The Evergreen Cemetery: Where Asimov whistled while the Chinese boiled

All in a day's work: Former gravedigger and now cemetery historian Donato Daddario demonstrates the key that releases the two rosette-shaped screws and releases the marble faceplate from a compartment.

"THE boiler would come by with his two big cauldrons, disinter (dig up) the bodies and boil 'em up to remove any remaining meat. He'd then chop up the body at the joints, box up the bones and they'd be loaded on a ship bound for China ..."

In case we needed a better visual, the ebullient Donato Daddario whacks a cleaver-shaped hand against his elbow and knee.

"We used to say, they used the broth to make chop suey!"

We happened to stumble across Donato during a personal tour of the Evergreens Cemetery led by distinguished historian and ├╝ber sailer John Rousemaniere, author of  Green Oasis in Brooklyn: The Evergreens Cemetery 1849-2008 

Heading over the Brooklyn Bridge with galpals Pamela Talese and Cathy Eatock (from downunder) sporting my signature "stayin'alive" Traffic Cone Bag
Our friend Pamela Talese organized the sortie, with our phalanx of folding bikes heading over the Brooklyn Bridge to meet a cluster of writers and cultural creatives from her circle. First stop: the sublime Vinegar Hill House for brunch, who always welcome folding bikes into their little secure courtyard at the back.

I've been thinking about why this "farmhouse aesthetic between a cobbled street and a smokestack" is so insanely popular. I think it's this: if whatever you make - be it a killer sourdough pancake or slice of quiche - is just that little bit more scrumptious than anyone else's, foodies even on a budget will come for miles. It wasn't cheap and I was still hungry after. But I digress ... 

"A memorial for children, see the dragons?" Artist Pamela Talese, got her friend John Rousemaniere to generously give us a tour.  
So why visit a cemetery on an impossibly sunny day? No one around, no volleyballs to bounce on your burrito and loads of shade. And, in the case of many New York cemeteries, loads of colorful characters.

I flicked through John's notes and saw that Isaac Asimov spent his afternoons "sitting on one of the cemetery’s benches, reading and engaging in his half-conscious habit of whistling." The spacey young author-to-be described Evergreen as "a lonely Eden ... a park without the disadvantages of being full of people."

A log shaped headstone meant the deceased had no kids so it was the "end of the line, the tree had been cut."
As you can see on the website, more than half a million peeps are buried on the site. There's an above ground burial building where ashes are installed. I wondered if one day, there'd be entire condos for the dead - with per-square-inch prices starting low in the super's basement and escalating as you ascended to the heavenly penthouse floor ...

The Chinese section - the headstones were very uniform and unadorned. 
The Chinese section was much less ornate in terms of headstone design. According to Donato, the Chinese would spend just a short time buried - 3 years - then with the help of the boiler man, be returned to the mother country. One day, a shipload of bodies was blown up en route to China, meaning none of the passed passengers every made it home. Someone decided it wasn't worth continuing, and boiler man had to find another career.

Speaking of boilers, the photo below shows one that's actually a tomb.

Be buried in your life's work: William H Guild's boiler-tomb.
Says John, "William H. Guild's metal tomb is an example of taking such pride in your work that you decide to live with (or in) it for all eternity.  Guild was in the boiler business at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in the late 1800s. He had this graceful pile of iron - likely a ship's boiler - brought by horse and wagon to the cemetery. There it, he, and his family lie in the Evergreens' Hickory Knoll section, surrounded by some more traditional monuments. "

A family rails against the railroad which claimed the life of their young son. 
One woman stopped by with a brace of tiny tots in beaded dreadlocks, carrying rather large bottles of what looked like coffee powder.

"Their dad was murdered, and they saw I had ashes of my mother and said, how come we can't have our dad with us like that? So I told them, we're going to go to the cemetery and bring your daddy home."

I asked the kids what they planned to do with the dirt.

"Make sandcastles," they said. A tiny little thing sat beside me. From his tiny perfect little face came the words, "You speak Chinese?" I started to explain how my mother didn't speak so I never learned yadda yadda, but he looked at me as if to say, "you know you should."

You see life anew as well as adjourned in a cemetery. 
My zealous alter ego Chelsea Gallerista couldn't help but dream of a hybrid cemetery/art gallery looking like Storm King RIP, where original, commissioned sculptures could replace the cookie cutter headstones, with modest entry fees paying for maintenance ... 

Storm King ... how about a cemetery of headstones that looked like this?

"These tombs aren't much smaller than a Manhattan apartment," observed Markley.

"Yes, perhaps the deceased should get a three year lease," quipped David. "After that, you should be able to move in. It's quiet, you've got an instant neighborhood, no barking dogs or basketball hoops."

As you can see from the picture below, it doesn't look all that different from an average suburban street - Corinthian, Doric and Ionic columns abounded in the 'burbs where I grew up - and where it was about as dead. 

Does this look like a neighborhood near you?

I'll let Pamela have the last word: 

Here is the quote I was rambling on about in the graveyard. Thomas Lynch is an American poet, essayist and undertaker. The Gladstone to which he refers is the great Victorian Liberal who sounded like a New Age Republican when he wrote that "he could measure with mathematical precision a people's respect for the laws of the land by the way they cared for their dead."

And as I watch my generation labor to give their teenagers and young adults some “family values” between courses of pizza and Big Macs, I think maybe Gladstone had it right. I think my father did. They understood the meaning of life is connected, inextricably, to the meaning of death; that mourning is romance in reverse, and if you love, you grieve and there are no exceptions—only those who do it well and those who don’t. And if death is regarded as an embarrassment, or an inconvenience, if the dead are regarded as a nuisance from whom we seek a hurried riddance, then life and the living are in for like treatment.

From The Undertaking / Life Studies in the Dismal Trade
By Thomas Lynch

Get John's book and listen to more stories on the Evergreen Cemetery's website

Thank you John and Pamela, for the wonderful tour, and Susan for stowing our folding bikes in your Suburu.


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