Only the Dead

Two photographs of the face of Minerva, from the Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.

It costs $1,284 to bury an adult at the Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, a little more than half of that for children under 10. Regardless of age, there is a $260 surcharge for burial on a busy Saturday. This does not include the cost of the plot. In 1850, when Green-Wood was 12 years old, it was one of the nation's top tourist draws, and 500,000 visitors in contemplative humour walked or rode in carriages through its 478 acres. Only a handful were there this afternoon, in the light rain and strong wind.

Among Green-Wood's nearly 600,000 dead are Currier, Ives, and Basquiat; mobster Albert Anastasio and Governor Dewitt Clinton; Horace Greeley and Boss Tweed. Death makes strange plotfellows. As in the city proper, class is clearly marked. A neighborhood of grand Egyptianate crypts casts a shadow over a down-market gathering of obelisks. Across the road from that is a small field of low, humble stones. In June, 2003, a single standard plot goes for $6,000, but is good for up to three burials, while many are opting for the modern, multi-storied mausoleum—a co-op for the dead, starting at $6,700 for one entombment, also available in double, triple, quad, and the “Triple Westminster,” six entombments for a prix fixe of $30,000.

Adulteresses, from the days when it meant something to be an adulteress, are buried at Green-Wood: Elizabeth Tilton, infamous extramarital partner of Reverend Henry Ward Beecher—Brooklyn's greatest scandal, played out as the Brooklyn Bridge rose out of the East River. And Lola Montez, buried at 40 as Eliza Gilbert (her real name; she was born in County Sligo in 1821). She created the notorious Tarantula Dance, and paired off with Alexandre Dumas, Franz Liszt, Ludwig I of Bavaria, &c., &c. Montez also wrote Anecdotes of Love: Being a True Account of the Most Remarkable Events Connected with the History of Love in All Ages and Among All Nations, 1858, cloth, price one dollar, with chaste pictures, FIT FOR FAMILY READING, and about a THOUSAND SPRIGHTLY CHAPTERS, including “Love in a Dungeon,” “Love between Armies”, “Loves of Mahomet,” “Loves of Caligula,” “&c., &c., &c., &c., &c.”

In short, while a feebler hand or a coarser appetite would inevitably have represented Love in a light too sensual for critical satisfaction, this lady has rendered it in her “ANECDOTES” as correct as it is fascinating, as intimately associated with morality as with human indulgences.

Then the dead from disasters, from the days before sprinklers and airbags: the Brooklyn Theater fire, markers for those lost on the Lusitania and Titanic, and along one path, the grave of two little girls from the General Slocum. That was June 15, 1904: nearly 1,400 members of St. Mark's Lutheran church, residents of Little Germany, Kleindeutschland (the East Village), and mostly mothers and children, boarded the steamboat the General Slocum, bound for a Long Island picnic. The ship caught fire before it cleared Hell Gate. Someone had stored packing hay in a closet with oil lanterns. Someone else threw away a lit cigarette. 1,021 were drowned or burned to death as New Yorkers watched from the piers. Improved steamboat safety was the result, and, you'd suspect, reams of bad newspaper poetry. 47 are here from the World Trade Center collapse, a dozen of those cops and firemen.

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The highest point in Green-Wood Cemetery is the highest point in Brooklyn, and at that crest stands a statue of Minerva, 7 feet tall in armor and sandals. She looks out over the harbor, her left hand raised in salute to the distant, dime-sized Statue of Liberty, two big women out in the rain. Bronze waves to copper, wisdom greets liberty, alloy motions to element. Minerva's breast is decorated with a relief of Medusa, and upon her helmet sits the sphinx; in her right hand is a laurel, which she is about to rest upon a stone altar.

The altar is trebly dedicated, via inscription, to the memory of the Battle of Long Island, to America, and to the spirit of that wisest of all statements, the Declaration of Independence—a document that (according to the inscription) in its Minervan wisdom equates liberty with equality. The heavy stone of the altar appears to have sunk over the last century, so Minerva's laurel hovers a full inch above it: either American liberty has sunk below the crown of wisdom; or, the crown of wisdom is now the halo above American liberty.

In August, 1776, on this wise and patriotic hilltop, the Germans and British fought the insurgent colonists in the Battle of Long Island. They fought from the Gowanus Creek to the later sites of Green-Wood Cemetery and Prospect Park. Having lost Boston, the British wanted New York, an essential link between the northern and southern colonies, and they beat General Washington back to Manhattan, thousands of his soldiers dead behind him.

A Civil War memorial is not far down the hill, with statues of men in rumpled hats standing around a pillar. General Henry Slocum, who commanded the Army of the Potomac and fought at Gettysburg, is interred in Green-Wood. The steamboat was named for him.

Today, the Triborough Bridge spans above the spot where the Slocum caught fire. Tradition holds that the Slocum disaster irreparably tore the cultural bonds of Kleindeutschland, so over the next years, the grieving Germans drifted away, moving in bunches to Brooklyn, Queens, and especially Yorkville, in the east 80s of Manhattan, where you can still find Lutheran churches that give sermons in German.

The wreck of the Slocum was salvaged and used to build a barge christened the Maryland. The Maryland sank in 1911, caught in a squall south of Atlantic City. A year later its hull was dynamited by the Army Corps of Engineers to keep other ships from snagging. In November, 2000, the remains of the Maryland neé Slocum were discovered by deep sea recovery experts, who'd been looking for her since 1994.

The 99th Remembrance of the General Slocum disaster will be held on Saturday, June 14th, 2003, 11AM at Trinity Lutheran Church in Middle Village, NY. On Sunday, June 15 a memorial service will be held at 10AM at the General Slocum Memorial Fountain in Tompkins Square Park in Greenwich Village, Manhattan. Attending the latter will be Adella Wotherspoon, the only living survivor of the disaster, tossed to a tugboat captain at 18 months old, reunited with her injured parents in a hospital—the sole daughter to survive out of three.

A larger commemoration is planned for June 12, 2004, the 100th anniversary of the tragedy.

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This piece is sponsored by Quinn Warnick of the currently-on-hiatus but-still-very-much-worth-reading White Shoe Irregular. Quinn has been a regular reader and supporter for years, and I am grateful, daily, that such people are interested in, and support, this site.




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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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