Green-Wood Cemetery

Green-Wood Cemetery
My weekend was upside down. I spent Saturday at the office, sulking at the sunshine and fretting that this early spring would cause my flower bulbs to sprout early. By Sunday morning, my day of freedom, May weather was a distant hope once more. Tornadoes of swirling leaves blew as we walked around Green-Wood cemetery. Tricked like my bulbs, I hadn’t brought a hat and shivered in front of the granite palaces of the Baronial Age. When will I learn to read the weather forecast on Friday?

Green-Wood is extraordinary; one of my favorite places in New York. Graveyards give such context to our lives. From the top of Battle Hill, you can see the Statue of Liberty and Lower Manhattan. Picture the residents streaming in through Ellis Island, loving, marrying, spawning, and finally being buried here, within sight of their American beginning. You can trace the history of the city in the span of family names here. Almost every name triggers an association—the Italian deli on Court Street, the boy who sat behind me in fourth year Maths class, a character from Anna Karenina, a brand of soap. Claire stopped reverently in front of one monument and said, ‘You think that’s the Entenmanns?’

I remembered a grave from a previous visit. The husband was born in 1883 and died in 1960. She was born in Manchester, England in 1886, and died in 1964. Their modest headstones were at the back of a large plot. In the center stood a large stone for Beloved Son Matthew, 1911-1914. The size of the plot alone indicated unfulfilled hopes, and I wondered about Lily, the young mother who lived to be 78. Did she die alone? What was the rest of her life like?

There’s a piece that occasionally runs on This American Life on NPR. Actors play the dead, and voice the last thing they saw or did.
‘The last thing I saw was a full shot glass.’
‘I was supposed to get up early that morning, but couldn’t move.’
The voices are hypnotic, a reminder that we’re all surprised by death. There’s no neatness to it. Mothers outlive sons, husbands outlive wives. Who expects to live to 96? And who expects to die at 26, with nothing done? We are reduced to very bare facts in the end—a first date commemorating a day we don’t remember, and a second date that’s kept secret from us all our lives.

Mostly, Green-Wood leaves me cheerful, though. I can’t resist the likes of John Mackay, the Dublin-born tycoon who planned his tomb in advance, complete with a heating system and electrical lighting. It cost the 1902 equivalent of $4.8 million, but was probably worth it. His bones were likely warmer than mine today.

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