‘Cypress Hills Cemetery’ Tells Stories, Reveals Secrets
Cypress Hills Cemetery
By Stephen C. Duer and
Allan B. Smith
On Sale: September 6
A book with the word “Cemetery” in its title can be counted on to scare some people off. In the case of Cypress Hills Cemetery, by Stephen C. Duer, whose passion for cemeteries led him to create Cemetery Nation, which explores all aspects of this intriguing subject, and Allen B. Smith, a retired architect, local historian, trustee of the Queens Historical Society and a restorer of the Wyckoff-Snediker family cemetery in Woodhaven, that would be unfortunate, because its 128 pages are packed with information, not only about the founding and history of the first rural cemetery in Greater New York to be organized under the Rural Cemetery Act of 1847, but also about the meaning of every tree and plant, and the import of every statue and symbol found on the tombstones and monuments that adorn Cypress Hills’ 209 rolling acres that even today command magnificent views of Jamaica Bay and the Atlantic Ocean beyond.
While Cypress Hills Cemetery’s main entrance, and hence its post office address, is in Brooklyn, at 833 Jamaica Ave., most of the cemetery proper lies in adjoining Glendale in Queens, and that borough proudly claims it. In seven chapters, Inception and Development, Magnificent Man-Made Monuments, Mysterious Markings and Secret Symbols, Names That Echo from the Past, Memorials and Honors Earned, Fellowship and Immortality and Today and Tomorrow, Duer and Smith tell the story of how the cemetery grew with the borough, expanding to hold a 3.5-acre National Cemetery section with the graves of 7,000 Union soldiers and 239 Confederate prisoners and an oak tree that stands as a living memorial to President James A. Garfield, shot July 2, 1881 and died September 19 of that same year. A Mount of Victory plot holds among others the grave of one Isaac Daniels, who fought in both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. Other notables whose remains rest in Cypress Hills include actress Mae West, musician Eubie Blake and Major League baseball player Jackie Robinson.
The first person interred in Cypress Hills shortly after it opened was one David Corey, died Dec. 9, 1848, aged 11 months and 11 days. Many other children’s graves dot the landscape, some succumbing to the infectious diseases that raged for most of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and others who died by other means, including Gavin Cato, whose death in a car accident brought about the Crown Heights riots of 1991 and Nixmary Brown, beaten to death by her stepfather in 2006 after years of abuse at his hands and those of her mother.
Duer and Smith explain why cypress trees are a favorite of cemetery landscapers and that oak trees in cemeteries “stand for life everlasting and can symbolize power, authority and victory” while weeping willows indicate sadness, grief and perpetual mourning. Chapter Three, Mysterious Markings and Secret Symbols, is a mustread for anyone who has ever wondered about the significance of the carpenter’s square and compass of the Freemasons, chains with broken links, hands pointing upward and palm branches, the last named appearing on Christian and Jewish graves, among many other symbols of lives lived and the hopes for the deceased expressed in stone by those they left behind. Cypress Hills also holds two buildings known as Abbeys that hold crypts, and a number of mausoleums. Duer and Smith include an explanation of the derivation of the word “mausoleum” that is well worth perusing the book to discover.
Cypress Hills Cemetery has moved into the new century with many of the problems facing burial grounds everywhere, especially the deterioration of many of the oldest markers and increasingly crowded space. It has addressed several of these with new sections holding graves marked by in-ground bronze markers and young trees planted along the cemetery’s drives and avenues with silver plaques denoting to whom they are dedicated. Sitting benches can be dedicated to a deceased loved one and the cemetery has invested considerable time and funds in sculpture and ornamental art.
Cypress Hills Cemetery is an entertaining and informative read. Aside from getting the name of the local architect who designed the cemetery’s third administration building incorrect (it’s Gerald Caliendo), and the fact that, like many of the other books in the Arcadia Publishing Images of America series, the subject matter truly demands an index, the book is a worthy addition to the library of anyone interested in local history, especially that of Queens.