Everlasting Beauty: RIP in the Bronx

They say you can’t take it with you but a tour of Woodlawn’s palatial tombs and faux temples reveals that many of its residents died trying.

Among the power elite, ridiculously wealthy, famous and infamous denizens of the Bronx cemetery: New York politicians such as Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, titans of the Gilded Age like Jay Gould of Standard Oil, musical maven George M. Cohan, jazz virtuoso Miles Davis, salsa goddess Celia Cruz and Moby Dick’s Herman Melville.

Woodlawn is located on 400 acres in the Bronx and is the final resting place for 300,000. Established on December 13, 1863 as a peaceful rural escape far from the bustling city, Woodland remains an idyllic shady oasis. It is a doorway to the past, with mausoleums and monuments created by some of the foremost architects and artists of the last two centuries.

Woodlawn has 1313 mausoleums, the largest number in the country outside of New Orleans, where burials must occur above ground due to the water-logged earth. Woodlawn is a non-denominational cemetery. Different faiths — Christians, Muslims, Hindis, Greek Orthodox, Jewish — lie side by side.

Before the 1800’s, it was common for people to bury their loved ones in churches or on their own property. However, with the tremendous growth of the city, overcrowded lots began to be a health hazard. Woodlawn was an appealing alternative, a gracious “landscape” cemetery, rolling hills dotted with the great trees of New York — silver linden, white pine, weeping and cut-leaf beech. Among its fauna: turkeys, hawks, rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, raccoons, and an occasional coyote.

Woodlawn is famous for its statuary, sculpture, metal work and stained glass, with works by artists Robert Aitken and Louis Comfort Tiffany, among many others.

In death, as in life, the rich were fabulously fashionable and their mausoleums are modeled in the trendy styles of the day. One popular monument style was inspired by the exhibit of Cleopatra’s Needle, an obelisk that was shown in the 1800’s. King Tut was uncovered in 1922 and made a big splash the world over. Soon after, Egyptian-style mausoleums began to appear. In some cases, individuals commissioned replicas of famous structures or elements of well-known monuments: the Chateau of Amboise’s Chapel of Saint Hubert, the Thesion at Athens, the pyramids at Gizeh, and the Temple of Isis.

Woodlawn became a very popular final destination for the musical and theatrical performers of nearby New York City. In death, as in life, these artists — actors, dancers, singers, musicians, composers — wanted to hang out together. Woodlawn’s jazz corner houses Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Lionel Hampton and Max Roach, among others.

Reporters and writers: Stephanie de la Cruz, Amarachi Duru, Christine McKenna, Jessica Schira

Photographers: Jonathan Candelaria, Venessa Luciano, Josmar Taveras

Special thanks to Brian Sahd, Executive Director, Friends of the Woodlawn Cemetery

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