Stepping into Green-Wood Cemetery

When you step through the gothic revival gates of Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, you enter a cemetery from times past. This nature preserve is suspended in a bustling city and was one of the first park-like cemeteries in America. Founded in 1838, Green-Wood boasts an impressive 478-acre sprawl of paths, hills, ponds, and sculptures. It was one of the late 19th century’s most viewed tourist attractions in the United States, second only to Niagara Falls. In 2006, the entire cemetery was made a National Historic Landmark.

Photo credit: Bob Collins

Green-Wood was designed during a movement toward rural cemeteries. Churchyards were running out of space for burials, and by moving the cemetery outside of town, they could provide vast space for additional graves. The idea was slow to catch on at first.To attract attention the owners contacted the son of the late Senator Dewitt Clinton, and asked if his remains could be honorably reinterred at Green-Wood and his son agreed. Clinton was a well-known and respected figure, and Green-Wood instantly became the most desirable burial place. Today, more than 570,000 people are buried at Green-Wood. Many of them are prominent figures in the history of New York. Through its serenity, cultivation of art, design, and history, Green-Wood Cemetery continues to leave a lasting impact on the living, in addition to memorializing the deceased.

There are so many interesting headstones, sculptures, and stories in this cemetery. That makes it difficult to choose a few to highlight. If you’d like to see a list of famous memorials in this cemetery, click here.

Before visiting the cemetery, check out the hours, rules, and best practices on Green-wood’s website. Due to the cemetery’s expanse and hilly landscape, you might want to consider a guided trolley tour to view interesting graves and sculptures. Tour guides point out significant graves in a unique way. For example, one guide encouraged guests to snap their fingers as she broke out singing, “Cool” from West Side Story while they were visiting the grave of critically acclaimed composer Leonard Bernstein. He wrote West Side Story and many other masterful musical achievements.

Photo credit: Elliot

This detailed monument is for John Matthews, also known as the “Soda Fountain King.” It was designed by Karl Muller and cost $30,000 in 1870! Matthews invented the soda fountain for carbonated drinks. He also invented a method to bottle carbonated soda. The base of his monument has a sculpture of Matthews himself, life-sized and shrouded. Above him are three carved scenes representing significant moments in his career. On the sculpture platform is a grieving woman, as well as smaller marble sculptures depicting his children. The monument includes other ornamental elements and winged gargoyles that serve as guards. Each corner has a waterspout for rainwater. This is a must-see monument!   

Another amazing sculpture is found on the grave of Charles Valentine. The appropriately named Valentine Angel is sculpted by Adolfo Apolloni and invokes a feeling of movement and flight. The angel’s feathery wings and the flowing gown are beautiful.  

Photo credit: Patricia Savu

Next on our tour is the grave of the young Charlotte Canda. Charlotte was an artistic teenager and in the process of designing a monument for her recently deceased aunt when she passed away on her 17th birthday. Charlotte was traveling home from her birthday party in stormy weather when her horses bolted. Charlotte was thrown from the carriage and died later that evening. The family used the monument design Charlotte was creating for her aunt and added additional things that Charlotte loved, such as parrots, books, musical instruments, and artists’ tools. There is also a portrait statue of Charlotte, protected underneath the highly decorated niche, with 17 roses carved around her head – one to represent each year of her young life.

The monument was built by John Frazee and Robert Launitz. Its inscription reads:

She sinks from sight, Eve’s golden star.

Lost in the watery depths afar,

Yet still does the fair planet burn;

Not hopeless is our Charlotte’s urn.

In God’s own more her orb will rise-

Once more a star of paradise.

The beautiful chapel within Green-Wood was designed in 1913 by Warren and Wetmore, the same firm that designed Grand Central Station. The chapel can be rented for small events. Recently historians discovered that the upper dome of the chapel is covered in Guastavino tile. This was an exciting find for the cemetery! There are more than 700 mausoleums at Green-Wood. Many are set amidst glacier ponds or built into hillsides. Every turn reveals another fascinating structure. Green-Wood also has tombs and catacombs, though the catacombs are usually locked.  

As we round the edge of one of the ponds, we see a monument that belongs to Emile Pzifer, son of Charles Pfizer, who co-founded the Pfizer pharmaceutical company. This monument is designed like a Greek tholos temple and is open to the sky. The lettering above the monument reads TONGUES IN TREES BOOKS IN THE RUNNING BROOKS SERMONS IN STONES AND GOOD IN EVERYTHING, a quote from Shakespeare’s, As You Like It. Emile’s granite sarcophagus lies beneath the winged angel who is gesturing upwards.

Photo Credit: BKGeni
Photo credit: Curtis Jackson

James Weldon Johnson, a composer, social reformer, and US Diplomat, is best known for writing the poem Lift Every Voice and Sing, which was set to music by his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson. The hymn was introduced at an event to mark Abraham Lincoln’s birthday in the year 1900. It has been adopted by the NAACP as the Black National Anthem. The hymn speaks of freedom, transcending difficulties and meeting the future with courage and faith. This hymn is well known and included in many hymnals.

Photo credit: Matthew Fatale

William Augustus Spencer was born into a wealthy family with multiple homes abroad. Spencer and his wife, Marie, were aboard the RMS Titanic when the ship sank in April 1912. William died as the ship went down and his body was never recovered. Marie made it into a lifeboat and survived.

William’s cenotaph marker lies in the Spencer family plot. The inscription reads, “Bravely met death at sea in the Titanic Disaster.” It also contains the phrase, “Where Manhood Perished Not.” This phrase comes from a poem written by Harvey F. Thew shortly after the Titanic disaster. 

A few years earlier, when Spencer first saw the newly built New York Public Library, he proclaimed that he would donate his collection of finely illustrated and bound French books to the impressive library. When the details of his estate were made public, the library learned that he made good on his word. He also donated a substantial sum of money. In his will, he also directed that after the death of his wife, one-half of his estate was to be “invested as a separate fund, the income of which was to be used for the purchase of handsomely illustrated books.” Today, the Spencer Collection includes an incredible collection of finely illustrated books, fine bindings, and illuminated manuscripts, all thanks to William Spencer’s generosity.

Part of Green-Wood lies on the site of the Revolutionary War battle, the Battle of Brooklyn. The battle took place on the slopes of Battle Hill and resulted in a British victory. It was near this same ground where George Washington’s army, finding themselves surrounded, managed to escape during the night and cross the river to Manhattan. This retreat likely saved the Continental Army.

Charles Higgins was a history buff and wanted to commemorate the Battle of Brooklyn on the land where it was fought. He bought large family burial plots on Battle Hill, which happens to be the highest point in Brooklyn. He also bought the plots in front of his own as the site for a future commemorative monument. After much planning, a sculpture was unveiled on August 27, 1920, on the 144th anniversary of the Battle of Brooklyn. It is a bronze statue of Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, alongside an altar called the Altar to Liberty. She’s placing a laurel wreath on the altar while her other arm raises in salute. Following her gaze and salute, 3.5 miles to the west, is the Statue of Liberty, raising her torch, enlightening the path to liberty in response. 

Green-Wood Cemetery received arboretum accreditation in 2015 and has over 7,000 trees located within its grounds! It’s also a bird watcher’s paradise, so be sure to look up when you enter. Right above the front gates, you can see nests of Monk Parakeets, but you’ll probably hear them first! These blue-green parakeets are native to the mountainous regions of Argentina and no one knows how they arrived at Green-Wood, but they have flourished. Legend has it that in the 1960s, a cage broke open at JFK airport and they were released. They couldn’t have found a more serene location to call home. 

A visit to Green-Wood is a must for anyone that loves history, art, and nature. It revives the living and memorializes the deceased. Plan a visit to Green-Wood today. Enjoy a trolley tour, stroll through the grounds, and discover something new each time. We hope to see you there!


  1. Oh my. What a wonderful article. I will put this cemetery on my list of must see. Sounds lovely!

    • You will absolutely love it. My kids and I enjoyed our visit a couple of years ago. I want to go back soon.

  2. Your newsletter will find an avid fan here. It’s not just that we all — or most of us, anyhow — will wind up in some such place, but the social history of America can be found in such places. The stories are legion and many mysteries also.

    May I suggest two possibilities for your attention in later newsletters: Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia, PA and Oakwood Cemetery in Syracuse, NY — both of which I’ve become quite familiar with over many years. Visits to both usually prove rewarding to historians, professional and otherwise.

    Looking forward to your future newsletters!

  3. WOW!!! What a coincidence that the Cemetery you featured in your 1st Find a Grave Insider Edition is the cemetery that I recently discovered was where an ancestor was buried–Thanks for the great article—for those of you interested that have a Burial search Index–

    They also have extensive records on those buried in the cemetery–for a fee they will send you the info and they will tell you how much it will cost in advance–seems a little bit costly to me BUT if you are like me ( it took over 20 years for me to find a few tidbits on this ancestor), it might be worth it as info on-line even at familysearch and Ancestry are few and far between for New York residents in the 1800s— it’s a bit of a gamble as to what you MIGHT get BUT when I contacted a cemetery in another state for records on another ancestors , I was amazed at what I received at no cost…

    Thanks again for the interesting article

  4. This newsletter was very insightful. I am looking forward to the next newsletter. Green-Wood Cemetery is a place I would love to visit. Thank you for showing this.

  5. Very interesting. Hope to read more articles like this in the future.

  6. It looks and sounds like a wonderful place to visit. However at 88 years of age I won’t be attempting the visit alone.

  7. That was a wonderful article. So many poignant stories. This is a “must-see” for me.

  8. This is such a wonderful idea and article. As a child my family would once a year go to Greenwood cemetery to visit all of my Grandmother’s family! We would wander around and some of the mausoleums were open and spooky and wonderous. The family plot had 12 graves and were surrounded by a short black cast iron fence, since removed to allow ease of mowing! Afterward we would all ascend to a local popular restaurant, a wonderful day, had by all. Thank you FindAGrave I can’t wait for the next article.

  9. Love this idea!I I love going to cemetaries!
    Thank you for sending!

  10. Such a beautiful write-up! My 3x great-grandmother, Fanny Jane McKinley Algeo (59826137), an unfortunate immigrant from Ulster, is interred at Green-Wood. Much gratitude for making this your first featured cemetery. I’d love to visit someday.

  11. Many years ago, passing this extensive Cemetery adjacent to the freeway or highway, I was spiritually drawn to contemplate what I could see from outside. I pondered this place, and thought about it as we continued on our journey. Years later I learned from my niece that our great grandfather, William Warnock, is buried there, along with some other family members. He was an immigrant from Scotland in the 1800s. What a wonderful rendition you have given this sacred place. That was my last visit to New York, and I still hope to return and go inside some day. Thank you for this lovely and sensitive description.

    Arda Jean Warnock Christensen, Salt Lake City, Utah

  12. Amazing. Touched my heart. Look forward to the next letter. So wonderfully done.

  13. Very interesting article and I was amazed at the artistry of the graves and cemetery. It seems our ancestors honored the passing of wonderful people more than we do in this day and age. People still have funerals but don’t seem to have the elaborate final resting places that our forefathers had. Of course, money is a factor. Thanks for the wonderful article.

  14. I had the chance to visit Green Wood Cemetery a couple years ago after becoming involved as a contributor on Find A Grave and also seeing a Green Wood Cemetery documentary. I just knew I had to visit. So, after a day in the city and for a visit to Manhattan my kids and I sought out this great place. It was just as amazing as the photos. High up on the hill is great as you can see the city in the background. Just a lovely lovely (and well kept) establishment that I feel so honored to have visited.

  15. Love the newsletter and your idea of high lighting various cemeteries. Please remember Findagrave extends throughout the world do you will be very busy with beautiful stories for such a long time. Thank you for starting this newsletter and your first subject cemetery is wonderful. I hope to be able to travel after Covid and see it.

  16. I think this is wonderful that you post articles like this! Hope to see many more!
    Thanks Find A Grave Insider!

  17. What a wonderful site! I surely hope the info I am looking for can be found on this website. Thank you.

  18. Fabulous Newsletter! I will look forward to the monthly deliveries. Thank you so much for the undertaking.
    (yes, it is a pun)

  19. What a fantastic article and Newsletter! I can’t wait to read more. Well done!

  20. Wonderful article. Hope I can visit one day. You might want to look into Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh, PA. It is actually in Lawrenceville just north of downtown and also has a very Gothic entrance with many ponds, trees, birds and a herd of whitetail deer live there and roam freely. Yes, right in the middle of the city! It is very old and historical There are many dignitaries and famous people buried there, much art in statues and private mausoleums. They published book on it, but my copy seems to be missing. My GG Grandmother and quite a few other ancestors are interred there. I don’t think they have a tour but with a brochure and map you can get at the office as you enter you can drive the entire cemetery. It is huge and they still bury folks there. They were established April 24,1844 address is 4734 Butler St. Pittsburgh, PA 15201-2951- Phone 412-682-7624.-www,ALLEGHENYCEMETERY.COM
    THE ALLEGHENY CEMETERY HISTORICAL ASSOC. PUBLISHES” Heritage” on whats happening at the cemetery, donations, and historical Articles..

  21. Great newsletter. Will look forward to receiving every one of them.

  22. Thank you for a great newsletter. I look forward to seeing more. not just large cemeteries, but small ones too with unique history.

  23. The entrance reminded me of Calvary Cemetery in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 5503 W. Bluemound Rd.

  24. My uncle, whom I never met, is buried here. I don’t have a foto of him, but I do have a foto of his grave site. Interesting article.

  25. I enjoyed this article! Being a genealogist, I am fascinated by cemeteries and the history they hold. One the most amazing cemeteries I have found is the Grove Street Cemetery in New Haven, Connecticut, Many famous people are buried there, along with many of my ancestors. Being an early cemetery, and near Yale University, it is not a really large cemetery, but one can see the final resting place of many people who played a great role in the history of this country.

  26. two years ago I went to South Dakota on vacation and I saw the grave of Calamity Jane in Deadwood

  27. I too like the idea of a Monthly Newsletter. This has been a very interesting read.

    I have an original Deed to burial plots in the Lutheran Cemetery, Middle Village, Queens County, State of New York. It is dated 8 March 1894. It is in the name of my wife’s great grand uncle. It has additions to it where the burial plots are passed down through the family. It is now in my wife’s name. 

    The lot was originally granted by the Lutheran Cemetery on 5 Jun 1876. I haven’t been able to find out if the original owner was also a member of my wife’s family, but as he passed it on to my wife’s great grand uncle and it’s been in the family ever since he probably was.

    After reading about the Green-Wood Cemetery in the newsletter, it would be nice to see an article about the Lutheran Cemetery if at all possible.

  28. The newsletter is outstanding, thank you for the time & effort producing it. May I suggest the historic burial sites in New Orleans, there are beautiful, interesting ancient
    mausoleums within the grounds, sadly many are showing sign of deterioration- some have fallen. It is worth
    a visit & an in Dept review.
    Thank you.

  29. Great Idea and great first article. I am originally from a very small town in Pennsylvania but we have several old and beautiful cemeteries that go back to the revolutionary war and hold prominent members of society including one who signed the declaration of independence. One is lined with cherry trees and when the blossoms come out, the whole of creation comes out to see them and drive the lanes–maybe some day one of our cemeteries will be featured. On another note, at the end of our days, what I have found is that we are (at least most of us) reduced to a line item on a census–and that is a tragedy. We need to do more to preserve everyone’s life story–like a Facebook page for the departed. Possibly this newsletter might be the start. Thank you and please continue.

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