It’s near the end of my conversation with Jeff Richman, likely the most knowledgeable person alive about the grounds and residents of the 180-year-old landmark Green-Wood Cemetery, that I ask him the question I feel most torn about. Green-Wood is a special part of Brooklyn for me with a dozen vital uses: an open-air art museum, a bird and animal preserve, an arboretum, grounds for historical research, a quiet space for meditation, a gallery of architectural styles, a spiritual hub. It feels belittling to the majesty of the place to ask someone who works there anything that might be misconstrued as: Do you think Green-Wood is haunted? But as a longtime explorer of the cemetery’s more than 450 acres, I’ve often been struck by the sense of being in the presence of something beyond vision, so I gird myself and ask, “Do you ever feel something otherworldly trying to communicate with you at Green-Wood?”
I’m pleasantly surprised when Richman answers both thoughtfully and affirmatively: “Certainly when I first started coming here, I would’ve been cynical about the idea of some supernatural force tapping you on the shoulder. But time has taught me that there are souls about, and you get a feeling every once in a while that they are reaching out. I’ve come across spots I have been to a hundred times when I will suddenly see something I had never seen before and it unlocks a remarkable, remarkable story. All too often, I have no explanation for not having noticed what I’ve noticed without a sort of intervention. So I’ve learned to keep an open mind.”
That open mind led Richman to write the definitive book on Green-Wood, a fascinating compendium of short historical biographies for several of the cemetery’s more than half a million permanent residents. For the past 11 years, he has been the full-time historian of the cemetery (where everyone from Bernstein to Basquiat is eternally resting), the second since the institution’s founding and the first in nearly 150 years. Richman regularly leads often sold-out guided tours of the grounds, in which he shares his favorite bits of research, introduces audiences to hidden histories, and unlocks the doors to a few generally off-limits spots like Green-Wood’s Catacombs. Here’s my conversation with the man who, quite literally, knows where Brooklyn’s bodies are buried.
What Should We Do?!: What’s the average day of a cemetery historian like?
Jeff Richman: Like pretty much any job, it generally starts with a random email. A few hours ago I got a message requesting the names of the crew members of the USS Monitor, many of whom are buried here, so I’ll be researching that today. On any given day, I might be preparing research for a tour or writing a blog post for the Green-Wood website. I’m often editing our Civil War biographies project, where we have amassed 5,200 online biographies of Civil War veterans buried at Green-Wood. My experience as a lawyer has helped prepare me for this work quite well; having argued cases in the New York Court of Appeals, I learned a great deal about researching a story, organizing information, and then passing it on clearly and accurately.
There are souls about, and you get a feeling every once in a while that they are reaching out.
WSWD: What makes Green-Wood special?
Richman: Green-Wood dates from 1838 and was part of the rural cemetery movement, which began just outside of Paris at Pére Lachaise. The idea, a new one at the time, was you would no longer bury people in a town’s urban center but would instead extend the world of the dead to an undeveloped space. This would create an opportunity to wholesomely commune with nature on a trip by horse or carriage. This idea found its way to England, and it added further nuances: winding paths, roads, ponds. Eventually, rural cemeteries emerged in Cambridge, Massachusetts; Philadelphia; Rochester, New York; and then, finally in the late 1830s, Brooklyn.
Green-Wood Cemetery isn’t the first or the largest rural cemetery in America but, even so, it’s a home to more than 570,000 permanent residents and runs about a mile by a mile, only slightly smaller than Prospect Park. People come to bird-watch, see the sculptures, push strollers around, and otherwise enjoy the peace and quiet. It’s a remarkable place.
WSWD: Green-Wood straddles the gap between public park and active cemetery. But it hasn’t always been that way, has it?
Richman: Not at all. The cemetery went through a period about 50 years ago where it was closed to the public because of financial constraints. Many local residents agreed that this extraordinary resource really should be shared with the public. So in 1998, the Green-Wood Historic Fund was created to better share the history, landscape, and art of the cemetery. Over the past 20 years, we’re been deeply engaged in revolutionizing Green-Wood into a much more visitor-friendly place, with special events that run the gamut from walking tours and live music to film screenings and art installations.
When I first started doing my tours of the grounds, I had to ask myself if it was really appropriate to be walking across someone’s grave with a group of strangers just to show them around.
WSWD: As curators of the grounds, how do you decide between the needs of someone who wants to explore the cemetery for their Sunday constitutional and the experience of someone who has just lost a loved one, both in the same place?
Richman: It’s a balancing act that goes back to the very earliest years of the cemetery. In the 19th century, Green-Wood had its own private police force, which was charged with making sure that the mourners and the visitors coexisted.
WSWD: Are there ever clashes between visitors and mourners?
Richman: Rarely. Most people do their best to be respectful. I’m sure there’s a discussion raging on Facebook even now concerning whether it’s appropriate to have public events here. This is a conversation that is ongoing, but the hard truth is that people have to recognize that—both for economic reasons and in the name of our moral imperative to share this wonderful green oasis—we need to invite the public in. We’re certainly more stringent with our rules than a park: We don’t allow bikes or dogs or picnics. There’s a level of decorum that we hope is implicit to all our visitors.
Many of the people whom I discuss on these tours, it might be a century since their names have been spoken.
When I first started doing my tours of the grounds, I had to ask myself if it was really appropriate to be walking across someone’s grave with a group of strangers just to show them around. But you know, many of the people whom I discuss on these tours, it might be a century since their names have been spoken. I think taking modern crowds out and telling them the story of somebody who has been dead for 120 years is a way of giving new life to the residents of Green-Wood, and there’s really no way to do that without walking on some graves. I like to hope that the tribute we are offering offsets whatever small indignities we may inflict in the process.
WSWD: With hundreds of thousands of stories to choose from, how do you determine whose history you try to prioritize on your tours?
Richman: Part of it is looking for subjects that haven’t been covered previously. With the sheer numbers of people interred here, there is virtually no topic or vocation that touched on 19th-century New York life that we can’t find 15 relevant people for. In the first 10 years of my time here, people discussed in a tour all had to be close together because we were always on foot. About a decade ago, we managed to get funding for a trolley, and that’s really opened up our options. I recently did an anaglyph tour, where we visited the sites of tourist-aimed stereoscopic views that had been taken 150 years ago. Everybody got the red-and-cyan 3-D glasses and we were able to compare those old anaglyph pictures to the modern-day vistas to see how the cemetery has changed—and not changed—over the past 150 years.
WSWD: Is there a “can’t-miss” attraction at Green-Wood Cemetery that you’d say everyone who visits must see?
Richman: A friend recently asked me the same question and, after I mapped out about six weeks’ worth of attractions for him, he told me, “It seems that you like all your children equally well.”
If I had to pick a few, I would suggest the New York City Civil War Soldier’s Monument on Battle Hill, with its recast bronzes. I’m personally endlessly fascinated by the Jane Griffith memorial; it is just a beautiful, beautiful piece of marble work dating from about 1860 by Patrizio Piatti, a sculptor whom I have discovered is also buried at Green-Wood in an unmarked grave. Here is this man who poured his heart and soul into at least a half-dozen spectacular marble carvings at Green-Wood and was buried himself with no gravestone. As part of our Unmarked Grave Project, we will be correcting that in the near future.
The point of these winding paths and rolling hills was that you couldn’t see very far or anticipate what was in the distance.
In any case, a major part of visiting Green-Wood is discovering what is exciting to you on your own. That’s baked into the very idea of a rural cemetery; the point of these winding paths and rolling hills was that you couldn’t see very far or anticipate what was in the distance. You are meant to proceed with a constant sense of discovery and expectation for whatever is peeking out just over the horizon. I wouldn’t want to spoil that surprise; you’ll need to come out and see it for yourself.
WSWD: Last question, and it’s a bit of a doozy: Do you plan to make Green-Wood Cemetery your personal resting place?
Richman: I do. I’ll be joining my wife, who is buried there already. When I had approached her with the idea of getting a lot on the grounds, she said that she was OK with that because she knew if she was buried at Green-Wood, I would visit her almost every day. And that has been the case.