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Digging up the past: Teens unearth history in cemetery’s internship program

Head of the class: High school kids reset more than 180 headstones at Green-Wood Cemetery as part of a summer internship program.
Photo by Caroline Ourso

Some of the longest permanent residents of Brooklyn’s biggest graveyard may have never found eternal rest in Kings County had the country’s current president been in office in their lifetimes, according to the crypt-keeper who helped local teens research the genealogies of Green-Wood Cemetery’s occupants as part of a summer internship program there.

“All were immigrants,” said Neela Wickremesinghe, who oversees restoration and preservation at the Greenwood Heights burial ground. “We didn’t run into any Native Americans or early settlers. I think that’s pretty relevant.”

A group of eight incoming seniors enrolled at the Williamsburg High School for Architecture and Design and a similarly specialized Manhattan high school partook in the five-week, paid internship, which concluded on Aug. 16 and focused largely on restoring more than 180 headstones near the cemetery’s 25th Street entrance — some of which had to be unearthed themselves after they sunk into the ground above those bodies they memorialized, Wickremesinghe said.

“We knew they were there because of Green-Wood’s maps, but they were invisible to the naked eye,” she said.

And after about a month of toiling outdoors, the apprentices making a little more than minimum wage headed inside to pore over the burial ground’s extensive archives on its roughly 560,000 residents, which contained facts that included where the deceased lived, and how they died — the latter often a reminder of just how cushy the mini morticians’ lives are compared to their 19th-century subjects, according to Wickremesinghe.

“It was a lot of tuberculosis and small pox,” she said. “A lot of them wouldn’t have died today, because of access to clean water and lot of things we take for granted in daily life.”

Bigwigs at the private cemetery — which is on the federal National Register of Historic Places, and parts of which are city landmarks — foot the bill for some of the internship program, which received the rest of its funding from the city and preservationists at the World Monuments Fund.

And the program, which debuted last year, will return next summer, according to Wickremesinghe, who said students enrolled at participating high schools compete in an interview process for the coveted spots, and are chosen in part based on teacher recommendations.

Reach reporter Colin Mixson at cmixson@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-4505.

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