What made you choose Green-Wood Cemetery as a book subject?
When I discovered (through a fortuitous trajectory of events), that Arcadia Publishing was including cemeteries in their Images of America series, I contacted them immediately. I thought to myself, How can they not include Green-Wood in their series!? After all, apart from its magnificence, this is the most famous cemetery in America.
My familiarity with the cemetery, through my work as a funeral director was another factor. Having been there many times over the years, I was familiar with many of the famous names, but when I began the book project my research continually surprised me. As I found more and more fascinating stories. it became a question of winnowing down the subjects because Arcadia’s Images of America Series books have a limited number of pages. Even if I were to publish Green-Wood Cemetery Part II, III and IV, that would not be enough to encompass all the stories Green-Wood has to tell. New stories are being discovered all the time.
How did you research?
I read everything I could: Newspaper archives from the Brooklyn Eagle and New York Times, newspaper clippings, websites, historical societies and the Library of Congress One of my goals in doing this book was to reacquaint readers with the history of this great city. We’ve all learned the names DeWitt Clinton, Elias Howe, Boss Tweed, Horace Greeley and Peter Cooper, in school as children, Yet, over the years their substantial contributions have become vague–even forgotten by some. I’ve also highlighted some of the key people who founded what became national corporations: Pfizer, Squibb, Tiffany, Steinway and FAO Schwarz.
What are the names of some of Green-Wood’s most famous permanent residents?
Many of the names I mentioned in response to the previous question are household names today. There are others like Currier & Ives and Leonard Bernstein, who were not only famous, but beloved. Then, there are those who, while their names may not be familiar, their accomplishments are. For instance, you may not know the name George Tilyou, but almost everyone knows of Coney Island’s Steeplechase Park. Henry Bergh, too, is another name that may not be readily recognizable. But this man founded the ASPCA and has been honored time and again for his incredible contribution to society.
What Impresses you about the way the place is operated?
There are so many ways in which Green-Wood reaches out to the community. Their outreach to the local students teaches respect for cemeteries as well as an introduction to history that augments in a tangible way some of what they are learning. The Civil War Project is another example. A group of volunteers have worked hard to identify veterans previously buried in unmarked graves. Over the last twenty years, the cemetery administration has brought the cemetery to the attention of the wider public, elevating Green-Wood to one on New York City’s premiere cultural institutions. Many refer to Green-Wood as an outdoor history museum.
What was your experience with Arcadia Publishing like?
If there was one fly in the ointment, that was it. I’ve often said that doing this book was a labor of love and indeed it was. Arcadia was difficult. The editor I worked with, while demanding, seemed quite inexperienced. It was a challenging just to communicate with her. Before I published with them, someone close to the project characterized Arcadia as “one step above self-publishing.” That became very clear to me after I signed a contact with them. Authors are required to do it all and I do mean all. There I was not only doing the writing, and gathering (and paying for) the photos, but doing the page layout as well. When the book was published, it was all up to me to do the marketing. But, the most unpleasant surprise was when my first royalty check arrived. Arcadia had withheld a majority of the amount. It took a strongly worded lawyer’s letter to get my money. Still, despite the ordeal it was –and while I would never recommend anyone publish with Arcadia– the subject matter was so historically important and compelling that I am pleased with the work I did.
What have you done at Green-Wood to promote your book? Have you given any tours or lectures?
Yes, I have given a number of sold-out trolley tours of Green-Wood for the public, as well as numerous private tours. Last year, my one of my trolley tours was a favorite listing in Time Out New York, one of the city’s premiere entertainment weeklies. Most recently, I was part of a panel discussion at the Old Stone House, an historic home in Brooklyn. Last year, I was part of a similar panel at the Brooklyn Historical Society. This is in addition to numerous book signings at various book stores and in Green-Wood’s historic chapel. What I’ve been enjoying lately is promoting Green-Wood, the book and the place, through social media.
At the grave of one of my literary idols. The closing words to “The Great Gatsby” are etched into the slab in front of his monument. — at St Mary’s Church.
My uncle 92 years of age, at the time, was heartbroken at not getting the chance to say goodbye to his sister, and only remaining sibling. He said it left a hole in his heart. And things were about to get worse. I called the Florida direct disposer, a repugnant and disrespectful title for one who lays the dead to rest. Their website alone made my stomach turn. “Why pay funeral home prices for direct cremation services?,” it asks. Those commercial words suggesting a cheap alternative to a real funeral were not consistent with the dignified (sometimes haughty) woman who hewed to tradition and ceremony, and could more than afford the traditional funeral she believed in. I called and spoke to the proprietor, telling her that I am a funeral director (she is not) in New York. I explained that in New York we get everyone on board before such an irreversible act can occur. She told me in strident tones that she had not needed my permission. I also called the Medical Examiner’s office in the county in which my mother had died. They told me she had been found in her bed with a pillow mostly covering her face, having been dead for days. Her son had obviously not bothered to check in with his 86- year- old dementia-addled mother. My family and I had so many unsettling questions.
Her son plundered her considerable financial means for his own personal use while turning to the cheapest mode of final disposition. It was about that time that we found out he, the perennial ne’er-do-well son, was a convicted criminal who had done time in a federal prison. We insisted he bury those cremains; it was the very least he could do.
While he lied to us and evaded our requests for the burial of the cremains, we prevailed. But the worst was yet to come. I expressed my concerns to the cemetery about our doubts that my mother’s cremains were actually being buried, and not just some Florida sand going into the grave. I appealed to the cemetery administrator Brendan J. Hickey to let me examine the cremains in advance, as a professional courtesy, so that I could then reassure my. He turned a deaf ear to my pleas.
The morning we buried my mother’s cremains in her grave at Pinelawn Memorial Park, there was nothing “park-like” about the chaotic scene. My uncle, cousins and I watched in horror as backhoes circled (the gravediggers kept apologizing to me, explaining that they were only following Hickey’s orders) and cruel words were hurled at us by my mother’s son and his wife. Throughout the thousands of interments I have been a part of I have never witnessed such a scene.
The most shocking moment was when two Suffolk County police officers, summoned by Hickey, approached me. While I conducted myself with the utmost dignity and restraint, as I do at all funeral services, the police were told that Hickey “expected trouble.”
In my long career as a funeral director, I have striven to provide the utmost dignity for the deceased. Yet, for my mother there was none. And that I could not do that for her has caused a ceaseless pain. While I made a complaint to the cemetery board (not only for myself, but to ensure Hickey would never treat another family in such a crass and cruel manner), they never followed up with me. I was approached by reporter friends to tell my story as a cautionary tale, but out of respect to my uncle I declined. I could not, in good conscience make worse the circus that had been my mother’s funeral. Each and every time I must go to Pinelawn Memorial Park the horror of that day comes back to me.
Certainly it is the funeral director in me, and how I hold dear that last wishes are sacrosanct, that made me want to advocate for my mother. It is the last good deed we can do for others. While my mother failed my all the years of my life, I was determined not to fail her in death. Because of Brendan Hickey, I feel that I did.
My latest book is an historic overview of New York City’s most notable and historic cemeteries. Filled with photos, it can easily serve as a guidebook and reference book for taphophiles and tourists alike.
My profile of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery is in October’s “American Cemetery & Cremation,” magazine. October is the perfect month to visit the legendary graveyard, as the entire town is in Halloween Mode. A sidebar to the article lists a number of the cemetery’s unique events for the month.