“A Beautiful Way to Go” at the Museum of the City of New York (all photographs by the author)
Death and burial in early 19th century New York had become a grotesque thing, with disease and the overflowing churchyard burial grounds festering in the increasingly busy metropolis of Manhattan. As a more bucolic alternative, a swath of rural Brooklyn was transformed into an idyllic park for the dead, with winding paths through tree groves and landscaped glacial ponds ready to receive the city’s most elite and their ornate memorials. Now this would be a beautiful death.
That was in 1838, 175 years ago, and to mark the anniversary the Museum of the City of New York is hosting A Beautiful Way to Go, an exhibition on the history of Green-Wood Cemetery. With old books, vintage maps (one is even superimposed on the gallery floor), stereoscopic images you can look at in a viewfinder, architectural drawings, and artifacts of the cemetery’s “residents,” a broad picture of the cemetery’s history is presented. One room could hardly accomodate all the history that’s contained within Green-Wood’s 478 acres, and much of the space is given to the art and personal objects of those interred in the cemetery, with mausoleum keys mingling throughout, but it does place the emerging elegance of Green-Wood within the context of the Victorian era of New York.
Illustration of a visit to Green-Wood Cemetery
Among the around 560,000 burials are figures both famous, like composer Leonard Bernstein and inventor Samuel Morse, and infamous, like the corrupt William “Boss” Tweed and mobster Albert Anastasia. Along with tributes to these figures, the exhibition pulls in some of the 19th century traditions of mourning, such as hair jewelry, scripted funerals, and mass-produced mourning prints where you could fill in an illustration of a blank tombstone with the name of a loved one.
While not completely comprehensive, the exhibition is a dense and dedicated exhibition that gives a glimpse into the art, architecture, history, and most importantly, the people, of Green-Wood Cemetery. Below are some images from the exhibition, and if you want to explore in person join Atlas Obscura on June 9 for a visit to this beautiful Brooklyn burial ground.
Map on the floor of A Beautiful Way to Go
20th century cemetery guard badges
Memorial jewelry, some with human hair
Charlotte Canda’s Book of Hours
1920 postcard of the Green-Wood chapel
Undertaker bill for a burial at Green-Wood from 1902
Stereoscopic image of the Garrison Tomb and a stereoscopic viewer
William “Boss” Tweed’s gold, diamond, and onyx cufflinks
A Beautiful Way to Go: New York’s Green-Wood Cemetery is at the Museum of the City of New York through October 13.