By Saskia de Rothschild and Jeremy B. White
Brooklyn’s cemeteries illustrate two immutable principles: death is universal, and space in New York City is at a premium.
Many of Brooklyn’s cemeteries have run out of space, and others are searching for ways to be as efficient as possible with dwindling stocks of open plots. Prices obey the laws of supply and demand; they are rising. As a result, more and more Brooklynites are burying their loved ones in Long Island, Staten Island and Queens.
“You’ve got to remember the cemeteries in Brooklyn date back to the 1850s, so they’ve been burying people a long time,” said Robert Fishman, director of the New York State Division of Cemeteries. “Especially in the city, there’s no land. If you can find ten acres let me know.”
Brooklyn cemeteries owe their existence to the Rural Cemetery Act of 1847, which allowed for the construction of commercial cemeteries outside the city limits. Brooklyn was not yet an incorporated part of New York City, and the legislation transformed large swathes of farmland into lucrative real estate that farmers sold to future cemetery owners.
What was then open space is now crowded with headstones. The Washington Cemetery, the largest Jewish cemetery in the borough, has been full for nearly three years. Just minutes away from Brighton Beach, it used to be the cemetery of choice for the Russian Jewish community. It still, is but now, when the phone rings with requests, longtime employee Aleksander Laskar said he is forced to turn people down; many of them cross the Verrazano Bridge to the Baron Hirsch Jewish cemetery in Staten Island.
“Funeral homes know we are full but people still call and ask,” he said in a strong Russian Accent. “Mother and Father are buried here, that’s the usual reply.”
Laskar said that he has to turn down six or seven people a day, mostly Russian Jews. The last plots sold for $10,000, more than triple the price a decade ago. Through the office window, the newest black marble graves gleam in the sun. Behind the main building, there used to be a parking lot and a road; now, it’s just graves.
“We have exhausted every solution imaginable,” said foreman Michael Cianaga. “There’s just no more space, not for a single grave.”
This is not entirely true — many plots were purchased over a century ago by families or burial societies and sit partially empty, but cannot be used. In Washington cemetery, such plots contain more than 400 vacant graves. Cemeteries are legally allowed to buy back plots that have not been used for 75 years or more, but it’s a complicated and rarely used procedure.
“Even if some of the [burial] societies don’t exist anymore, we’re not allowed to touch their plots,” Cianaga said. “It’s frustrating, when you know we have to send away six or seven people a day.”
Cianaga said that, with no new money coming in, Washington had to slash its workforce by two-thirds. The City Council has delayed the cemetery’s attempts to acquire new land to expand, he added, saying it would depress property values. Plots have become so coveted that Cianaga said that people will sometimes illegally resell unused family plots to others eager for the space.
“They just call and say, ‘the plot is now reserved for my cousin,’” Cianaga said. “There’s nothing much we can do about it.”
Not every Brooklyn cemetery is in such a desperate situation. Cypress Hills is one of the few with space. Office manager Patrick J. Russo estimated that about 360,000 people are buried in its 220 acres, and he emphasized that he and his staff are always looking for new ways to use space efficiently. For example, Cypress Hills sends foremen to an annual conference in Tennessee, sponsored by the International Cemetery Cremation and Funeral Association, to gather new ideas.
“There is enough land in any cemetery that you can be creative in finding usable land,” Russo said. “We’re trying to utilize this land to the best of our ability, so that’s what we did.”
This includes using roadside space to construct what Russo calls “border graves,” and converting old paths between rows of headstones into graves. But the most illustrative example might be their new “community mausoleum.”
The older mausoleums dotting the grounds are ornate affairs with pillars and stained glass windows (Mae West is buried in one of them). The newer version is more about practicality than luxury. Peoples’ final resting places are marked by tiles honeycombing the outdoor walls of the above ground structure, smaller tiles for cremated remains and larger ones for for caskets. Small flower holders jut out from the wall. The mausoleum can house 2,000; Russo estimated the same space could accommodate about 1,200 underground graves. Russo said his patrons don’t mind.
“Cemeteries,” he said, “are not for the dead. They are for the living.”
That may be true, but both cemeteries are charged with the history of those laid to rest there. Notable Brooklynites buried in Cypress Hills include Jackie Robinson — whose grave overlooks the parkway bearing his name — and men, like congressman Edmund Driggs and influential aristocrat Nicholas Wyckoff, whose legacies are enshrined in Brooklyn street names. Washington’s famous denizens include the actress Lilyman Tashman and Brooklyn-born members of Detroit’s notorious Purple Gang.