A Cemetery Reincarnates Itself as a Tourist Attraction

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Green-Wood draws history buffs, mystery fans, and sundry curiosity-seekers from Park Slope to Brazil.

Brooklyn resident Anne Zeek takes notes in front of Boss Tweed’s tomb. (Victoria Pasquantonio/The Brooklyn Ink)

One Sunday earlier this summer, Roger and Paula Cohen stood at the entrance to a tomb at Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery.  The couple from the Park Slope neighborhood had not come for a burial but for a tour, entitled “Scalawags, Scandals and Murder Most Foul.”  And as the Cohens watched, their guide, Ruth Edebohls, explained that the crypt had been used during Prohibition by gangsters hiding their liquor.

“New York City was a wide-open town,” Roger Cohen said, smiling.  His favorite scandal on the tour involved Emma Cunningham, who was acquitted of the 1857 murder of her husband Dr. Harvey Burdell but was subsequently accused of “procuring” a baby, which would ensure that she’d inherit her husband’s fortune.  “You want to talk about a determined woman,” Cohen remarked.  The charges were later dropped but Cunningham died a poor woman.

“We’re getting more and more young people.  They’re getting more interested in it,” said Edelbohls, a licensed New York City tour guide.  “People who want to have a day out, history buffs, people who may not have liked the idea of cemeteries, but if they come once, they’ll come back again.”

Green-Wood Cemetery’s Ruth Edebohls explains the scandal behind the 19th century murder of Dr. Harvey Burdell. His wife, Emma Cunningham, was acquitted of murder charges and is buried a few hundred yards away. (Victoria Pasquantonio/The Brooklyn Ink)

The recent tour is just one aspect of a surprising and resurgent tourism scene at Green-Wood Cemetery, 478 acres of lush green hills and sculptured gardens just southwest of Prospect Park.  Soon after its opening in 1838, the cemetery became a fashionable place for both the dead and the living.  It was second to Niagara Falls as the nation’s top tourist destination during the 19th century, drawing as many as a half-million visits annually, and was used as the Central Park of its day.  New Yorkers used to ferry their way across the river to spend the day picnicking alongside the glacial ponds and ornate mausoleums in what was then the separate city of Brooklyn.  Even now, with far more competition for leisure activities, the walking and old-fashioned trolley tours sponsored by the Green-Wood Historic Fund draw packed crowds.

Green-Wood’s historian, Jeff Richman, said in a recent interview that the cemetery is running out of space for new, paid gravesites, meaning there is less revenue for grounds maintenance and grave restoration.  The financial pinch is a major reason, according to Richman, for returning to the 19th century marketing strategy of cemetery as tourist attraction.  Green-Wood Historic Fund has released a smart-phone app that will guide tourists around the cemetery.  The fund has also teamed up with LivingSocial, an on-line company which offers discounts and deals on events, in this case a twilight tour of the cemetery followed by drinks and music.  So far nearly 600 people have purchased tickets at $25 a person.  The cemetery also sponsored its first Family Day in June.

The tours highlight just some of the 300-plus well-known figures buried in the cemetery, which is home to 800,000 graves.  William “Boss” Tweed, Charles Ebbets, Leonard Bernstein, abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher (sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe), and Civil War generals have made Green-Wood their final resting place.

After the scalawags tour, Laura Stiers, who works in publishing, said she’d definitely come back for another visit.  Her favorite figure from the tour was Bill “the Butcher” Poole, the basis for the murderous character played by Daniel Day-Lewis in the film Gangs of New York.  “What strikes me is the notorious people,” said Stiers, 23. “They get to have peaceful graves like everyone else.”

Tom and Elena Freeman – a lawyer and a realtor, originally from London and São Paulo, Brazil, respectively – live in New York, and said they took the tour in order to learn 19th century historical names for a writing class they are taking.  The Freemans picked the right place.  Names from WASP high society abound in the cemetery, according to historical suspense novelist Paula Cohen, who insisted she was born 75 years too late.  Cohen said she feels right at home “in the quietest, innermost areas of the cemetery, where you can no longer hear traffic noise.”  She added, “I can frequently imagine myself turning a corner and seeing a woman in a crinoline and bonnet, and carrying a parasol.”

Visitor Roger Cohen and volunteer Phillip Lehpamer discuss the famous and infamous characters buried in Green-Wood Cemetery. (Victoria Pasquantonio/The Brooklyn Ink)

Brooklynite Phillip Lehpamer, a retired actuary, volunteers at the outdoor book cart located near the starting point for the tours.  Lehpamer said one of the departed who didn’t make it on the tourist map is a personal favorite of his – Joseph Fairfield Knapp, the second president of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, who saved the company from ruin.  It was a good thing, too – Lehpamer used to work for Met Life.

Green-Wood isn’t the only cemetery promoting itself as a tourist attraction.  Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx and Cambridge’s Mount Auburn also attract sightseers.  Mount Auburn, which was built seven years before Green-Wood, publicizes its arboretum and offers wedding couples the opportunity to “hold a service inside a stately chapel or stage a reception on a lush lawn with Victorian plantings.”  Mount Auburn also has a new mobile app for self-tours.  Although no weddings are allowed inside Woodlawn, the cemetery provides audio guides and boasts big names like Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin, and Fiorello La Guardia.  The cemetery was also the basis for Fred Goodman’s book “The Secret City.”

Trolley guide Marge Raymond first came to Green-Wood Cemetery 25 years ago and has been involved in various preservation efforts ever since. (Victoria Pasquantonio/The Brooklyn Ink)

Rural cemeteries in America received inspiration from their Victorian counterparts in Europe who had a particular fascination with death at the time.  Trolley tour guide Raymond said Green-Wood was fashioned after Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.  Most Parisians thought Père Lachaise was too far outside the city to be an attractive place to spend eternity, so cemetery officials decided to woo potential customers by transferring famed poet La Fontaine’s and playwright Moliere’s remains.  The public relations move worked, and the cemetery continues to be the most visited in the world – with rocker Jim Morrison as the biggest draw for tourists.

Green-Wood officials also found themselves in need of a smart publicity move in order to attract business.  “DeWitt Clinton was the man who started it all for Green-Wood Cemetery,” Raymond said.  “We have archival footage of pictures of people coming and looking at the dirt,” referring to his grave.  Many New Yorkers bought a burial plot at Green-Wood seeking eternal society status alongside the former mayor, senator and governor.

Though Edebohls and Raymond are paid to conduct the tours, both started out as volunteers.  Richman, the cemetery’s historian, first began giving tours in 1990 and has witnessed how much they’ve grown in popularity since then.   He said it’s rewarding to see six or seven people doing the work he used to do.

In the 1970s, the cemetery wasn’t doing well financially and the board closed it to the public.  Visitors needed a lot-owner’s pass to enter Green-Wood.  “Fortunately, we’ve been heading in a different direction since then,” Richman said.  The cemetery costs more than ten million dollars a year to run and the fees from tours, which cost $15 for non-members and $10 for members, bring in ten thousands of dollars a year for upkeep and maintenance of the tombs and grounds as well as for historical programs, according to Richman.  The Green-Wood Historic Fund was set up in 1999 and the cemetery became a National Historic Landmark in 2006.

Although Green-Wood might feel more like a national park than a cemetery, Edebohls said, “It’s important to be respectful for what it really is.  It really is a cemetery. We want to keep it in good shape and help keep it the way it is.”

You can reach Victoria at vip2104@columbia.edu or on Twitter @vicpasquantonio.

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