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Society Adventures: Cemetery Explorations at Calvary Cemetery

Everyone who lives in New York City has probably seen Calvary Cemetery. It sprawls out on either side of the BQE and Long Island Expressway, almost unbelievably packed with rows and rows of tombstones. However, its visitors are rare. Not possessing the same historic interest as the more elite rural cemeteries of Green-Wood in Brooklyn and Woodlawn in the Bronx, it is a bit forgotten, despite having 3 million interments, the most burials of any cemetery in the United States. 

Obscura Society Calvary Cemetery

Last Saturday, we made an expedition to First Calvary, the oldest and largest of the four sections of Calvary Cemetery. 

After meeting up in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, we walked over the Newtown Creek, where ferries carrying funeral carriages once arrived from Manhattan. (I read, but could not confirm, that the reason Greenpoint Avenue is so large is that it was built to accomodate the many funeral processions.) The cemetery had its first burial in 1848, having been established right after the passage of the Rural Cemetery Act of 1847, which stopped burials in Manhattan and allowed for the creation of cemeteries on the then outskirts of the city. There had been an awful cholera outbreak in 1832, possibly encouraged by water running off from the putrid, overcrowded church cemeteries into the drinking water. 

Among the most overcrowded church cemeteries were those at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Faced with an increasing Catholic population due to a rise in immigration from Ireland and other predominantly Catholic countries, the Archdiocese in New York bought land in Queens for a Catholic cemetery.

The land was formerly the estate of the Protestant Alsop family, and their original cemetery with graves dating to the 18th Century is still contained within Calvary. 

We also found the Civil War Memorial, erected in 1866, which has these life size sculptures by Daniel Draddy (casts of these same sculptures are also in Green-Wood in Brooklyn at its Civil War Memorial). Interments were offered free to Catholic Union soldiers. And this guy with the axe is pretty badass, probably why he has been recently restored before his less intimidating metal brothers. 

Although the mausoleums aren’t as formidable as in other more elite cemeteries in New York, there are a few insane monuments. One is the Johnston mausoleum, which I read cost somewhere around $100,000. Unfortunately, the once illustrious Johnston family had their fortune squandered by the last Johnston brother to be buried in the mausoleum, who died insane with pneumonia in a barn.

Only immediate interments are now available in Calvary, and the huge cemetery is pretty much at capacity. So visit it while you are alive! Everywhere in the cemetery are glimpses of the Manhattan skyline, where the skyscrapers blend in with the tombs, and you could probably spend years just reading all the inscriptions on the incredibly varied tombstones, as diverse as New York itself.

Thanks to the intrepid cemetery explorers who enthusiastically joined the exploration! 

MORE PHOTOS

Obscura Society Calvary Cemetery

DO IT YOURSELF

The Calvary Cemetery is located at 49-02 Laurel Hill Boulevard, Queens, New York. More info:

CALVARY CEMETERY, New York

THANK YOU TO EVERYONE WHO JOINED US!

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The Obscura Society is the real-world exploration arm of Atlas Obscura We seek out secret histories, unusual access, and opportunities for our community to explore strange and overlooked places hidden all around us. Join us on our next adventure!

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