarah and Grace --were buried in Green-Wood. Fresh spring flowers decorated their grave, and small stones atop their monument indicated visitors had recently been there. Looking at the stone, and recalling the tragedy, was wrenching. But one of the prime purposes of cemeteries is to allow us to honor those who have gone before us in the most tangible of ways.

In 2017, the girls' father Matthew died at the age of 51. He, too, is buried in Green-Wood.

A Titanic Undertaking
                                                                Posted on May 28, 2018

 Graves of both survivors and casualties of the tragic 1912 sinking of the Titanic can be seen in a number of New York Cemeteries. Woodlawn in the Bronx and Green-Wood in Brooklyn contain the most.

The grave of William Augustus Spencer is one of them. Buried beneath a slab that notes he: "Bravely Met Death At Sea," his grave is one of a number of family graves arrayed around a central family monument.

Over in Woodlawn Cemetery, the first grave I wanted to see was Archibald Gracie's. Known as a "Hero of the Titanic," Gracie was instrumental in helping other passengers into lifeboats, effectively saving their lives.

The end result of my research was the April cover story for American Cemetery magazine.