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For Entrance into the Pearly Gates: Greenwood Cemetery Historic Tour

I love the travel channel. It teaches me about places I have dreamt of going my whole life, and even better it shows me places I didn’t even know existed that I now have to get to. I record almost every show. It is an education waiting to happen right there on my DVR.

It all began with Samantha Brown (, graduated to Man vs. Food, and now there are new shows I am addicted to like Mysteries at the Museum and Off Limits. The latter two are hosted by my new favorite host, Don Wildman. He has a knack for storytelling and in Off Limits doing the impossible, or rather what the general public is not allowed to do. I find that fascinating and okay at times depressing. I have an urge to steal Don’s job or at least break in to these amazing, but decrepit places he is always going. He is a lucky man, a very lucky man.

But I am a loyal viewer so every week I watch faithfully and then lookup and print my travel guides of where I am allowed to go and file them away for the appropriate time and place. However, on a recent repeat of a New York City show a familiar site caught my eye.

It is important to note here that no matter the show, cooking, travel, daytime, whatever, even if it is a show I don’t like, if there are talking about something in my area I watch just to see if there is something I might be interesting in doing. I hate missing out on something close to home just because I didn’t know about it. Since I am usually the one telling friends, family, and my readers about what’s new and exciting, that is yet another recent I try to stay as relevant as possible.

Anyway, back to Don and Off Limits…………….

As a native of Brooklyn, I have long known about Greenwood cemetery’s existence. I knew it was famous and enormous. I knew many people traveled here to visit it. After all it had been given National Historic Landmark status in 2006. I knew that tours were given. But until I saw this episode on the travel channel I had not been particularly motivated to look it up. Once I did however, I could not detach myself. There were so many tours, so little time. I signed up for weekly event emails and for a packet of information to be delivered in the mail. The more I read, the more I was intrigued. Greenwood is like a city inside a city. Actually it is a cemetery that saved N.Y.C.

Greenwood was established in 1838. At that time, Manhattan was only inhabited as far north as Canal Street. But that was enough. The noise and filth in the streets made living in the city a nightmare. There was no green space. I know it is hard to picture for those of us who know N.Y.C. now to not see a park or square anywhere. This beautiful marvel is what inspired Central Park to be created as a tourist attraction. Greenwood used to allow barbeques on the weekends so that people would come and want to buy a plot as the Manhattan was too gross to stay in. Visiting their plots was much like visiting a summer home would be today. There was fresh air and plenty of room to relax. Ironic I know.

The historic tour I took was three hours. That was just the tip of the iceberg. Ok as you can see I still have the Titanic on my brain, which is appropriate as nine of those who perished on that ship are buried here at Greenwood. During the week of the one hundredth anniversary of the sinking there was actually a special tour but I didn’t get to go because it sold out too fast.

The first thing you see as you enter Greenwood is their infamous gates. These gates are even more glorious in person especially the day I visited as the sun was rising high the afternoon shining bright. I was half expecting to meet St. Peter at any moment. That wasn’t just from the gates that is also from the hill I had to climb to enter. I was so focused on photographing those gates the landscape can be deceiving.

After you come up for air, you just have to take a breather for a moment and take in your surroundings. Even though you are hardly seeing any of the cemetery what you can see is still plenty amazing. That is what gets you excited for the tour to begin. As I waited for that I walked a bit and took some more photos. Then I saw our trolley pull up. Yes I was boarding a trolley for this tour. While there are several walking tours of this cemetery the historic tour is a trolley tour. There are a few places you get off to walk around but there is too much ground to cover on foot. Also on a trolley you get a better view of the entire vista rather than being focused solely on what is right in front of you. I always get great shots from buses, trains, planes, and now also trolleys.

Besides the history, Greenwood’s popularity mainly lies in its natural beauty. I was told by my tour guide that the many hills, curves, diagonal land masses, even lands are all natural to the property. They were all created by a glacier that had stopped there many moons ago. Besides landscaping to keep things neat, nothing had been done to shape the cemetery. That is an amazing feat. When you are on a trolley, going up and down tiny lanes and hills you feel more like you are in a tiny version of San Francisco than a cemetery in Brooklyn. It truly is a world within a world. You totally forget where you are and what you are doing. I sure did. I got lost in the stories of those buried in these elaborate and one of a kind tombs. It is amazing the creativity and wealth poured into these memorials.

While I learned so much during this tour, I was amazed by even more. The cemetery has no religious affiliation and so anyone can be buried here and even next to one another. For a long time pets were allowed and even had some of the nicer monuments. The last pet to be buried here was a horse but unfortunately his grave wasn’t a part of my tour. Henry Bergh who founded the A.S.P.C.A. had a fairly modest tomb but the gorgeous gold statute that sits below it comes from the original building. When renovations were made it was discovered that it was too heavy to go onto the new building and so it was donated to the cemetery so that it would remain with Henry for all eternity as a symbol for what he created.

William Holbrook Beard was a famous artist known for his paintings and drawings of bears. He was buried here in 1900 with a plain headstone. When fellow artist Dan Ostermiller saw that he was bothered by it and decided to carve a permanent tribute and donated the bear that now adorns Beard’s grave.

Another original idea is that of electricity and heat. John Mackay’s mausoleum was made comfortable so that his family would always visit. To this day his estate is still billed for these services.

Greenwood is nothing if not progressive. There are constantly projects for preservation and research. The veterans sections are some of the most moving. My favorite there was a statute of a drummer boy who died and his likeness is carved exactly on his stone. Those whose statutes are being worn away are being updated so that we may never forget those who sacrificed for our benefit.

For all the celebrities, inventors, authors, poets, musicians, congressmen, painters, ball players, and the like that are buried here, Greenwood still has its share of “regular” citizens. It still has room and continues to have funerals. It is amazing in light of how many people are currently buried here.

The one oddity is that while their map indicts mobsters and criminals are buried there and where you can find them, I am told no executed criminals were allowed to be buried at Greenwood. I don’t remember the man’s name but he was sick and dying and convinced the jail to release him to his family so that they could “wake” him at home. But since he died at home he knowingly beat the system and was able to be buried at the family plot. Needless to say no one was too thrilled with this outcome. 

But just like Vanessa Williams sang, I too have saved the best for last. Greenwood cemetery is notable for many historic reasons but it is also a sacred battle ground. Much of the Battle of Brooklyn during the Revolutionary War was fought on this land. Every year there is a reenactment along with other ceremonies. This year I plan on taking part of them. One of the trolley’s stops was near the top of Battle Hill. At the top Battle Hill there is a great view of Manhattan. There is also a statute known as Minerva. Minerva is on an angle looking in a very direct location. When you turn to look where she is looking you she what she is mirroring: the Statute of Liberty. It gives you chills. The story goes, that during that brutal battle General George Washington barely escaped with his troops through the night. To honor those brave men and to celebrate the winning of that battle this statute was erected on this site where the men had originally been camped out. Minerva is the Roman symbol of wisdom and sits atop the Alter of Liberty where she can forever stare into the eyes of her counterpart.

Greenwood is almost 500 acres and consists of lakes, a waterfall, catacombs, and even an apartment complex (for the deceased) which is way too much to see in just one visit. So I choose the historic tour for my first visit. I felt it was best to get the basics covered first. Next time I can try something random and specific like the Scandals, Scalawags & Murder Most Foul Walking Tour, which I am now obsessed with. ( 


  1. Well done. Nice to see the beauty of the cemetery and not be there just for sadness.


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