My Midwestern family, vastly more “Leave It to Beaver” than “Addams Family,” enjoyed one notable quirk. We loved cemeteries. While other families visited museums or churches on their summer vacations, when we traveled, we’d seek out the oldest graveyards we could find, wandering happily among the headstones, reading aloud to each other as we went, imagining the lives of the people buried beneath.
History was written in those stones: town politics (the fanciest mausoleums or best sites revealed which families were considered important), epidemics (waves of young deaths), wars (generations of boys wiped out; the stark immensity of the cemetery at Omaha Beach in Normandy where my father landed), tragedy (five out of eight children predeceasing the parents) and poignancies (couples entombed together after 60 years of marriage).
Once I had my own family, we embraced my parents' legacy (and my in-laws’ similar graveyard love despite their preference for cremation) with even more gusto: picnicking—off-the-beaten path cemeteries are far less populous and more interesting places to eat than parks—and even going so far as to ritualize a headlights-off-spooky-soundtrack-on nighttime drive through the old cemetery close to our Upstate New York farm.
My husband and I had always thought we’d have our ashes scattered on that farm. But when we sold it, I found myself longing for the green calm of country life and began taking walks in the closest verdant place to my home in Brooklyn: Green-Wood Cemetery.
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Green-wood is a 478-acre paradise—a National Historic Monument and part of the Audubon Sanctuary System (home to horned owls and Quaker parrots)—deep in the heart of dense urbanity. And it’s the “permanent residence” for the famous and the infamous: Horace Greeley, “Boss” Tweed, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Leonard Bernstein, The Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, Samuel Morse, Louis Comfort Tiffany and, my personal favorite, “Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets” Montez, the 19th-century adventurer and mistress of King Ludwig I of Bavaria.
The truly great thing is that it is not a depressing place. Unlike most cemeteries, where people visit only on national holidays, Green-Wood is teeming with life and energy—from its magical-seeming fauna to cemetery-sponsored events like moonlight tours accompanied by accordion players to 1950s-feeling Fourth of July brass bands and picnics to people like me enjoying their daily constitutional. When it was founded in 1838, it was part of a new trend in American cemetery design: to turn them into rural, park-like destinations where people could go on weekends to picnic and stroll.
Although I was raised Catholic and don’t really believe in an afterlife, I have found that as I’ve grown older, the need for some kind of a marker that acknowledges that I lived has begun to insinuate itself into my consciousness. And while my husband and I hope to be above ground for a long time, over the past few years during my walks, I've begun to hear a little whisper in the back of my mind that Green-wood might be a place where we’d want to have an enduring presence.
So when I read a piece in The New York Times that reported that Green-Wood was “close to capacity” and that the president of the “organization” was hoping to “recruit” distinguished literary types, I turned to my husband, an author, and said, “Kurt, I want you to contact that man right now and let him know we’d like to be buried in Green-wood.”
Perhaps that's not the most romantic thing a wife can say to her husband before coffee, but he, too, loves our walks and, like the awesome husband that he is, immediately dashed off a letter. And the president promptly responded, “No introduction necessary, Mr. Andersen, your reputation precedes you.”
It was a classic New York moment. Maybe we aren’t quite A-list enough to score a table at Per Se at the last minute, but as authors we had enough mojo to secure a burial plot at the exclusive Green-Wood Cemetery!
The most amazing thing? Unlike any other piece of real estate I've coveted in New York City, it turns out that cemetery plots are surprisingly, shockingly cheap. Really. You could buy a third of a Kelly bag…or get a magnificent little bit of Brooklyn forever. Seems like a pretty good deal to me.
Last month, we went for an official visit. A sales counselor showed us around, and after much family discussion, we’ve just about settled on a beautiful little wooded depression in the heart of the cemetery where you cannot see a building or hear any traffic. Our daughters, used to picnicking in cemeteries, have come to accept the fact that we’re buying a burial plot. My dream, in fact, is for them to collaborate on a design for a bench they can sit on as our headstone.
Interestingly, friends far closer to the horizon line tend to put their fingers in their ears, nah-nah-nah-nah’ing so they can’t hear us, obviously squeamish when we describe our recent adventure in real estate.
None of us wants to think actively about death, but I can honestly report that wandering through the hills and dales of Green-Wood with Kurt on warm spring days, listening to the birds chirp, marveling at the virtuosity of the sculptures adorning the gravesites and contemplating the precise place where we might lie together was impossibly romantic. We held hands, celebrating the life we’ve lived in our chosen city, planning to go gently into the good night.