Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Deathstyles of the Rich and Famous

Woodlawn cemetery is about a mile north of my house. It's roughly 400 acres large, and is chock full of famous people, including Herman Mellville, Miles Davis, Fiorello LaGuardia, Duke Ellington, Countee Cullen, and many, many others. The most amazing graves, however, are the gargantuan crypts that New York's movers and shakers built for themselves in the late 19th and early 20th century.

In the early 1860's, the graveyards in lower Manhattan were almost full. Unfortunately, New Yorkers continued to die. There were cemeteries in Brooklyn and Queens, most notably Green-Wood, but the ferry passage across the East River was very hazardous. Women often weren't allowed, and quite a few people had impromptu (and unintended) burials at sea. When Woodlawn cemetery opened in 1863, the rich and powerful embraced it, and it soon became THE place to get buried.

Over the years, Woodlawn became the site of an ongoing contest between various rich people. The goal was to build the most opulent, outrageous mausoleum. I'm not sure who won; everyone I've brought to Woodlawn has his or her favorite crypt. However, I am pretty confident that Woodlawn is among the most beautiful outdoor art museums in the world.

One mausoleum theme was the "temple of antiquity." My favorite one of these is Frank Woolworth's crypt, which was funded by his chain of Five and Dime stores, and imitates an Egyptian temple.

Nothing says "classy" quite like nippled Sphinxes:

Another rich guy who went with the "ancient temple" theme was Jay Gould. He was a famous financier, speculator, and railroad developer. His tastes leaned more to the Greek than the Egyptian, hence his decision to build himself a copy of the Parthenon:

This doesn't seem all that impressive until you realize that Gould didn't just build himself a temple. He also bought an entire hill on which to place it:

In a move worthy of the Pharoahs, Gould also placed many of his cronies and hangers-on in crypts at the base of his little knoll. Here's my favorite of the bunch:

I forget who's buried here, but it's a relatively small crypt--only about twenty feet high--and it does a beautiful job of mixing various colors and textures of stone.

Another fun crypt is George Ehret's:

Ehret was a famous brewer, and his crypt is insane. It's over forty feet tall, has two huge stone lions, and has a secluded "yard."

Incidentally, I held the camera straight. The crypt is crooked. Honest.

Another awesome crypt is the Armour mausoleum. It's amazing what a meat packer could buy in the nineteenth century. The crypt looks like something from The Prisoner:

And here's a shot of it from the front:

It was straight when I lined it up, but then the crypt shifted. Seriously.

Another one of my favorites is the Foster crypt. It is a huge monument, complete with dome and narrow steps:

And here's a picture that gives you a sense of its scale:

And, lest you think that gaudy, audacious crypts were only a 19th century phenomenon, here's a crypt that dates from 1999:

Unfortunately, I can't show you the entire exterior, as it has the family name on it. However, I can tell you that this place is the size of a small cottage, constructed out of pink granite with black marble columns, and has two carved lions out front.

Inside, it looks like a cross between the Fortress of Solitude and a disco. I'm not sure why they included a mantle.

One of the most interesting things about the massive monuments that these people created for themselves is the fact that the mausoleums greatly outlasted their fame. Most of the once-famous occupants of the cemetery are now well past their fame. In some cases, they even seem to have outlasted the concern of their loved ones. A good example of this is the grave of John R. Hegeman, which I call "The Havisham House":

From this angle, you can see the faded curtains in the front door and the overgrown lawn that sits on top of the crypt's base. The sides of the crypt also have windows. These have tattered curtains, through which one can see an abandoned sitting room, with a dusty carpet, chair, table, and window-seat. On the table sits an abandoned Bible:

I used to think that this was the saddest, creepiest crypt. However, on our last visit, the wife discovered this one:

This crypt is almost completely overgrown. It has a short stairwell on either side. These lead to little vestibules that are also overgrown. The whole place smells like rot.

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  • Whoa...those things are amazing! That empty sitting room gives me shivers. Why would someone want an empty sitting room crypt? Yikes!

    I didn't want any sort of memoriam space until I saw those nipples. Now I'm thinking I need a nipple plaque. It'll be great. It'll get handed down from generation to generation. They'll feel obligated to display it...oh yes. What a diabolical plan.

    Must be lots of sinkholes making all those crypts lean the way they do!

    By Anonymous Franki, At November 13, 2007 at 3:22 PM  

  • That Foster crypt seems pretty cool... the openness makes it seem more inviting. Strange quality for a tomb, eh?

    I've always thought it would be cool to spend $20 billion or so on an elaborate underground tomb/labyrinth and fill it with booby traps and deadly puzzles leading to a cursed diamond. ;-) Guess I had better start saving...

    By Blogger tokenscot, At November 13, 2007 at 4:59 PM  

  • Franki-
    The empty sitting room--you can imagine little kids being forced to visit gramma and grampa and having to sit silently in the sitting room. VERY creepy.

    I think the nipple plaque is a really great idea. What a way to make them remember you.

    And, yes, Woodlawn is very seismically active. And has Karst topography. And stuff.

    You're absolutely right about Foster. It just feels really creepily friendly. Like an Addams Family reunion picnic.

    I think you could do your plan cheaply. It's simple: just make the "curse" that the diamond is actually a cubic zirconia.

    By Blogger Crankster, At November 13, 2007 at 8:10 PM  

  • Some of these are as gaudy as the people who built them. I really like that abandoned sitting room. (I could discuss the profundity of that lonely bible for hours just boring the crap out of anyone listing.) Besides the lonely bible, Its very cozy in marble/concrete slab death-worldy way. And its very bleak seeing that ivy cover the tomb, as if to say, yup, no one cares anymore. It would be creepier if it were that virginia creeper stuff that turns red this time of year.

    This little grave yard is a fine find.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At November 13, 2007 at 9:58 PM  

  • Wow, that is cool. I love old cemetaries with character...the modern ones with just a flat slab in the ground and fake flowers are so boring. This was a great find!!

    By Blogger Claudia, At November 14, 2007 at 3:05 AM  

  • wow look at those things and to think its a home to a piec of rotting flesh.
    people are funny things since we all think the pharoas of egypt were terribly materialistic

    By Blogger Nosjunkie, At November 14, 2007 at 6:46 AM  

  • Did you ever visit Highgate Cemetry when you were over here, Cranky? A favourite haunt of mine. So to speak.

    Beautiful photographs.

    (Oh, I nominated you for another award...)

    By Blogger Glamourpuss, At November 14, 2007 at 7:52 AM  

  • Pool-
    Is there anything sadder than a neglected grave? Especially if it's fairly recently filled.

    And you're right--Virginia Creeper would be incredibly cool. And creepy.

    You've latched on to one of my favorite complaints. I once asked a cemetery manager about the flat graves, and he told me that they make it easier to mow the lawn. Ugh.

    Isn't it funny how we keep coming back to the theme of the Pharoahs? It's interesting how people try so hard to take it with them!

    No, I didn't make it to Highgate, and I really wish that I had! Along with Pere Lachaise and the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, it's on my list of must-visit boneyards.

    And thank you so much for the award!

    By Blogger Crankster, At November 14, 2007 at 1:21 PM  

  • What strikes me as bizarre is that even in death, these people reside in more luxury than many of the living.

    Great photos, though. I think I see some wispy white ectoplasm in the next to last one.

    By Blogger heartinsanfrancisco, At November 17, 2007 at 3:05 PM  

  • Hearts-
    The conspicuous consumption lands somewhere between pitiful and disgusting, but I still find the crypts compelling.

    I know what the "ectoplasm" is, but I like your explanation better!

    By Blogger Crankster, At November 18, 2007 at 11:32 AM  

  • Mr. Hegeman was President and member of the board of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company at 1 Madison Ave, New York City. The company commenced business in 1867 selling life, health and accident insurance. I wonder if this was the predecessor of MetLife?

    The Hegeman tomb is certainly unusual, I have never known anything quite like it. I did not find it creepy. It was in fact evocative. The message conveyed to us across the ages is that his family could not bear the thought of having him in a cold stone vault. They made an attempt to comfort his spirit with a home-like setting so he would be surrounded by things of comfort, even in death. Certainly a loving gesture, I think. Perhaps even someone came to his side just to sit and read the Bible after his death. One wonders if his descendants even know he has a tomb.

    Thanks for your site and for the work you invested in making it so interesting. The Hegeman tomb was a real find.

    By the way, did you get the private joke sent to us over the ages by Mr. Armour via his tomb? The pink marble represents the pink hams which made him rich.

    Interesting that even though some of these tombs are stunningly expensive and beautiful, some are indeed descending into neglect. Very sad, since there is no doubt the descendants have the resources to maintain them at least once a year.

    By Blogger CRB, At February 9, 2009 at 3:21 AM  

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