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Hidden New York: Stories from Green-Wood Cemetery

Updated: Mar 24, 2022

Pink flowering trees next to gravestones in Green Wood Cemetery, located in Brooklyn, New York.

When planning your ultimate New York City itinerary, tucked away places off the beaten path like Green-Wood Cemetery don’t often get the same kind of “must-see” exposure as other landmarks like the Brooklyn Bridge or the Statue of Liberty. However, walking through places like Green-Wood and hearing its fascinating stories can deepen your understanding of the places and people that make New York City the city it is. Green-Wood is open every day from 8am to 5pm, and you can find some more helpful advice about planning your visit here.

Before we dive into a few stories about Green-Wood Cemetery, here are a few other points of interest nearby so you can plan your trip into Brooklyn accordingly.

Regardless of the season in which you’re planning your trip, Prospect Park is an oasis located just a few blocks away. Visit Prospect Park during the winter, and you’ll feel as if you’ve stepped into a winter wonderland. A visit to the park in the summer means you can plan a perfect picnic in the heart of Olmsted and Vaux’s beautifully designed green space. If you’re up for a meditative walk as you wander through the park, grab your headphones and enjoy our audio walking tour of Prospect Park.

A blue sky with clouds above the Long Meadow section of Prospect Park, Brooklyn. Near the outer border of the green grass are lush trees and people walking in Prospect Park.

Right next to Prospect Park is another magical space that will make you forget you’re in Brooklyn: the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, a botanical garden founded in 1910. There are a number of events hosted in the garden year-round, especially the very popular Lightscape trail during the winter holidays. Here’s some information about hours and admission to help plan your trip.

Nearby is also the Brooklyn Museum, one of the oldest and largest art museums in the country. You’ll recognize the museum as soon as you spot Deborah Kass’s yellow OY/YO sculpture right out front. From Christian Dior to KAWS, the Brooklyn Museum is home to a wide range of fascinating exhibitions. Check to see what’s on view during your trip to New York.

An interior view of the Brooklyn Museum's exhibition about Dior fashion titled, Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams. Museum visitors are walking around the gallery looking at various gowns and Dior outfits.

In nearby Red Hook, you’ll find Pioneer Works, an artist-run cultural center founded in 2012. There are a number of workshops, performances, and exhibitions open to the public year-round, so be sure to check to see what’s on view during your trip.

There’s so much more to explore in Brooklyn but for now, let’s take a look at Green-Wood Cemetery from the perspective of Jessica Ferri, author of Silent Ci​​ties.

In Jessica’s words, "To travel through the cemeteries of New York is to travel through the hidden history of what some consider the greatest city in the world. From the movers and shakers of New York society to corrupt political bosses and mafiosi to jazz legends, the stories of the permanent residents of the metro area's cemeteries are just as diverse and vibrant as the city itself."

Here are a few of Jessica’s favorite stories from Green-Wood Cemetery:

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Grave

Jean Michel-Basquiat is one of the most famous artists of the 20th century. His “Untitled” painting of a red and black skull currently holds the highest record sale for an American artist for $110.5 million dollars. But at the time of his death at age 27 in 1988 of a heroin overdose, the office staff at Green-Wood most likely weren’t familiar with his work. Basquiat was actually born and raised near Green-Wood Cemetery, and in one of his paintings, “Bird on Money,” the words “Green-Wood” appear.

He ran away from home and lived in Manhattan as a teenager, but when he died, his father returned to his old neighborhood, to Green-Wood, to bury his son. He purchased a single plot in a long row of mostly Italian names. But Basquiat’s many fans leave lots of mementos like paint brushes, liquor bottles, pencils, polaroids, and more at his stone, so it sometimes stands out from among the crowd.

His epitaph reads simply, “artist.” Aside from the moving personal tributes that people leave for Basquiat, directly behind his tombstone you’ll notice a large tree stump. This has become known as Basquiat’s tree, where those who have made the pilgrimage to pay homage leave his signature “tag” mark, a crown, on the tree stump, a fitting extension of the artist’s humble monument.

Charlotte Canda

Charlotte Canda’s memorial at Green-Wood is one of Jessica’s favorites in the cemetery. Aside from its obvious natural beauty, it truly embodies the ideal of the Victorian park cemetery, that cemeteries were meant to be enjoyed by the living as much as they were a burial place for the dead.

Charlotte was a young woman on her way back from her seventeenth birthday party (also her debut into New York society) in 1845 when the horse drawing her carriage was spooked by thunder. She was thrown from the carriage and died in her parents’ arms. Understandably, her father was deeply grieved and set out to create this elaborate monument for his daughter at Green-Wood. He used sketches Charlotte had been at work on for an Aunt who had recently died (Charlotte was artistic and precocious), so, inadvertently, she designed her own tomb.

If you look closely, the archway and crypt bears Charlotte’s initials, CC, and the sculpture in her likeness is wearing a crown of roses. In cemetery symbolism, a rose symbolizes the loss of a young woman. It took three years to complete, and quickly became one of the most popular sites at Green-Wood, so much so that her father had to install a placard at the front of the monument, which is still there—though illegible— explaining her tragic story.

Slightly to the right of Charlotte’s monument you can see a tall, thin, stand-alone tombstone. This is the resting place of Charlotte’s fiancé, a young man named Charles who committed suicide about a year after Charlotte died. Though their families wanted them to be buried together, at the time of Charlotte’s death suicides couldn’t be buried in consecrated ground, so Charles had to be placed off to the side, but still near his beloved Charlotte.

Van Ness Parsons Mausoleum

This unusual mausoleum is certainly an eye-catcher on the hill at Green-Wood because of its shape—it’s a pyramid. But get closer and you’ll see that’s not the only unusual thing about it. The Van Ness Parsons mausoleum is a fascinating melange of Egyptian and Christian symbolism. There’s Jesus Christ holding a lamb, and Mary holding the baby Jesus, and then to Jesus’s right you’ll see who is most likely the Pharaoh’s wife discovering the baby Moses in the basket. A friendly sphinx gazes adoringly at Mary, and the doorway to the mausoleum is emblazoned with vulture wings, an Egyptian symbol for eternity.

Why all the mixed signals? Well, the occupant of the mausoleum, Albert Ross Parsons was a noted Egyptologist. He wrote a book about the Egyptian’s astronomical discoveries called New Light from the Great Pyramid. He was also a beloved pianist and music teacher. Parsons died in 1933 at the height of the Art Deco Egyptian Revival craze in architecture and design, so his personal interest in Egypt and the trends of the time probably account for the mix of symbolism. It is one of Jessica’s favorite mausolea—but still active, meaning the family still plans on using it for future burials, so sadly, you cannot go inside.


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