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Pioneering Cemetery: Green-Wood in Brooklyn, NY

In Brooklyn, New York, the Green-Wood Cemetery came to be in 1838. The 16,000 New Yorkers that lost their lives in 1822 to the yellow fever epidemic caused by overcrowding of gravesites were not buried in Green-Wood, which didn’t exist at the time. Instead, the dead bodies were dispersed into graveyards in Manhattan that were filled to capacity. New York knew that they were in dire need of a garden cemetery.

After a year had passed since the pioneering Mount Auburn opened in Cambridge, Massachusetts (in 1832), a businessman from New York City named Henry Pierrepont paid a visit and was thoroughly impressed. Three years later, Pierrepont was commissioned to construct the streets that would uplift Brooklyn. He was influenced by Mount Auburn and while he was laying out the plans for new streets, he also set aside a plot of land to create a relaxing atmosphere set on hilly terrain. The views of Brooklyn and Manhattan were quite satisfying, which at the time, were separated by a river with a strong current. The Brooklyn Bridge would not come to be until 1883.

Four different families owned the farmland that Pierrepont envisioned for his cemetery. Descendants of the family sold their real estate for up to $650 per acre, which was a pretty steep price for this time period. Now, the planning of the cemetery could begin and even the smallest of details were attended to. There would be walkways and paths for carriages. Valleys would be deepened and six lakes were created. On each side of the East River, ferries would meet to accommodate funeral parties.

Green-Wood Cemetery officially opened to the public in April of 1838 and was received its name because the developers wished to offer a quiet, rural location , full of beauty. The cemetery became the third garden cemetery and in the end, it took up nearly 500 acres of land. This was four times larger than the infamous Mount Auburn. However, not everything went as smoothly as planned. The river would prove a great obstacle, as it was a turbulent force to be reckoned with.

The first funerals destined for Green-Wood Cemetery actually ended in water burials. For example, funeral carts were pulled with horses and flat barges were needed to transport the carriage, horses, coffins, and mourners. Add stormy weather conditions and you can imagine the rest of the story. Coffins slipped into the river and depending on the family members, water burial was chosen to avoid further grief. Others would attempt to retrieve their loved ones for a second try. The city never kept records of how many people received an unintentional burial. The threat of disastrous burials lasted between 1838 and 1883 until the Brooklyn Bridge came into the picture. While the route to the cemetery was longer, it was much safer.