By Nick Neyland
JUNE 10, 2011, 1:08 PM ET
- Benjamin Norman for The Wall Street Journal
- Green-Wood Cemetery’s catacombs, which date back to the early 1850s, will be open to visitors during Saturday’s moonlight tour
Green-Wood Cemetery has strict rules that keep visitors out after dark, but the historic burial ground will be crawling with the curious Saturday night for a rare moonlight tour.
Cemetery historian Jeff Richman leads the tour, joined by accordionists hired to provide musical accompaniment.Visitors are encouraged to bring a flashlight to navigate the nearly 200-year-old cemetery’s winding pathways under a full moon.
“People obviously like the idea of a cemetery in the dark,” Richman said.
A rare glimpse into the graveyard’s cobweb-strewn catacombs, which date back to the early 1850s, is a spooky highlight. Richman asks those on the tour to turn off their flashlights and experience the total darkness of the space.
- Benjamin Norman for The Wall Street Journal
- Green-Wood’s staff historian Jeff Richman leads the moonlight tours, along with a pair of accordionists.
“A great fear of the 19th century was of being buried alive. So people bought tombs and mausoleums,” Richman explains. Green-Wood’s early catacomb sales pitch appealed to New Yorkers hunting for a bargain: “Here you could do it at a reduced rate,” the historian said.
Green-Wood was founded in 1838 as the graveyards of Manhattan were filling up. It quickly became one of the city’s top draws for tourists, until a rule instituted in the 1960s limited entry to plot owners or those visiting specific graves. Those restrictions were lifted in 1999, and visitors returned in droves. Now 200,000 people come to Green-Wood each year, lured by the famous figures resting within its grounds, including Leonard Bernstein and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
It took Richman, a Brooklyn native, nearly four decades to first discover the 478-acre cemetery. His first visit, in 1986, came during the era when access was hard to come by –- and it didn’t end well.
“I came in here on a photographer’s tour,” he recalls of his inaugural visit. “In the old days you couldn’t take photographs in here without specific permission. I came in that day and I remember we got locked in here. I had tickets for a Mets game that night. I had to climb through the barbed wire on the fence, which is no longer here.”
Richman returned the next day and quickly became infatuated. He worked as a tour guide in the 1990s and became Green-Wood’s full-time staff historian in 2007, a rare position at historic cemeteries in the U.S. “I don’t know of any others,” he says, “but there might be a few out there.”
Green-Wood remains an active cemetery, with three to four funerals per day. But the burial business won’t last much longer. “We’ve pretty much run out of lots to sell,” Richman said.
Moonlight tours and other creative ventures provide much-needed cash for Green-Wood, but the fund-raising ideas aren’t always successful.
“Years ago we had a film series here in the cemetery, in the chapel,” recalled Richman. There were afternoon screenings aimed at children followed by horror movies after dark – something that didn’t sit well with the cemeteries more conventional clients. “We had a complaint from a lot owner, who was particularly aggressive,” he said. “So we ended that.”
The moonlight tours have been less divisive and consistently popular, drawing up to 250 people with the unusual mix of tombstones and tunes. “We have two accordionists that come with it. They play ‘Blue Moon’ and other appropriate tunes for a moonlight tour,” Richman said.
The tour typically begins at an impressive bronze monument to New York’s sixth governor, DeWitt Clinton. Tour takers also encounter the huge Civil War project that Green-Wood’s staff has worked on since 2002, which has already uncovered the graves of 4,600 soldiers.
“We thought that perhaps there were 500 Civil War veterans in here,” Richman said. “We should be able to come up with another couple of thousand.”
The potent blend of old and new in the cemetery’s rolling hills is part of the allure. The grave of journalist Steven Vincent, killed in Iraq in 2005, isn’t far from the site where leading 19th century surgeon Dr. Valentine Mott is buried.
“Mott dies April 15, 1865,” Richman explains, in a grim anecdote typical of the tour. “He wakes up that morning and his barber comes in to shave him. The barber says: ‘Have you heard the news? Abraham Lincoln was assassinated last night at Ford’s Theatre and died this morning.’ And Mott has a heart attack as a result of that and he dies.”
The moonlight tour ends on a cheerier note on Battle Hill, one of the highest in Brooklyn and the resting place of Fred Ebb, one half of the song-writing duo that wrote “New York, New York.” From that spot the skyline of Manhattan is visible.
As the song plays, “people join in singing,” Richman says. “It’s a very nice evening.”
Tickets for Saturday’s moonlight tour, $10 for members, $20 for others, are still available on Green-Wood’s website.