Green-Wood Cemetery opens tombs of the dead for history’s sake

Green-Wood Cemetery
The mausoleum of Charles Morgan (1795-1878) gets visitors during “Open Doors,” one of Green-Wood Cemetery’s most popular events.
Photo by Debbie Egan Chin

Tales from the Crypt!

Spirits of the dearly departed seemed to come alive at Sunset Park’s Green-Wood Cemetery on Oct. 11, when the historical burial site celebrated “Open Doors” — an annual event during which visitors can view the interiors of the site’s most impressive 19th century mausoleums that are otherwise locked up tight.

“Open Doors” is one of the 200-year-old National historic landmark’s many outdoor presentations on its 478 acres. During this particular event, visitors are offered a rare glimpse inside the tombs of the wealthy and some everyday New Yorkers from 200 years ago.

This year’s “Open Doors” featured a musical installation entitled “Vigil” by Leigh Davis that engages the power of loss and memory through song.

Alice Teeple, center, welcomes people to come inside the tomb of De Aldama (1787-1870) during the event.Photo by Debbie Egan Chin

The work is rooted in Davis’ membership with the Threshold Choir, a community of women continuing the ancient tradition of bedside singing to the dying. Her piece was installed in Green-Wood’s Historic Chapel, a sacred space that has provided a place of solace and comfort for those grieving for over a century. Those listening were encouraged to contemplate the complexity of mourning on both a personal and collective level.

At a time when it is not easy to commune or console one another, Davis said, “Vigil” provides an occasion to meditate and reflect on the universal experience of death.

During the event, Catherine Burns, artistic director for the storytelling organization The Moth, told the story of Mary Rogers, originally from Connecticut, but who later settled in New York City in the 1800’s.

Burns said Rogers was a noted beauty who worked in a New York tobacco store, which attracted the patronage of many distinguished men. When her body was found in the Hudson River in 1841, she was assumed to have been the victim of gang violence. However, one witness swore that she was dumped after a failed abortion attempt, and her boyfriend’s suicide note suggested possible involvement on his part.

Rogers’ death remains unexplained — and it even inspired Allan Poe‘s pioneering detective story “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt.” The murder, much publicized by the press at the time, emphasized the ineptitude and corruption of the city’s watchmen system of law enforcement.

The mausoleum of Dr. Thomas Durant (1820-1885) gets visitors.Photo by Debbie Egan Chin

“Open Doors” is just one of many of Green-Wood’s autumnal events. From Oct. 23 through Nov. 1, the cemetery will present special “Day of the Dead” events free of charge. To honor El Dia de Los Muertos — a three-day holiday that honors the departed through offerings arranged on altars, and gatherings with friends and family — a large-scale community altar by artist Scherezade Garcia will be installed in Green-Wood’s Historic Chapel.

Visitors are encouraged to bring personal offerings to the community altar, including flowers, photographs, and notes, among other objects. Inspired by altars found throughout Mexico and the Mexican diaspora, Garcia’s altar will combine her own unique style with this centuries-old celebration of the departed, and will be open to the public from 10 am to 4 pm each day.

Visitors can discover the rich history and traditions associated with the Mexican holiday Día de los Muertos — and honor a loved one — at Green-Wood’s community altar.Green-Wood Cemetery

On Sunday, Nov. 1, the cemetery will also present a “Día de los Muertos Family Celebration,” from 1:30 pm to 4:30 pm, during which parents and children can celebrate the holiday with family-friendly crafts, Mexican treats, music and more. The event is open to families with children of all ages and craft bags will be available on a first come, first serve basis.

All outdoor programs require visitors to wear masks and maintain six feet while inside historic edifices. Some of the events are free, while other require tickets in advance. For more information, visit GreenWood.com.

This story first appeared on AMNY.com.