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. Such a fascinating article….I really appreciated reading all about this treasure that I had never heard of. I will be doing some extra reading and someday hope to visit. Thank you so much….I look forward to your monthly newsletter.

  2. A cemetery is a fascinating place and this one more than most. Thank you so much for sharing it with those of us that cannot come see it.

  3. Thank you for such an interesting article! (Parakeets–in Brooklyn???) 🙂

    Winston Churchill’s maternal grandparents–Leonard and Clarissa–are buried in Green-Wood Cemetery. Leonard was born not far from where I live, In Onondaga County, NY.

  4. Thank you for this most interesting article on The Greenwood Cemetery. I look forward to your monthly Newsletter.

  5. I enjoyed the history of this cemetery. I look forward to next month’s newsletter.

  6. I had recently read a small article about this place and was intrigued, thank you for this very interesting post, the pictures are beautiful. A must see if you are in the area.

  7. I used to live in Brooklyn, approximately a 15 minute walk from Greenwood. Even as a child I was amazed at its beauty and the fact that there were so many ponds and hills and greenness inside of a large city. Of course I was also impressed by all the famous people buried there. Just looking inside through the fence probably hundreds of times were extremely memorable. So glad I got to see it again even if it was only online.

  8. Wow! The inaugural issue of your newsletter told a really captivating story. What a fantastic introduction to this new service. I anxiously await future issued I do not live anywhere near Green-Wood, but will certainly will consider stopping if we are ever nearby.

  9. My great great grandfather, John Stewart and his wife Phoebe are buried there with other relatives. I hope to be able to visit this wonderful cemetery one day! From a Find-A-Graver. Marianne Ellis Bradley

  10. I love this newsletter, already! Wonderful article and photos of an American treasure. I would have loved to visit Green-Wood when I was in NY fifty years ago. At least I can learn about these places online. Thank you!

    • Newsletters like these are worthy of reading.You can learn about history.

  11. What fun to read! Our daughter and her family live within a few minutes walk of this lovely cemetery! It is exciting to learn about the trolley tours!

  12. Your new Find a Grave newsletter was such a nice surprise and included so much detailed and interesting information. Some of the statuary and mausoleum carvings are breathtaking! As an editor, creator, and manager of memorials on Find a Grave for over 12 years, it makes me feel like the work we do is appreciated and helpful to others who are just getting started developing an interest in genealogy and searching for their ancestors. I will look forward to all future newsletters and relish learning about cemeteries in places I have not had the opportunity to physically visit or research yet. Thank you for your efforts to make Find a Grave a notch above all the other sites out there.

  13. Very interesting, maybe someday you will put information on some of my cemeteries i I am working on.

  14. This newsletter was awesome! I really enjoyed reading about Greenwood Cemetery. Looking to many more articles.

  15. So interesting. I look forward to more publications such as this.

  16. What a marvelous idea! Enjoyed the article immensely and look forward to future issues.

  17. Cemeteries are like history books. So much to be discovered by taking a casual stroll through one and reading the inscriptions on the markers! looking forward to your next newsletter.

  18. Wonderful feature. I was confused over who was ‘Thomas’ in the story about William Spencer burial/family plot? The previous paragraph talks about William Augustus Spencer, who died in the Titanic sinking, then states, “A few years earlier, when Thomas 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.” Still, this does not take away from the overall feature about this feature about this historic cemetery. Kudos!

  19. This article is most interesting and informative. Thank you for sharing

  20. I have a connection to Green-Wood Cemetery through my book regarding Dr. William R. Robinson, who served in the Civil War, on both sides. He was a Brigade Surgeon for the Confederacy in Texas, then became a Contract Surgeon for the Union at Ships Island off the Mississippi coast. Green-Wood didn’t have him on their list of Civil War service burials there, so he was added to their biographies, based on my research and book about him, thus I’m credited in Dr. Robinson’s biography online at the cemetery.

  21. A very interesting inaugrual news letter. Another cemetery you might include on your list is Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, Va. Also Historic.

  22. A cemetery is a big source of information on our loved ones passed. It is a history lesson. We can learn a lot about those who have passed. The Beauty of the tombstones, statues and vaults are very peaceful.
    It is good to see these cemeteries being restored. As we research our families it is a big part of our history.
    Please do Mount Moriah Cemetery in Philadelphia, Pa. they have been doing a lot of restoring this vandalized cemetery. People put a lot of time, money into our loved ones but don’t want them destroyed.

  23. Thank you so much for this article, I look forward to many more to come.

  24. Thank you very much for this lovely news letter. I enjoyed it very much. Beautiful pictures and very informative. Green Wood cemetery is beautiful and full of history and historians. I would love to see it some day.

  25. I have a great great grandmother and her sister interred here, so it’s a must visit someday. It is also interesting to note that there are plots with three bodies per grave. This is the case with my great great grandmother. The give us also lacking a tombstone.

  26. What a terrific article! I can’t wait for the next newsletter. Well done!

  27. Awesome history! Thank you so much! I can’t wait to read more in the future.

  28. Well done. Seriously well done. Now I can’t wait for the next one. Thanks

  29. Wow Find a Grave! What a smashing first Newsletter! It’s about time the website got more attention🌺 Looking forward to future articles!

  30. Loved the history and look forward to your newsletter.

  31. Enjoyed this very much. Look forward to more Newsletters!

  32. I visited this beautiful cemetery in March! Thank you for such great information! I look forward to visiting it again.
    Wonderful newsletter!

  33. Thank you for putting this out. We will all end placed in some space. It is good to know there is an organization that provides a national sense of these important places.

  34. With so many relatives buried in Green-Wood Cemetery, it was wonderful to read more about it. Thanks so much.

  35. Awesome article! I never knew about this cemetery. Thanks so much for informing us in such an interesting article. Well done!

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