Exploring the convoluted and costly business of where to spend an afterlife in New York City.
If you want to make someone immediately uncomfortable, ask what he plans to do with his body, when his heart has stopped beating and his flesh has gone cold.
A few months ago, I received an envelope from the Pinelawn Memorial Park and Garden Mausoleum in Farmingdale, New York. Inside was a free booklet titled, “Let’s Face It Now” and a letter that explained how taking charge of your death—though the word “death” was never mentioned—offers a sense of accomplishment and peace of mind. I’m 31 years old. Other than mild asthma and the occasional cold, I am healthy. So I was unnerved and even offended that Pinelawn had targeted me as a potential customer.
But maybe the Pinelawn folks had chosen the right person after all. As an incurable procrastinator, one of the things that frightens me most about death is that I won’t be prepared. Death is not accommodating. Don’t I get one phone call? A final meal? One more paragraph in the novel I’m reading? I may never know how it ends.
What’s worse, I might not have achieved my legacy yet—a house with a backyard, grandchildren, a Pulitzer. And as the letter from Pinelawn reminded me, living in a city of eight million people, on the moment of my passing there just might not be room for me. With so many other variables out of my control, I decided it was time I found a place to rest when I’m dead. Feeling very adult—31 is not that young—as well as a touch morbid, I took the train to Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, in search of a place to begin my afterlife.
* * *
As the name Green-Wood suggests, the cemetery boasts lush grasses and hundred-year-old trees. Rustic signs indicating different paths—Blossom, Berry and Birch—curl around so many hills. On the Sunday after St. Patrick’s Day, I joined the “Eminent Irish Tour.” Green-Wood offers tours most Sunday afternoons and every Wednesday. At one stop, Ruth Edebohls, our tour guide, shared the story of a scrappy Irish immigrant who went from rags to riches, and at another she spoke of a courtesan, Lola Montez, who was famous for her seductive Spanish spider dance. Her admirers included Andre Dumas, Victor Hugo and Honoré de Balzac.
As we stepped sideways up certain inclines, Edebohls, who has been giving tours for the last fifteen years, explained that her “clomping” was due to two hip replacements and a knee replacement. Clearly, these two hours were a labor of love.
While I listened to her stories of the dead, I was also looking at the newer graves, taking notes on location, and searching for open space. I was looking for my place to rest.
* * *
America’s first pioneers kept burial simple—people were interred where they died. Friends of the deceased were unlikely to return to the spot and didn’t want to draw any strangers’ attention to it, so they left the grave unmarked. In time, people began marking the burial spot with wooden slabs carved with the initials of the deceased. In the 1700s, as frontier homes transformed into farming estates, isolated graves became clusters of graves, which were shared with neighbors. Then, for some families, churchyards replaced farm burial. As villages grew into bustling cities, church graveyards became more crowded, and less pleasant to visit; both factors led to the development of today’s rural cemeteries.
Green-Wood Cemetery was founded in 1838, predating both Central and Prospect Parks. It was built upon the terminal moraine—the rocky debris deposited by glaciers that stretches from Staten Island through Brooklyn and Queens. Rural cemeteries, like Green-Wood at the time, served not only as burial grounds but as garden retreats, following the model of Mount Auburn Cemetery in Massachusetts and Père Lachaise in Paris. In addition to the wealthy deceased residents, its gentle hills, glacial ponds and stunning view of New York Harbor drew strollers, picnickers, and in the 1850s attracted as many as half-a-million tourists a year. Charles Dickens and the King of Hawaii were among them. As a U.S. travel destination in the 19th century, it was perhaps second only to Niagara Falls, says Jeff Richman, who authored a book about the culture and history of Green-Wood.
Easily one of the finest cemeteries in New York, securing a spot there in advance could cost between $12,000 and $22,000 today. In recent years, the cemetery has reclaimed old paths and a handful of ponds to create more space for graves; however, in ten years, there might not be any lots left to sell.
Edebohls, who has honey blonde hair, favors movie star make-up, and has a love for anything Victorian, is comfortable talking about death, even her own. “It’s just a matter of temperament,” she told me when we met a few weeks after her tour. She believes the dead watch over us. A medium once told Edebohls she could see spirits in the trees along every stretch of her walking tour. Edebohls was delighted.
On a pleasant Tuesday morning, she and I stopped at an open patch of grass, on a hill, backed by a copse of firs. This was the spot Edebohls has chosen for herself and her ex-husband. “It’s hard for a lot of people to understand why I’m so happy to have my burial spot,” she said. But she and her ex-husband are both glad to have that part of their future, or fate, settled. While they aren’t romantically involved, Edebohls said they’ve reconnected “spiritually” and now speak everyday.
A single grave generally holds two to three people. Coffins are stacked one on top of another with two to three feet of dirt in between. Edebohls, whose ex-husband is ten years older, expects she will be on top, but “you never know,” she said.
Edebohls’ pink cheeks sparkled beneath her sunglasses as she spoke about her future neighbor, an Irish woman. “She died in 2007. She gets lots of visitors,” she said, seeming oddly pleased.
Like Edebohls, my mother, an Irish-born Roman Catholic, is unfazed by death—her own or anyone else’s. When she first began her job as a hospice nurse, I was nine. It made me think of death all the time. I spent weeks staring at the ceiling, afraid that I might fall asleep and not wake up. At night, I listed the names of those who had died: my babysitter; my grandfathers and two teenage boys from my town, Yardley Pennsylvania. The list grew. Whether I was praying or deliberately giving myself nightmares I still don’t know.
Reminders of my mother’s former patients were everywhere in our home: A photographer left her a framed picture of the ocean; a woman we called Granny had gifted her a nativity scene entirely made of corn husks; a collector of rare books had given me a favorite novel. These keepsakes haunted me. It wasn’t until I was older, until I had lost friends myself, that I realized how special it was to have that one item—a T-shirt, a mix tape, a photograph—to remember them by.
* * *
I returned to Green-Wood several times, allowing myself to get lost inside, dwarfed and distracted by the elegant statues and the bedroom-sized mausoleums. I looked at the graves, read the epitaphs, slid cards to one side so I could better see a photograph. People left more than flowers. They left bracelets, pinwheels, balloons, prayer flags, paperweights, teddy bears, Barbie dolls and tiny bottles of liquor. In front of one headstone—engraved with an image of a young man in a backwards baseball cap—sat a giant birthday cake made of artificial flowers. The banner read “Happy Birthday in Heaven” and the card “love your heartbroken mother.” As strange as I felt and as troubled as I might have looked to anyone who saw me, I was encouraged by something Edebohls had said about the dead appreciating their visitors. I counted the stones left by others—a Jewish tradition that has been adopted by other faiths—and sat in the chapel.
From the outside, the chapel in Green-Wood is an exquisite triple-domed terra cotta masterpiece. While it was designed by the same firm that built Grand Central, Warren and Wetmore, the chapel is more understated, more delicate, as if the building itself understood the need for restraint. Still, I envision a couple taking wedding photos on the front steps and I’m not wrong. The space is also available for weddings, book talks and gallery exhibits. Once emptied of people, it lends itself to quiet reflection.
I left through the main gates, passing under striking domes, Gothic spires, flying buttresses and a scene of Jesus and his apostles carved from stone. On the grey day I first visited, these gates were ominous, begging for a clash of thunder and spooky disembodied laughter. Gut on a bright spring day the scene is stunning, in just the opposite way—filled with bird song and squirrels, flowering gardens and towering oaks. I wished for more time there.
* * *
A few weeks later, I walk through a more modest entrance at The Cemetery of the Evergreens, which straddles Bushwick, Brooklyn, and Ridgewood, Queens. This time, I’m not alone.
“It’s Cemetery of the Evergreens. That is its legal name, not The Evergreens Cemetery,” Allan Smith, a former architect and local historian, tells me for the third time. Smith has written a book about one cemetery and helped restore another. I ignore both the brochure and the website, because the name matters to Smith and because it really does sound nicer. Smith, now in his early seventies, has been visiting this cemetery since the late 1940s. He carries a green bookbag and wears a sullen expression like a scolded eight-year-old boy. He’s not the type to force a smile to ease the strain of a conversation, but he isn’t unfriendly. And when he talks about cemeteries, he gets excited.
In the early 1800s, Smith explains, New York experienced a burial crisis. The population had nearly tripled and in addition to overcrowding, people worried about the spread of diseases such as smallpox. The water table was rising, or at least residents believed it was.
“They thought corpses were mixing with the water,” Smith says. Internments were banned in lower Manhattan, and in 1847 the Rural Cemetery Act was passed. This allowed investors to build commercial cemeteries in the boroughs beyond Manhattan. The Cemetery of the Evergreens was built two years later.
This talk of corpses mixing with water reminded me of the Sundays I spent as an altar server in our small-town church in Pennsylvania, braiding the tassels on my robe, and staring at a bronze plaque that hung between two stained glass windows and paid the following tribute: “Gwendolyn, daughter of Charles and Mary Spong, who died at sea April 27, 1903. Age nine months.”
I wondered whether Gwendolyn was buried under the church, or in the yard? Or if her parents had been pressured by other passengers to leave her body at sea. I pictured a swaddled Gwen, released from her mother’s hands, falling through strata of water, growing darker and colder. Batted about by sharks and dolphins, Gwen becomes an offering for the starfish, sea anemones and eyeless creatures who don’t even realize how dark it is on the ocean floor. At this point, a lay reader would nudge me and point with his chin to the cushions that needed to be laid at the altar gate or at the ushers waiting for communion plates. My daydream was over.
When Smith visited the Cemetery of the Evergreens as a teenager, families came for more than funerals. On weekends, they would promenade in their finery down Bushwick Avenue, which at the time was dotted with mansions—Brooklyn’s own Park Avenue. From there, they’d enter the cemetery.
“This is Brewer’s Row,” Smith says, leading me down a path just inside the cemetery gates, one plot named Hickory Knoll and another called simply The Lawn. These little white houses—some ornate, others simple Art Deco blocks with clean straight lines—are the resting places of some of Brooklyn’s wealthiest residents. The mausoleums line either side of an inclined driveway that curves to the right. Smith then points to a few short marble columns. He explains that a severed column symbolizes a life cut short, as does a broken flower bud or branch. A sculpture of a lamb or an angel often sits at the grave of a young child, representing innocence and purity.
Half of the lots in the Cemetery of the Evergeens are given names like Whispering Grove; the rest are Biblical, like Mount of Olives and Nazareth. Even though the Cemetery of the Evergreens is non-sectarian and non-denominational, groups tend to self-segregate. In an area populated by Chinese graves, families leave paper money and incense, as well as oranges and other food —all things some Chinese believe the dead will need on their journey to the afterlife.
When we reach a plot called Ascension, Smith crouches down before his maternal grandparents’ stone, picks up a tulip pot knocked on its side by the wind, and turns it upright, placing some stones inside. “Very few people visit. I can tell you,” he says. He repeats this process in North Mead, for his great-grandparents, his paternal grandparents and his parents. Along the way, we see only security guards and landscapers drive by. I ask Smith if he ever gets lonely visiting the cemetery.
“That’s why I’m thankful when that green truck goes by,” he says referring to the landscaping and maintenance workers that pass every half-hour or so and wave.
Unless you have a deed, a legal document to show you are related to another family member already buried here, you cannot reserve a plot at the Cemetery of the Evergreens. There isn’t room. The lots are first-come, first-served. Even if I wanted to be buried in this cemetery, I wouldn’t be allowed in.
Smith’s own burial is a matter of logistics. He will either lie with his parents or his grandparents, wherever there is still space, and as a result he won’t need his own headstone. It seems sad to me that Smith, a former architect, won’t get to design his own. As we sit on the L train, having left the cemetery behind, he cranes his neck and draws a grave for himself on the back of the cemetery map. If he weren’t planning to stay in one of the family graves, this is the headstone he would have chosen. It was a simple long rectangle within another slightly smaller rectangle and the name ‘ALLAN BOECHER SMITH’ in all capital letters. “Deep chiseled letters,” he says.
I don’t want Smith to be buried in this flat, desolate graveyard. It’s far too quiet. Of all of the cemeteries I’d visited, the Cemetery of the Evergreens felt the most like a cemetery—sad. While walking through it, even with Smith beside me, everything seemed too still. The graves felt forgotten. I would never expect to have even monthly visitors, but to know that just a few strangers might walk by occasionally would be a comfort. I crossed the Cemetery of the Evergreens off my list.
* * *
One Saturday morning in April, I visit Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn. There are at least six cars parked along the drive and several more pass as I walk. The graves are packed more tightly here than at Green-Wood or Cemetery of the Evergreens. The newer headstones are set closer to the driveway in rows, while the older graves lean against each other in the shadow of tall trees and shrubs. Smith had told me on my last visit that cemeteries often leave empty space at their front entrances, for aesthetic reasons. Cypress Hills ignores this convention.
Anthony Desmond, the office manager and family services counselor at Cypress Hills, sits behind his desk in a dark-wood-paneled office. He is thirty-something and bald with sympathetic eyes and a warm smile—which can’t hurt in his line of work. His customers are generally older—much older than me. “Some people feel like if they come in and prearrange for their burial then they’re going to die the next day,” he says.
Cypress Hills Cemetery is situated near East New York, a neighborhood known for high crime and violence. “It keeps us busy,” says Desmond. “Though not in the way that we would prefer.” Desmond went to law enforcement school, where he began training as a police officer, then changed his mind and joined his father in the family business. But his training has been useful; on at least three occasions he has helped catch criminals who had sought asylum in the cemetery.
Because most of his customers live in the surrounding community, Desmond and his family try to engage them with activities unrelated to death care. Last year, they invited a high school marching band to perform on Memorial Day and this past Christmas more than 200 children came to see Santa. The kids were excited about the free gifts and didn’t seem bothered by the tombstones.
After comparing prices for urns and graves—a single burial lot at Cypress Hills costs between $5,000 and $8,000 and an urn costs around $300—I ask Desmond if working with so many grieving families depresses him. He says being able to help people makes him feel good. If a family is struggling Desmond will share a little of his own grief. While they walk through the cemetery he’ll point to the grave of his sister, who died five years ago. “You never fully heal,” he says. “You just try to let them know that things are going to get better.”
When I ask Desmond about his own arrangements, he pauses and for the first time looks uneasy. He says he tries not to think about them. “I would rather just be cremated and left with my family on the mantle. That’s fine by me. After I’m dead it doesn’t really make a difference.”
Desmond has a point. I could have my ashes scattered by the creek in my hometown or flushed down the toilet. I could squeeze into a burial plot at Cypress Hill or spend my life saving up for a $250,000 mausoleum in Green-Wood. And what would it matter?
I walk the grounds at Cypress Hills as a grandmother, mother and son gather beside a lawn pump, collecting water for one grave’s flowers. Across the driveway, an old man kisses his fingers lightly, then bends down, touching his hand to a headstone. While the graves may be crowded, at least there are more visitors. Perhaps it’s a consolation for them to see each other, to know that their pain is shared.
* * *
I meet Allan Smith again, when he and his co-author, Stephen Duer, present their book on Cypress Hills Cemetery to a gathering of New York’s death care professionals in Park Slope. At the reading, I discuss my research with Duer, casually listing the cemeteries I’ve visited.
“You have to go to Woodlawn,” he says. The man is adamant. The mausoleums at Green-Wood, he continues, are a joke compared to Woodlawn.
So, on a Tuesday morning, I meet Susan Olsen, the official historian for Woodlawn Cemetery, in the Bronx. She wears a cheery pink shirt under a black blazer but she isn’t happy. Her eyes are puffy from an allergic reaction, which she admits is making her grumpy. “Let’s get this over with,” she says, leading me to a tiny room inside the administrative building at the cemetery’s front entrance. “I’ve got the History Channel coming this afternoon.”
She explains to me what makes Woodlawn unique—lists its selling points since I am, after all, a prospective client. It all comes down to history, architecture and artistry, Olsen says. And then our conversation takes a detour as she explains the history of embalming. “The best advertising for embalming was Abraham Lincoln’s death,” she tells me. After Lincoln died, his body was taken on a two-week funeral tour before reaching Springfield, Illinois. It was viewed by strangers at every stop along the way. Until that point, embalming was considered experimental, but after that it caught on quickly. Soldiers who died in battle could now be transported for miles on trains and then buried with their families.
At the same time, the role of undertaker developed into that of funeral director. Instead of having to clean house and invite all of your guests over, Olsen explains, people would send them to funeral parlors. “For those who were rich, it made them look good, and if they were poor, it made them look even better.” Olsen is a born storyteller; she feigns apathy, but the more she talks the clearer it becomes that death care actually matters to her.
Asked what her own final wishes are, Olsen waves away the question. “Oh I don’t care,” she says. “Cremation, I guess.”
Olsen gives me an audio guide, a sleek black device that looks like a TV remote, and circles the most critical spots on the tour map: the graves of Duke Ellington and Miles Davis and a few more that she thinks will interest me.
There are 1,300 mausoleums in Woodlawn. “Possibly, more than any other cemetery in the country besides New Orleans,” says a voice from the audio player, not Olsen’s. And they are magnificent. The tallest is seventy feet tall and detailed with cherubs, flames and gargoyles. Many are the size of small chapels.
In any direction I look there are also sculptures—hundreds of them—usually of women with long hair in flowing robes with flower petals between their fingers. Alongside these graceful figures are statues of children and angels.
Woodlawn prides itself on “beauty before permanence,” allowing stones that other cemeteries forbid, such as white marble and limestone, because they erode more quickly in harsh weather. Up close, some of the faces of the sculptures appear to be melting; other sculptures are missing fingers and limbs; one is headless. A privately contracted gardener tells me a groundskeeper who was drunk one night knocked the head off with a shovel.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, bizarre tragedies were usually well documented on the deceased’s gravestone. At Woodlawn, fifteen-year-old George Spencer Millet’s stone reads:
“Lost life by stab in falling on ink eraser, evading six young women trying to give him birthday kisses in office of Metropolitan life building.”
At the Cemetery of the Evergreens, another monument describes how two sets of brothers died playing marbles when a gas tank exploded beside them.
If Green-Wood is a park, then Woodlawn is a sculpture garden. In a way, the statues and mausoleums at Woodlawn are stunning, something to ogle, and admire, but this art was man-made and quickly eroding. What felt special about Green-Wood wasn’t the monuments but the atmosphere. True, the chapel and entrance are breathtaking, but it was the winding paths, the hills and the layers upon layers of branches a hundred years away that held me there. On a warm, clear day, it’s paradise. And on a grey afternoon, that cemetery wrapped its sadness around me, making it hard to leave.
* * *
On a Thursday afternoon, I stop at a monument store called Century Memorials, on Fifth Avenue not far from Green-Wood, to ask about epitaphs. With its white siding and antiquated lettering, it looks like a post office from a country-western film. I peek in the door, half expecting to see a man in spurs, with a bandanna covering his mouth and nose. Instead, I find an older woman wearing a necklace that says “Grandma.” She smiles up at me from beneath blue eye shadow and painted eyebrows, invites me to sit and introduces herself as Monica Hakola. A banner celebrating the store’s 150th anniversary hangs from the ceiling. “It’s old,” she says. The office explodes with papers, files and pictures of gravestones. I ask her when epitaphs became so generic—so many graves repeat the same thing; “Beloved wife,” “Beloved Husband,” “Beloved Son”—and if she has seen any special ones. “Let’s ask John,” Hakola says. “JOHN!!” A man seated in a cubicle just behind the front desk, John Hakola unfolds himself from his chair and steps to his full height, around six-foot-three. He is nearly seventy with weary blue eyes, but still handsome. He seems less enthused about visitors than Mrs. Hakola, but he is willing to accommodate me to please his wife.
I ask John if he remembers seeing any epitaphs that were memorable. “Memorable or oddball?” he asks.
This wasn’t the first time I’d posed the question; I just hadn’t found an answer. Anthony Desmond of Cypress Hills had told me that his favorite epitaph belonged to Jackie Robinson: “A life is not important except on the impact it has on other’s lives.” When I asked Olsen why she thought the final expressions on gravestones have gotten less creative, she answered flatly, “Because people have gotten less creative.”
“I know the one you’re thinking of,” says Monica Hakola. She rifles through a few files in a drawer, then hands me a photograph. “This one’s a real comedian,” she says.
The grey stone in the photo belongs to a man named Alfred. The top line reads, “It’s been a wonderful life.” Below that is his name, birth date and death date. Hakola points out that there is still space for two more names. And below the space, in small capital letters, Alfred closes with, “I love you all. Thanks for coming.” Even though I know Hakola called Alfred a comedian ironically, I still picture an old man standing behind a microphone, with a gleam in his eye, saying those last words before taking a bow. It was perfect.
* * *
By now, I was leaning towards both a grave and an epitaph, but there were still aspects of ground burial that needed to be resolved. So I asked Melissa Conrad, a friend and PhD candidate in biology at New York University, about decomposition. She told me that “while you’re alive, multiple mechanisms prevent your cells from breaking down.” But when your heart stops beating, your blood isn’t circulating or being cleaned. This causes a chemical change in those cells that are used to receiving clean blood, and these protective mechanisms fail. This chemical change triggers the release of enzymes, which cheat the body by breaking apart high-energy bonds and stealing from its energy stores.
Opportunistic feeders like worms, bacteria, fungus and even starfish—if you’re a body in water, like poor Gwendolyn Spong—speed up this process. They’re called detritivores. “In the end what you have are the simple building blocks that become available again,” Conrad says. Simply put, the molecules that make up your body are ready to take a different form.
A species of flies called phoridae, but commonly known as coffin flies, are an eighth of an inch long, brown or grey and drawn to moist, decaying material. They are picky eaters, I learn. Given the choice between steak and potatoes, they will choose the steak. I’m made queasy by the image of tiny monsters devouring my hair, skin and nails, and then laying eggs so their offspring can continue the process. Cremation starts to look more attractive than before.
I return to Green-Wood to explore its crematorium. Santos Rivera, who works in sales, leads me through a room with a small raised garden and two cushioned backless benches. It could be the waiting room at a doctor’s office on the Upper East Side, if not for the glass cupboards lined with lidded ornamental vases made of stone, onyx, marble and colored glass. Others hold boxes of cast iron, engraved with names, dates and, frequently, Chinese symbols. Each shelf is lit from above.
Rivera leads me outside the main building to the Tranquility Garden, where the sound of rushing water conjures images of a spa. Urns can also be buried here. Rivera points out a small flat plaque in the grass. Somewhere under the dirt sit two urns. “One on the right and one on the left,” he says tapping a shiny black shoe in each spot.
Just beyond the grass, water swirls in a lily pond. Bamboo plants point skyward in giant pots on either side of a narrow path, which forms an asterisk with other paths crossing the pond. Each path leads to a single glass house, known as a columbarium, and together they form a semi-circle around the pond. Inside the houses are more waiting rooms, and more urns.
We return to the main building and I follow Rivera in his blue dress shirt and shiny shoes. He walks me past a chapel that looks like a giant home theater, with several sofa chairs that curve in view of a lectern. Families often hold a committal service in the chapel, before sending the casket to the crematorium. Services last only fifteen minutes, Rivera told me. “Otherwise, there’s a wait.”
In the back room, two empty biers—moveable frames used to transport caskets—wait in front of vast stainless steel cabinets. The biers look like hospital stretchers, only sturdier and missing the mattresses. The newer ones have built-in scales, so that bodies can be weighed and moved at once. The steel cabinets, I realize, are the ovens.
Two thousand degrees Fahrenheit is the right temperature at which to burn a body. “You put your heaviest bodies on in the morning,” says Rivera. Otherwise, the retorts, the ovens where bodies are sent, are overworked and will break down. Unlike the old models, which workers ran by hand, the newer models, Phoenixes, have timers, buttons to preheat and a light to indicate when the machine has cooled down. “I used to think of it as opening up the doors to hell,” Rivera admits. Now, he sees things more practically. “Cremations are just a quick way to get ashes,” he says.
While bodies take two hours to be cremated, the retort needs another hour to cool down. “Then you open it up and take out the handles,” says Rivera, referring to the knobs and bars used by pallbearers to carry coffins. “Sometimes you get a fancy casket that might have a spring mattress in there, or you could get a cardboard box.”
When the brass and metal bits have been removed, an employee will sweep the ashes into a tray, where they cool for another half-hour. The remains, including larger bone fragments, are poured into a pulverizer, the size of a regular blender. It takes only a few seconds to reduce bone to ash, Rivera told me. The ashes are poured into a black bin, the size of a small book, lined with a plastic bag, and then finally into the urn. Depending on the receptacle, the whole process can last between four and five hours.
The final product, which comprises the corpse and the coffin, weighs between seven and twelve pounds. Sifting, the process of separating the ashes from the wood, used to be standard procedure, but it wasn’t foolproof. “In that process, you would lose some of the remains. So it was outlawed. Now, you give it all back,” says Rivera.
The demand for Rivera’s services has doubled in the last decade, from 1,200 to nearly 2,500 cremations annually. Green-Wood is building a second chapel and another waiting room. “This way we can handle two services at once,” he says.
The reason for cremation’s popularity is likely financial. The average funeral costs around $5,000, including a casket. Cremation generally costs around $350. A niche for an urn can cost as little as $700, whereas the average plot for a single burial at Green-Wood is $15,000.
In Green-Wood, a premium spot, which allows for a larger tombstone and plantings, is approximately $22,000, but a private mausoleum can cost as much as $300,000. This sounds expensive until you compare it to Forest Hills Cemetery in California, where a family mausoleum with an ocean view costs more than $825,000.
Every funeral home has a closet full of unclaimed remains, or cremains, usually inside urns. Rivera confirmed this. “They are required by law to wait 120 days,” he said. Afterward, the homes are legally allowed to dispose of the remains, but they seldom do. Sometimes the families never come back. “They didn’t have a place to put them or couldn’t afford them, ”he says.
As elegant as the urns look, the concept of being made to fit into a smooth square box or vase seems too delicate, too sanitary. I don’t want to be kept like a china dish under an artificial light.
In Rivera’s office I notice a row of scattering urns sitting above his shelves, each one painted differently—with clouds, an American flag, army camouflage or a field of sunflowers. They work like salt shakers, letting a little ash out at a time. I picture my brother and sister, with their future children, and maybe mine, shaking out ashes over a favorite field by a creek back home in Pennsylvania.
Before I leave, Rivera hands me a few brochures about cremation. One is titled, “Explaining Cremation to a Child.” The image on the front shows two models in matching blue sweaters and khakis, looking up at a young girl who is for no apparent reason sitting in a window—which, upon closer examination, is not actually a window, but still has an ethereal light behind it. The brochure reads, “In explaining cremation to your child avoid words that may have a frightening connotation such as ‘fire’ and ‘burn.’” A few paragraphs later it adds, “Be sure to point out that a dead body feels no pain.” Out of context, the brochure is laughable, but the concept of a parent having to rely on a brochure to explain death, and what happens to dead bodies, is less so.
* * *
While the prospect of worms and phoridae flies recycling my flesh still disgusts me, I’m less excited about cremation after seeing the pulverizer. I don’t want to be blended. And as charming as scattering your ashes seems, it’s also very final. Once you’re scattered, you’re gone. Forever.
But not every part of death care has to be so unromantic. Women who work in the funerary business have a less than conventional approach to dying. Ruth Edebohls, the tour guide at Green-Wood, has thought about the dress she’ll be buried in. It’s a long-sleeved turtleneck and it’s velvet. “That would be perfect if it were in the winter,” she said. Although it doesn’t have a zipper, she added, and might be difficult to pull over a corpse. Angela Ragusa, a 21-year-old who grew up in the memorial business, said she wants “something plain” for her gravestone. She chose a black stone with rosary beads on top; even though it’s less natural, it’s trendier. “Everyone wants the black,” she said.
I’ve wrestled with the nightmare of decay, the grotesque sucking of flies and tunneling of worms and the gnawing of rodents, and decided it’s still preferable to cremation. There is something clean, even spiritual, about burial that’s missing from the very sterile and modern process of cremation. Through burial, you are intimately, inextricably part of nature, with a community both living and dead. To me, it’s a way of forever belonging.
I’ve decided I’ll wear a short-sleeved navy dress at my funeral, and earrings that are small and timeless. Choosing an epitaph was much harder. For the moment, I think a quote from Albert Schweitzer comes closest to expressing what I’ve learned in 31 years. “Sometimes our light goes out, but is blown again into instant flame by an encounter with another human being.” Put simply, people need other people. It’s both a thank you to friends and strangers and a reminder.
As for my grave, I chose Green-Wood. I found a spot up a series of winding roads and under a canopy of oaks and maples. It’s far enough from civilization to be peaceful, but it’s $22,000—a premium lot. This is my dream plot. Ten years from now it seems possible, but when I ask about the feasibility of my claiming it, I’m told that Green-Wood could actually fill up in five years, not ten. (I’m assured this is not the case with its urn gardens.) So it seems I’ll need a fallback plan.
Fortunately, I know another place that does have room. Half a mile inside the dreary brown gates and packed front lawn of Cypress Hills Cemetery, I leave the driveway and follow a path that’s cracked and partially embedded in the earth. I eventually abandon that path and cross through a field of graves and up a hill. This cemetery is much more exposed than Green-Wood, with fewer serpentine paths, smaller hills, and none of the man-made ponds and fountains, but it, too, has peaceful corners.
I’m drawn up the hill by a massive, sprawling tree, an elm or an oak, I can’t be sure. Beneath its tremendous shadow stands a brownstone obelisk topped with a cloaked urn; beside it a limestone statue of a woman holding lilies with her one remaining arm.
I look out over the graves in the field below, imagining them through the seasons, speckled with leaves in the fall, draped in snow in the winter and then swirling with muddy puddles in spring. I picture them crisp with dew in the morning, beads of water glistening across epitaphs, and I imagine how cold the air is on a winter night.
Of course, there are crickets, cicadas and birds. A cemetery is never fully quiet. The tree leaves rustle like seashells under water. In the distance, I can hear the purr of cars on the Jackie Robinson Parkway. I sit down and lean my back against my tree—no tour guides, no visitors, no strangers in sight. It’s just me, alone in my sanctuary.
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Shannon Firth is a journalist who lives in Brooklyn. She has written about authors, running, and the elusive nature of women’s friendship. Her work has been published by The Independent, The Local, Nerve and findingDulcinea.
Julie Turkewitz writes for publications that include The Atlantic and The New York Times. She also likes to take pictures.