Full House: NYC Cemeteries
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
We've all heard that it's expensive to live in New York City, but it's not cheap to be dead there either. New York's cemeteries are filling up, and the remaining lots are pricey. That's bad news for families that want to stay in New York forever and challenging for cemeteries that will soon be out of the burying business. Here's NPR's Robert Smith.
ROBERT SMITH reporting:
Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn is home to more than half a million permanent New Yorkers, as one guidebook refers to the departed. It's usually a quiet place until the weekends roll around.
Mr. JEFF RICHMAN (Green-Wood Cemetery): Welcome to Green-Wood Cemetery. My name is Jeff Richman. I'm the historian here. Today is a Halloween tour.
SMITH: A couple hundred history buffs and ghoulish souls have gathered for a tour of the crypts, mausoleums and spectacular grave sites that make Green-Wood famous.
Mr. RICHMAN: We're going to concentrate on murders and ghosts, and we even might make it into the catacombs today, which is always nice.
SMITH: Green-Wood is trying to remake itself into a place that's as much for the living as it is for the dead. It's hosting concerts and lectures and these tours every weekend. As Richman leads the crowd over the rolling hills and vistas, he says the role of cemeteries in New York is changing.
Mr. RICHMAN: It's not just a shift, but it's a reversion to the original history of the place. In the 1850s, this was one of the major tourist attractions in America. Half a million people a year were coming here. In fact, it was the argument for Central Park.
SMITH: And Green-Wood wants people to go back to thinking of the cemetery as a combination park, museum and sculpture garden. The reason is real estate. The cemetery plots in Manhattan long ago filled up, and cemeteries out here in the boroughs are reaching their limits. The president of Green-Wood estimates that after five years or so they'll have sold the last space.
Mr. RICHARD MOYLAN (Green-Wood Cemetery): We're on our last leg as an active cemetery.
SMITH: Richard Moylan has been working at Green-Wood since he was a teen-ager mowing the lawns. Now he's the head of the Metropolitan Cemetery Association. He says that New York City hasn't been much help in finding more space.
Mr. MOYLAN: The land comes off the tax rolls, so obviously the governmental body is not going to be that willing to designate more cemetery. And I would love to be able to acquire more land near the cemetery, but as you can imagine land is at a premium here.
SMITH: So cemeteries in the city have been trying other tricks to get everybody in. In New York you can bury caskets three deep. Green-Wood has also been filling in some of its pathways and converting them to grave sites. But if you're planning on living a few more years, where can you be buried in the city?
Mr. MOYLAN: Probably not here; probably not in New York City, I'm afraid. May have to finally make that trek to the suburbs.
SMITH: Not something a true New Yorker wants to hear. Rabbi Stephen Roberts of the New York Board of Rabbis says he works with families all the time that would prefer to stay.
Rabbi STEPHEN ROBERTS: You die in this day and age and you wanted to be buried--you're either buried on Long Island or you're buried in New Jersey. There's almost nothing left in the city.
SMITH: Sounds like everything else in New York real estate. You had to get in early, right?
Rabbi ROBERTS: Most definitely. If you want to be buried in the city, your family had to have bought it a long time ago or you had to have made money recently.
SMITH: It's a problem for the cemeteries, too. When a graveyard stops burying people, it loses most of its revenue. A basic site at Green-Wood costs about $7,000. The cemetery does have a reserve spot, but it has to find other ways to bring people in.
Mr. RICHMAN: Bill the Butcher was a notorious gang leader in New York City in the 1850s.
SMITH: As Richman continues his bullhorn tour, a family standing nearby at a grave site looks up, confused at all the people. They're here to place flowers on the grave of their mother, Rosalie Montiroso(ph). At first the daughter, Elizabeth(ph), thought it was a roving Halloween party.
ELIZABETH: That's not appropriate if it was something to do with Halloween.
SMITH: I explained to her that its a historical tour and the money will go to maintaining the cemetery and she softens.
ELIZABETH: As long as people are respectful and, you know, maintain peace, that's really what's important.
SMITH: The tour group does tromp over countless bones as it winds its way through the cemetery, but they remain somewhat reverent, snapping pictures and taking notes. Dan Smith from Long Island says it's like a theme park of history.
Mr. DAN SMITH: And it's fascinating. You step back into time. You know, you're back in the 1860s and beyond.
SMITH: And that's enough reason, he says, to keep coming back, even if he's not planning to stay permanently. Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.
NORRIS: This is NPR, National Public Radio.
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