The Urban Scientist

City of the dead

Tens of millions of people have died in New York City. Here’s where some of them have gone.

April 16, 2012

There’s a place where the L train emerges from underground and out into the easternmost stretch of Bushwick. Fingers of sunlight reach into the tunnel, and the embankment slides down as the train rises. You look out the left windows to see graves spread below you as far as your eyes can reach.

This conglomeration of over a dozen cemeteries is larger than Central Park. The lines of graves have been here and growing since the 1840s, when the Rural Cemetery Act made it easier to establish commercial cemeteries outside the city, responding to fear of cholera-infected bodies and growing real estate pressure in Manhattan. Rome has catacombs beneath the city. We bury our dead in Brooklyn and Queens.

I got off the L train one afternoon in early February and walked under the tracks to the nearest gate, to Most Holy Trinity Cemetery. I had planned to wander through Trinity to get to the larger Cemetery of the Evergreens, designed by the landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing who, before his early death, was supposed to design Central Park. A rusted chain link fence topped with shiny barbed wire blocked my way. I would have to stick with Trinity.

The cemetery was empty and dead quiet. There didn’t seem to be a single living thing beyond the dormant grass and winter trees. The grave markers that had once been lined up along cracking, crumbling cement paths had begun to break ranks, tilting and leaning against one another like tipsy soldiers. The bushes and trees were large and plentiful, but they seemed to have planted themselves, either out of line with the graves or too close to them.

Most of the grave markers, aside from the newest ones by the front gate, were age-spotted metal or simple wood. Other mourners had joined metal poles at right angles to make crosses. The markers were sinking into the ground: Mother Mary buried up to her thighs, Jesus’ legs fallen off. Another Jesus figurine, mid-crucifixion, dangled from his cross by one arm.

I peered into a hole in a bush and saw a grave marker deep within. I began to look into other shrubs. Most of them were consuming graves. Did well-meaning relatives plant these as graveside ornaments long ago? Under another bush I found a raccoon tail. Two big black flies were eating the dried, stringy flesh at the place where the body used to be. Nearby, resting in a bed of the raccoon’s matted hair, was its perfectly aligned spine.

“A great verdant necropolis,” The New York Times recently called it. When the rural cemeteries first opened, throngs of people came to them on the weekends to visit their dead and enjoy the outdoors. Now the necropolis has near a million inhabitants. We don’t know most of them any more.

I had made it to the top of the Trinity Cemetery, further ascent blocked by the barbed wire fence. I sat down, picked some pungent allium poking out of the grass and smashed it between my fingers. The wind blowing through the crumpled metal grave markers made a hollow, creaking sound. Beyond that, there was just a dull roar. I looked out over the L train platform and saw Manhattan in the distance. I’m sure the city makes that sound all the time, but I just don’t hear it over the all the voices and blaring horns.

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About the Author

Kate Yandell graduated from Williams College with a B.A. in English and biology. English took her to Oxford University her junior year to try her hand at Old English. Biology led her to the swamps of Cape Cod to research marine worm development, and also prompted journeys through the scientific literature to understand everything from why the giant sloths and saber tooth tigers died out to how microbes communicate. She likes to sing, run, and hang out in coffee shops and libraries. Find her on Twitter: @kateyandell.

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