At the corner of 5th Avenue and 25th Street in Brooklyn, is the driveway to one of the oldest green spaces in New York City. The entrance to the 478-acre cemetery is marked by two elaborate brownstone arches built in the 1860s.
Past the arches are winding roads and tree-shaded paths that guide visitors through the grounds where more than 560,000 people have been laid to rest. Green-Wood Cemetery, which was built in 1838, used to be shut tight to the general public for decades, allowing only relatives of the deceased or plot-holders to visit the grounds.
Now, on weekend nights, tour groups will walk through Green-Wood with their flashlights, led by a tour guide explaining the history of some of the 19th century monuments scattered across the 179-year-old property. The Brooklyn cemetery does these twilight tours year-round, but there is a heightened interest in October because of Halloween.
‘We don’t do anything that’s specifically Halloween-related since we are an active cemetery,’ John Connolly, the Manager of Public Engagement and Development at Green-Wood, tells DailyMail.com.
‘We don’t want people to think of this place as being spooky or ghosty. That being said, interest in cemeteries definitely jumps up quite a bit in October and we’re happy to take advantage of that and expose people to a very interesting history and a very beautiful walk.’
Cemeteries have become a popular tourist destination in the past 20 years, despite the fact that they used to be almost closed to the public, according to cemetery photographer Douglas Keister, 69, from Chico, California, who has been studying and taking pictures of cemeteries and tombstone symbolism since 1997.
‘Twenty years ago, cemeteries were virtually deserted,’ Keister tells DailyMail.com ‘I mean, they really were. They were like the spooky cemeteries. And now they’re thriving. I think probably the best example [in New York] is Green-Wood. They had security guards and you had to present some kind of ID that you were visiting a relative or they wouldn’t even let you in.
‘They were very, very standoffish and now they’ve got trolley car [tours]… It’s pretty extraordinary what has happened in 20 years.’
Over the past 20 years, cemeteries have become a popular tourist destination, according to Douglas Keister, 69, a cemetery photographer from Chico, California. He says that 20 years ago cemeteries like Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn kept their gates locked tight to the outside world except for mourners or plot holders, but they have recently embraced visitors from the general public. Tourists line up to see inside the Steinway Mausoleum at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn during Open House New York
Today, Green-Wood Cemetery hosts a number of activities including, trolley tours twice a week, nighttime tours on the weekends, historical reenactments, concerts, lectures, mausoleum open houses and special performances including this one called Angels and Accordians, a dance and musical performance event they host annually
People have become more interested in visiting cemeteries for several different reasons, according to Keister. For many, the interest begins with visiting the grave sites of celebrities, but as they walk around and notice the beauty of the scenic green spaces and the architecture and structures of the tombstones, visitors want to come back for more. Pictured is a nighttime tour of Mountain View Cemetery in Altadena, California
According to Keister, there are several reasons for the surge in cemetery interest including a changing attitude about memorialization, an enthusiasm for genealogy and family history and the attraction of celebrity grave sites, which in some cases is the ‘initial draw’ to cemeteries.
‘It’s like seeing a celebrity, [but] they’re just not alive anymore,’ he says. ‘There is a connection that [people] feel that’s not entirely unlike people going to the Vietnam Wall… There’s no actual body there, but people come from thousands of miles to see a name and to make that connection even though there is actually nobody there. It shows you the power of a name.’
‘People want to see, they want to touch Marilyn Monroe’s plaque on the outside of her crypt, you know, they want to see Elvis. They want to get close to Jim [Morrison]… And of course, on the way to see Jim, you’re seeing all this other stuff.
‘Jim is the draw, you know. It’s like if you go to a concert, you see somebody but you also see all these other acts. Or you go to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa, but there’s all this other stuff.’
In Keister’s estimation, Doors lead singer Jim Morrison’s grave in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, France, is one of the most visited grave sites in the world, followed by Marilyn Monroe’s crypt in Westwood Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles.
Colonel Harland Sanders, who founded fast food chain, Kentucky Fried Chicken, is buried at Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville, Kentucky and visitors who want to pay homage to the businessman will take pieces of chicken and leave them at his grave site, according to Keister.
One of the most-visited celebrity graves in the world is Doors lead singer Jim Morrison’s, who was buried in Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris. His is one of the few graves that is fenced off in the cemetery. Despite the fencing, visitors scribble notes on nearby tombs and trees and toss flowers and other remembrances on his grave
However, when tourists come to visit Jim Morrison’s grave, they see other interesting things, including the grave sites of other celebrities, such as Oscar Wilde who is also buried at Père-Lachaise. Pictured: Tour guide Thierry Le Roi lectures tourists at the grave of Oscar Wilde
In Keister’s estimation, the crypt of Marilyn Monroe in Westwood Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles is the second-most visited cemetery grave in the world. Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner, who used Monroe’s photo in the first issue of Playboy recently moved into the crypt next to her
Keister says that when people visit the grave sites of celebrities, they feel a special connection to them and will often leave things as tribute. Colonel Harland Sanders is buried at Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville, Kentucky and visitors who want to pay homage to the businessman will take pieces of chicken and leave them at his grave site, according to Keister
Jazz great Miles Davis is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Bronx, New York. The music inscribed on his memorial is Davis’ original composition Solar recorded in 1954. Fittingly, Woodlawn has carved out an area surrounding Davis’ tomb for other musicians and jazz enthusiasts. Buried nearby are Lionel Hampton, Duke Ellington, drummer Max Roach and promoter Joyce Wein
Johnny Ramone, born John Cummings, was a co-founder and guitarist of the punk rock band The Ramones. The band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002. After Ramone died of prostate cancer in 2004, he was cremated. It is unclear if some of his remains were interred next to his monument (pictured) in Hollywood Forever cemetery in Los Angeles or if the monument is only a cenotaph (a monument to someone who isn’t actually buried there)
Keister adds: ‘And when they started going to cemeteries, they started going, oh my god, look at all this stuff. I mean, it’s just incredible… People are just finding out – they’re re-finding out what wonderful places cemeteries are.’
In response to the increased interest from the public, cemeteries have opened their gates and started to host their own tours and events including concerts, battle reenactments, bicycle races, outdoor film screenings and even plays.
Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles hosts concerts, talks, plays and outdoor film screenings. The famed Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in upstate New York has afternoon tours, nighttime lantern tours and even a ‘Murder and Mayhem’ evening lantern tour and as Keister says, ‘you don’t get more cred that Sleepy Hollow’.
Though the public interest in cemeteries appears to be a recent trend, cemeteries, particularly garden cemeteries historically served as the first public parks. Green-Wood Cemetery is one of the best examples from New York City, according to Keister.
‘People used to go there because before Green-Wood Cemetery there was no public open space,’ he says. ‘Parks did not exist… As a matter of fact, Green-Wood Cemetery, in the middle of the 19th century was the second-most popular tourist destination in the country. Niagara Falls was first.’
‘Cemeteries are in this funny little kind of limbo land. They’re like a university campus… it’s a private property but it’s open to the public.
‘Cemeteries used to be very, very, very popular as places to just enjoy the out of doors. A break from the dirty, filthy, smoky cities… When automobiles came into being and families started breaking up because you could go somewhere, cemeteries kind of fell out of favor because you didn’t have the family plots anymore.’
Petra, Jordan (pictured) is known as the city of tombs and according to Keister, might be the height of cemetery tourism. The most well-known tomb there is The Treasury which was featured in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
What drew Keister to cemetery photography at first was his curiosity and interest in the architecture and symbolism on tombstones and mausoleums. Since his first book in 1997, Keister has done at least five other books on different cemeteries and symbolism. Because of his expertise, he gets asked by cemeteries, including Ferncliffe Cemetery (pictured) in Springfield, Ohio, to lead tours through their grounds every year, particularly around Halloween
Thanks to Washington Irving’s tale, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, there is probably no better known cemetery than Sleepy Hollow cemetery in New York. Capitalizing on its fame, the cemetery hosts numerous events, including its popular lantern tours (pictured), which sell out quickly in the weeks preceding Halloween
Keister (pictured talking to tourists near Jim Morrison’s grave in Père-Lachaise Cemetery) says: ‘I want [people] to appreciate the beauty of cemeteries… Cemeteries are for the living. They’re not for the dead. The dead could care less’
Despite its relatively small size Springfield, Ohio’s Ferncliff Cemetery hosts over 350 guests on its annual Fall Trolley Tours. In fact, the tours have become so popular, the cemetery now hosts a nighttime ‘mausoleum crawl’ complete with historical reenactors and mausoleums that are open for viewing
As far as Green-Wood is concerned, the cemetery kept its gates closed tightly specifically because of the ‘bad old days’ in New York, Mr Connolly says.
‘Green-Wood was as much stuck in them as everyone else in the 70s, 80s and 90s it was pretty rough around here and there was a lot of vandalism, there was a lot of theft of art objects and destruction of property and all sorts of wacky behavior so we had it tightly locked down and only allowed people in who were obvious mourners or who had lots on the site during that time.’
Other cemeteries were also keeping their gates closed to the general public, so by the time Keister first decided he wanted to do a book about cemetery architecture in 1997, he had to ‘sweet talk’ his way. But soon after that, cemeteries started realizing what great resources they had.
‘They didn’t really want to see you unless you were going to be there permanently,’ Keister chuckles. ‘But they started realizing what a historic resource [cemeteries] were. It’s still a business… [Now] they need to figure out ways to get people in there and generate some revenue.’
Green-Wood came to the same conclusion. Over the past five years, Mr Connolly says, Green-Wood has opened its gates to the general public and has been leading tours and hosting events. He says they host approximately 150 tours and events every year now.
‘We find that we’re much better served by bringing people in rather than keeping them out and if you can see a then vs now version of Green-Wood, we’re much more beautifully kept, much more open,’ he says. ‘It’s all about recognizing that it’s a safer, better place and we want to have the community be part of this space.
‘We want to bring people into Green-Wood to fall in love with the place and help us to support it going into the future. I think what a lot of cemeteries are experiencing is the same thing that Green-Wood is experiencing, which is understanding that time is limited for burials as a financial model because we only have so much space. That being said, we are an incredibly gorgeous space and think that other folks with value the history and beauty that is here.’
Oskar Schindler’s grave (pictured) at Mt Zion Catholic Cemetery in Jerusalem, Israel is covered in pebbles and stones. Many of the stones were placed there by Jews who were rescued by Schindler during the Holocaust. The Jewish tradition of placing stones on graves instead of flowers dates from times when Jews were nomadic and couldn’t regularly tend to flowers placed on graves
One of the tombs that gets the most attention by tombstone tourists in Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris is Victor Noir’s
Noir was killed in a duel, but his popularity after his death stems from the sculptor of his statue. Local folklore says that women who desire a lover place a note or a flower in his hat and give him a little rub for good luck
Mel Blanc was known as ‘The Man of 1000 Voices’. Although he appeared on the radio, in movies and on television, he is best known for his vocalizations of Looney Tunes characters, including Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny, Yosemite Sam, Foghorn Leghorn, Wile E Coyote and others. He requested that the ending of every Looney Tunes cartoon (voiced by Porky Pig) of ‘That’s All Folks’, be on his tombstone (pictured) at Hollywood Forever cemetery in Los Angeles
JonBenét Ramsey is the subject of one of the most puzzling unsolved murder cases of all time. She was a child beauty pageant star but was found strangled in the basement of her parents’ Boulder, Colorado, home on December 26, 1996. Her parents became suspects almost immediately, but no significant evidence has ever been found to prove their guilt. JonBenét’s mother, Patsy, had been a beauty queen, but died from ovarian cancer in 2006. People who visit JonBenét’s grave leave toys such as teddy bears and tricycles by her tombstone in St James Episcopal Cemetery in Marietta, Georgia
Green-Wood holds a variety of programs and tours. The cemetery has historic trolley tours on Sunday and Wednesday afternoons and hosts twilight tours of the grounds on weekend nights. Every year they hold a Memorial Day concert, which has recently had an average attendance of 4,000 according to Connolly, and an annual reenactment of the Battle of Brooklyn, also called the Battle of Long Island, from the Revolutionary War in August of 1776.
‘We have a sort of scattered calendar of events that’s more thematic. Everything from book talks to concerts to tours on a particular subject – that sort of thing,’ Connolly says. ‘Those things are sort of done as a service to the local community and to get people in to experience the space and to sort of pay homage to our so-called permanent residents.’
However, there is a line between bringing in tourists for different events and having respect for those who are buried in the cemeteries and their relatives.
‘We are an active cemetery, meaning we do burials regularly and we do have mourners that come here and lot holders that come here. We are a cemetery first and we have to honor that that’s the nature of the place. Any tours or events are generally sort of scheduled in ways that we don’t interrupt burials and are done to the best of our ability to be respectful and thoughtful.’
Though they do occasionally get complaints about all the events and tours, Connolly says many people who have lots at Green-Wood appreciate the programming and even attend many of the events themselves.
Keister, who gets hired by cemeteries to lead tours because of his expertise in the field, says that even though it might be valid to think of cemetery tours and events as disrespectful, as long as the events aren’t obscene, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying the beautiful spaces that cemeteries offer.
‘As long as you’re not doing ghoulish things, you’re not doing weird a** s***, you know, the dead could care less. I mean, they’re dead. Cemeteries are for the living. And people put their name on a grave to be noticed. If they don’t want people to notice, they wouldn’t put their name on it. And people build a mausoleum to be noticed. You want it to be respectful, but you also want it to be fun. Cemeteries, you have to realize, were our first parks.’
Even though he never played on an organized team, Henry Chadwick (1825-1908) is known as ‘The Father of Baseball’ for his contributions to the game as it was being developed. From Exeter, England, Chadwick moved to America and became a sports journalist who covered baseball in its infancy and is credited with developing box scores and some baseball statistics. He is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn
Jerome Howard, better known as ‘Curly’, was a comedian and performer best known for his role in the Three Stooges. Visitors to his grave at the Home of Peace Memorial Park in East Los Angeles have spelled out one of his famous vocal expressions ‘nyuk, nyuk, nyuk’ in pebbles on his gravestone
Rin Tin Tin was a German Shepherd and film star who was found in France during World War I by American serviceman Lee Duncan. Less than two months after he found the pup, his mother and the other puppies in the litter, the war ended and Duncan took Rin Tin Tin and his sister Nénette back home with him to Los Angeles. Duncan trained him to work in silent films, where the dog had a long and successful career. After the dog died, Duncan arranged to have him returned to France, where he is buried in the famous pet cemetery in Paris (pictured)
What drew Keister to cemetery photography at first was his curiosity and interest in the architecture and symbolism on tombstones and mausoleums. Since his first book on the subject, Going Out in Style, in 1997, he has written at least five other books about cemeteries and is often asked by cemeteries to come give tours of their grounds, especially around Halloween – his busiest time.
‘I wanted to explore something that nobody had ever explored,’ he says. ‘At this point I have a pretty good reputation. Not just that I’ve done all this, but I’m entertaining yet respectful when we do this sort of thing… Cemeteries will contact me and want me to give a tour even though I’ve never been there.’
‘My focus, generally, is not on celebrities or notables, although I of course, include those. I focus on symbolism and secret societies.’
Keister was recently hired to lead several ‘trolley’ tours through Ferncliff Cemetery and Arboretum in Springfield, Ohio, though he admits the ‘trolleys’ are actually trailers. While visitors rode on the trailers, he walked through the cemetery with a microphone, pointing out different symbols and meanings on gravestones and explaining the architecture of the different tombstones.
This is the second time he has given tours for the cemetery and last year he says he convinced them to do a ‘mausoleum crawl’, sort of like a bar crawl, where the cemetery opens some of the mausoleums and people can go inside at night.
Other cemeteries do similar events, though they don’t call them ‘mausoleum crawls’. Green-Wood opens some of their mausoleums and tombs at the same time that New York City does its annual Open House event, which opens access to some of the city’s architecturally best buildings and structures.
‘You never get to see the inside of a mausoleum,’ he says. ‘Even when you’re dead you don’t get to see it, so it’s rare. They opened up some of the mausoleums and then they also have reenactors at various graves.’
‘You concentrate more on what you’re looking at because you don’t have all the distractions that you would have in the daytime because you can’t see them. So it’s just a really cool way to see a cemetery.’
‘I want [people] to appreciate the beauty of cemeteries… Cemeteries are for the living. They’re not for the dead. The dead could care less.’
PELICANS, BUTTERFLIES AND STRANGE NUMBER GROUPINGS: WHAT THE SYMBOLS ON TOMBSTONES ACTUALLY MEAN
Douglas Keister is an expert in cemeteries, their architecture and symbolism and has written several books on the subject. His interest in the symbols on gravestones is first intrigued him with cemeteries in the first place.
‘Back a hundred years ago and more almost everybody belonged to a secret society of sorts,’ Keister says. ‘Which could be the Masons, the Oddfellows, the Knights Templar, there were hundreds and hundreds of these things. It was a big social aspect of the day. And so when you see somebody’s grave that has a symbol on it, you can tell what secret society they belonged to.
‘And depending on what that secret society is, it tells you about the person. It’ll tell you about their religious beliefs… You can tell what these people were doing in their communities.’
Keister says that while the Freemasons were probably the biggest secret society, there were hundreds of them for all different groups of people. Because the Catholic Church didn’t allow Catholics to be members of the Masons, they created their own, the Knights of Columbus. There were also societies for African-American people and women.
‘All that stuff – it was huge. And so when you go to a cemetery and you see those signs, you understand grandpa, grandma was a member of this and it tells you a little bit about them.’
Doug’s 2004 book Stories in Stone provides more details on cemetery symbols and their meanings
The primary symbol of the Freemasons (left) is the square and compass. Often, inside the symbol is the letter ‘G’, which some say stands for geometry while others say it stands for God. Sometimes the symbol also contains clasped hands. The Masons have grown to become the largest fraternal organization in the world. The butterfly (right) is one of the more literal funerary symbols. The three stages of its life: caterpillar, chrysalis, and butterfly are easily recognizable as symbols of life, death, and resurrection. The emergence of the butterfly from the chrysalis is likened to the soul discarding the flesh
In the cemetery, a snake biting or eating its tail (known as the Ouroboros or Uroborus) is a symbol of immortality, rejuvenation, and eternity. It is seldom used in funerary art nowadays, but it was a very popular symbol in 19th-century cemeteries. Images of the Ouroboros can be found in the art of ancient Egypt (where it symbolized the daily cycle of the sun), China (where it was among the myriad yin and yang symbols), the Roman Empire (where it was associated with Saturn, the god of time), as well as in European and American funerary art. Beyond symbolizing immortality the ouroboros suggests that for every ending there is a new beginning. In alchemy, the ouroboros symbolizes a closed cyclical process (heating/evaporation/cooling/condensation), which refines or purifies substances
The inverted torch (left) is a purely funerary symbol. It is unlikely that it will be found anywhere but the cemetery. The inverted torch comes in two forms. The most common is the inverted torch with flame burning, which while symbolizing death, suggests that the soul (fire) continues to exist in the next realm. The other version is an upside-down torch without a flame, which simply means life extinguished. Although the form of the weeping willow (right) certainly suggests grief and sorrow, in many religions it suggests immortality. In Christianity it is associated with the gospel of Christ because the tree will flourish and remain whole no matter how many branches are cut off. The willow and urn motif was one of the most popular gravestone decorations of the late eighteenth and early 19th century
Hands that appear to be shaking are usually a symbol of matrimony. A careful look at the sleeves shows that one appears feminine and the other masculine. If the sleeves appear to be gender neutral, the hands can represent a heavenly welcome or an earthly farewell
After the dove, the pelican (left) is the most common bird seen in Christian funerary symbolism. The pelican represents self-sacrifice, the greatest love of a parent for its children. Christians adopted the pelican’s self-sacrificial feeding of its young from its own blood as a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross because of his love for humankind. The Knights of Liberty (symbol pictured right) was a secret African American organization organized by Moses Dickson and 11 black men in St. Louis, Missouri, in August 1846. Their goal was the destruction of slavery. Moses Dickson was also the author of the book International 777 Order of Twelve 333 of Knights and Daughters of Tabor. The International Order of Twelve, Knights and Daughters of Tabor is the successor to the Knights of Liberty
The Knights of Columbus (symbol pictured), founded in 1882, has often been described as the ‘Catholic Masons’ because Catholics were forbidden, by a Papal edict, from joining the Freemasons. The purpose of the fraternal organization, which was originally open to Catholic men over the age of 18, was to provide assistance to widows and orphans of the parish. It had close to 1.5million members in 1994. Although it has many similarities to the Freemasons, including degrees and rituals, it is mainly an insurance company. In recent years it has become more active in community affairs and politics