In the twelve or so years I’ve lived downtown I must have walked by the gated New York City Marble Cemetery, sandwiched unexpectedly on 2nd Street between First and Second Ave, more times than I can tell. I can tell the first time, however, as it was introduced to me by the woman who was to become my wife, who also pointed out that one of its celebrated dead had the unfortunate fate of receiving the name “Preserved Fish.”
Since that day, many is the time that in passing I would stop to take in the cemetery and maybe try to read the passages on one of the monuments closest to the street. The place never failed to move me in some small way, either as a kind of memento mori (“remember that you will die” ) or by its haunting Edgar Allen Poe-ish beauty, especially during a fall twilight or at dawn. But other than harboring the remains of Mr. Preserved Fish, I didn’t know the first thing about the place.
What I did know was that those who covet Manhattan real estate, possibly the most valuable on planet Earth, have time for neither tears nor the dead nor hallowed ground. To such folk there is but one thing on this earth that is sacred. This was made shockingly clear with the accidental discovery of what is now called the African Burial Ground during the construction of the Federal Building downtown in 1991 which led to the rediscovery ( begging the question of how such a place of such size and import can be forgotten in the first place) of what was the central cemetery for New York’s African Americans in the 17th and 18th centuries. The cemetery stretched from what is now Duane Street all the way to Worth Street, which is something to consider in terms of what you’re walking on the next time you are strolling through Foley Square. Also something to consider the next time you’re hanging in Washington Square Park which was once both a hanging ground and a Potter’s Field: a kind of one stop shopping for the criminal and the destitute.
None of the above was on my mind this morning when I went out for a stroll with my daughter and I was happily surprised (and surprised that it made me happy) not only to find the gates of The New York City Marble Cemetery wide open and non-mourning looking people ambling about but lawn chairs strewn hither and thither for those who wished to take a long look.
That was me. I took my time — the silence of the place invited me to – and read the names and dates of just about every monument I could. There are some interesting souls in there, among them John Lloyd Stephens, the “founder of Mayan archeology,” who published Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and the Yucatan in 1849. What was left James Monroe was also in there for a time until the state of Virginia removed his remains and reburied them in Richmond, a job I am happy to have had nothing to do with.
It is a strange but not unpleasant sensation to walk among the silent dead in the middle of such a crazed city and it certainly helps put things in perspective.