Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn is the oldest and largest rural cemetery in New York. It's a huge, beautiful park and certified arboretum. From the G-W website:
Founded in 1838 and now a National Historic Landmark, Green-Wood was one of the first rural cemeteries in America. By the early 1860s, it had earned an international reputation for its magnificent beauty and became the prestigious place to be buried, attracting 500,000 visitors a year, second only to Niagara Falls as the nation's greatest tourist attraction. Crowds flocked there to enjoy family outings, carriage rides, and sculpture viewing in the finest of first generation American landscapes. Green-Wood's popularity helped inspire the creation of public parks, including New York City's Central and Prospect Parks.
For my graduate thesis project, I'm writing and drawing a comic called Ghost Kids, which takes place primarily in a graveyard in a quiet New England suburb. Green-Wood, being a giant park in a giant city, is not quite that, but one can find many lovely little isolated corners between the winding paths. I'm using Green-Wood as a research touchstone from which to build my setting, a comfortable natural place full of trees to climb and grassy areas to lie down in, which just happen to be surrounded by people long put to rest.
It's summer 2020, and every life in New York City has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. I've been stuck in my apartment since early March - truthfully, I was in and out of a personal quarantine in February, so I've been doing this even a little longer - and before these trips, I hadn't seen the unmasked face of a loved one in person for several dull and depressed months. It's kind of funny, that visiting a cemetery helped revive me, but it's true.
I took three trips in June and July, focusing on images, audio, and data, respectively. After hours and hours of exploring, I've only covered a fraction of the entire space. I now have a personal goal: To find 'my spot' in Green-Wood, a place that suits the needs of my Ghost Kids characters but also my own needs. A place of comfort, and of rest. A little corner of the park I can return to, again and again.
Summer outings are different in the COVID era. I'm treading with an abundance of caution, since I'm high-risk for the virus, so I haven't taken public transit since February. I've roped my brother Max into my cemetery trips; he drives in from Jersey to pick me up, and that's how we get there.
This is the first time I've been to Green-Wood in a couple of years. It turns out G-W may be the perfect place to spend time outdoors in New York City during a season usually spent on crowded beaches, in overpopulated parks. I've been very paranoid throughout this whole thing; I live a couple blocks away from Gantry Park, right on the East River, but the way I've been seeing people act in regards to masking and social distancing has kept me away from the waterfront.
Green-Wood, on the other hand, has its unique benefits: It's huge, has free parking along every path, and isn't a place that most people think of when they're planning a day out. We share the place with some families, small groups of friends, people taking walks, but in general we barely encounter or interact with anyone.
Max is a photographer in his spare time, and helps me collect imagery for my project. I've circled spots on the map that I want to explore; I'm looking for elements like 'a good tree to hang out under,' shaded areas with very old headstones, a water feature. We hike around, commenting to each other on the ways different sections of plots interact with each other, and on the things and people we see.
When we stop to eat the lunch we've brought, we make sure to do it in a place that doesn't feel disrespectful to the buried. There are a couple of iron benches in front of a large memorial wall, and we each take one, keeping our distance from each other while we take off our masks. When I see my brother's face, honestly, I get emotional. Today is the first day that has felt anywhere near normal since mid-February. I realize that it's because, if COVID was not a factor, if I'd been in Manhattan on campus for my program's summer intensive instead of taking the classes over Zoom, if we were all able to go places without worrying about the physical repercussions...I'd still be here, today, doing this. This is the first day that I can honestly say would have been the same for me, pandemic or no; it was always my plan to use Green-Wood as my research class subject, so this trip was always on my agenda. Being able to touch normalcy makes me a little teary-eyed over my sandwich, and I can't even touch my face to wipe the tears away.
Below is the map of the first day, with some of the images we collected. Only after I finished did I realize that I barely included any actual gravestones! I think I knew this coming into the project, but it drove home the fact that I'm looking at the idea of a graveyard as much more than a place full of dead people. It's also full of life.
Ocean Avenue sign
We sat on benches (more than six feet apart) near a memorial wall to eat our sandwiches. We wanted to make sure we didn't pick somewhere disrespectful to have lunch; the benches seemed meant for people to use, and had a nice view from the top of the hill.
Trash can inventory: A dried-out bouquet wrapped in bright pink paper, one hot coffee cup, three iced coffee cups, two boba cups, several napkins, several chip bags. Is that a milk jug? Who brings a whole jug of milk to a graveyard, and finishes it?
Weird chunky roots
BRIGHT yellow flowers
Big pond with a fountain in the middle. Several people picnicking around here.
Angel statue at the side of the pond, surrounded by many different plants and also bees visitng from:
Beehives on the hill! Where does their honey end up?
Pierrepont Monument. The paths around it don't actually lead up to it, so we have to walk up a steep hill to get close.
We heard bagpipes from this direction? Couldn't see who was playing them?
Main entrance. Lots of people entering as we left, more than we saw the whole time.
Today is my day of looking kind of wack! Max brings his Zoom recorder, and I wander around with my headphones in, waving it around above my head to pick up birdsong, crouching down for the sound of our footsteps in the grass. At one point I very carefully follow a crane around the edge of the water, trying to get close without startling it. I'm sure I appear very silly to the small group of people having a picnic in the shade nearby. My favorite moment is the nerve-racking approach towards the beehives on the hill near Valley Water; the bees pay me no mind, but feeling them bump up against me as I creep towards their home has me on high alert. There's something about their buzzing that triggers a flight response, which is precisely why I want to get this audio.
(When Max and I saw the picnickers near the crane, we decided that we'd do the same for the next trip. Early on, we sat in the grass on a hill for about half an hour, collecting ambient sound. It felt so pleasant to be unmasked and feel the wind and hear the birds that we knew we'd have to spend the rest of the summer here.)
Below is a video of visualizations of sounds collected from different spots in Green-Wood.
Today is data day. I haven't decided exactly what data I'm collecting yet, but I'm pretty sure it'll have to do with the gravestones, so the first thing I do when we arrive at G-W is to choose a spot on the map that is a small enough section that we'll be able to cover it all in a few hours. We walk around that area until I find a section with both new and very old graves, and then we sit in a shady spot on the hill to have lunch. (I miss sharing meals with friends.)
I've decided that I want to focus on the items left at graves, so for my collection we need:
We get to work, splitting the plot in half. The easiest way to collect the data will be to take photos of each grave, for me to process into a spreadsheet later. It's 90 degrees today, and we end up covering less ground than we want, but we've still gotten pictures of over 300 graves.
There are many different types of grave markers, tombstones, and memorials here; these are some common shapes (plus one with a worn-out dog carving on top).
I ended up with 138 graves in my spreadsheet, less than half of what I collected, but it's time-consuming going through all of these pictures! Even so, I've gotten a pretty good sampling of new and old graves. Fun fact: Of the 138 graves I did catalogue, exactly half had items, and half had none.
I'm going to be going back to Green-Wood a lot more, in August and likely during the fall too. I'm still searching for my perfect spot. I love the exploring, but honestly my favorite part is just finding a little patch of grass in the shade, and pulling off my mask, and sitting in nature. The cemetery is the only place I haven't felt the heart-gripping anxiety of this pandemic season, the place I've felt most at peace.
My main website: heyolovia.com
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