Valentine Sillcocks is a ghost. He lives in the uptown Trinity Church Cemetery, on Broadway between 153rd and 155th Streets, high on a hill overlooking the Hudson River. Through a cluster of creaking maples he can just make out the eastern tower of the George Washington Bridge, which opened in 1931, the same year he was buried at the age of 43.
Valentine Sillcocks was a real person before he became a ghost. His name is etched in a piece of granite that marks the spot where he was laid to rest. His family included a silk hat maker, which may or may not have been Valentine himself.
Valentine Sillcocks, in truth, may or may not be a ghost, depending on whether you believe in ghosts in the first place, and, if you do, on your particular theory of how a ghost is born. This detailed explanation from the Spiritual Science Research Foundation, which refers to things like “subtle-sorcerers” and simultaneously uses the word “science” in its name, explains that a person might become a ghost if she has “many unfulfilled desires” or “personality defects, such as anger, fear, greed.” Meaning I’ll definitely be meeting Val in the afterlife. I kid here, because I don’t believe in ghosts. But then again, I really can’t know for sure.
The Five Boro Bike Tour takes place on the first Sunday of May. It’s the kind of thing I say I want to do, but then don’t, because it requires a great deal of effort. But the kind of thing I would do, and did do, is my Five Boro Cemetery Tour. I like cemeteries. I find them serene and only scary after dark, because everything is scary after dark. While I wouldn’t call myself a taphophile, I’ve done a grave rubbing or two. I write down names of the deceased that would be good for a baby, or at least the ones, like Rudolf and Wladyslawa, that would freak out my boyfriend if I told him I liked them.
I picked one cemetery from each borough. I pored over anthropologist/archivist Mary French’s New York City Cemetery Project and urban explorer Kevin Walsh’s Forgotten New York. I decided to skip some of the more obvious choices: Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, which was once the second most visited tourist attraction in the state, after Niagara Falls. And Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, which has a memorial for the Titanic, and which my best friend, who saw the movie twelve times in the theater, would at one time have been moved to see.
I also skipped the one that has become overrun with lizards and the potter’s field that would have required me to kayak across the East River on a moonless night to avoid notice; the one where Barbra Streisand plans to be buried and the one that is said to be haunted by the ghost of a decapitated nineteenth century actor. I let the cemeteries pick me, whether by virtue of some fascinating historical nugget, or (if I’m being a little bit honest) proximity to the nearest subway line.
Here is a list of reasons why you might not rest in peace:
1. The owner of the plot of land on which you are buried remains loyal to the British during the American Revolution and is forced to relinquish his property, subjecting your sacred burial site to the whims of a bunch of hapless Yankee patriots.
2. You grace the world with stories that will one day inspire Fiddler on the Roof which will in turn inspire Gwen Stefani, and make the simple request that your body be returned to your birthplace of Russia after the end of WWI, but no one cares what you want and they let you rot in Queens instead.
3. You die in 1680 and 240 years later a housing boom takes hold of the once peaceful neighborhood where you were buried, and real estate, as we know, is God.
4. You are a Native American with Matinecock, Shinnecock, and Montauk heritage, and city officials want to widen Northern Boulevard over the spot where you were buried, and people have a rather nasty habit of desecrating everything that you own/stand for/need to survive.
5. You are a murdered prostitute and some medical students decide to dig up your body, just four days cold, so they can dissect it, for science.
6. You are a millionaire and some thieves excavate and hold your body for ransom until your devastated widow ponies up.
7. Your family dies off, and there’s no one to care for your grave, but if you’re lucky, a nice lady from the neighborhood comes by to feed the stray cats who’ve made your gravesite their home.
Most Holy Trinity Cemetery, Bushwick, Brooklyn
To get here, I take the L train five stops further than I’ve ever taken it, then cross back under the tracks, where guys are loading gefilte fish onto a truck and a woman yells “FUCK FUCK FUCK” and squats to pee. But when I pass through the gates, gefilte fish and public urination be damned: entering the cemetery is like crawling inside of a grassy womb. It’s the quietest place in the city, if I tune out the high-pitched whine of a generator and the periodic passing of an elevated train. Just me and two guys pruning trees and the muffled sound of “fucks” and the dead.
I don’t know how it takes me so long to realize that I’ve dressed in all black today, down to my socks. I drop my notebook on the ground and wonder if I’ve startled the dead. I stumble across one of the more recent graves and notice two Budweiser cans, one overturned, on a man’s footstone. I can’t decide whether to be incensed by careless vandalism or touched by a tribute to a guy who loved his Buds.
I chose this cemetery because it was founded in an egalitarian spirit: all of its buried, whether rich or poor in life, would be marked as equals in death. Its mostly German Catholic inhabitants were memorialized with small, unmarked wooden crosses, which wasn’t a very 1851 thing to do. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle wrote in 1890, “The monuments that surmount [the graves] present a curious picture and one that has not a parallel in any other cemetery in the neighborhood of these two cities” (Brooklyn was, until 1898, a separate city).
But the founders’ reverence for death as the great equalizer seems to have bowed to the whims of later parishioners. Today, finding a wooden cross among the larger headstones is like trying to find a guy who knows the difference between “fewer” and “less” on The Bachelorette―doable, but not easy. The markers now are more ornate, some inscribed with pleasantries like she’s with the angels now. It’s as though the bereaved couldn’t handle the notion of equality in death. I want the biggest monument for my wife, a widower thinks, as though a larger monument suggests a larger presence in life: more wealthy, more powerful, more loved.
I can’t blame them, because I’m guilty of the same. It’s Jewish tradition to place a small stone on a grave you’ve visited. Some say this keeps the soul from floating off. Others say that where flowers wither and die, stones represent the permanence of memory. The last time I visited my mother’s grave, I compared the dozens of stones atop her headstone to the paltry few that graced her neighbors’ graves. She has more stones, in part, because she was buried more recently. And yet I take some small, juvenile comfort in the idea that she’s the most popular person in the cemetery.
Moore-Jackson Cemetery, Woodside, Queens
The woman whose property backs up to the cemetery fence is gardening, and I wonder whether the soil here is more fertile thanks to the 42 corpses underground. I wonder whether, as she pierces the ground with her trowel, she considers little Margaret Moore, buried in 1790, one month shy of two years old. Margaret’s family owned a large swath of farmland in present-day Elmhurst. They housed redcoats during the Revolution (oops) and later opposed abolition (double oops). A descendent of the family wrote “The Night Before Christmas.” But was she a happy baby or sick from birth? Did they call her Peg or Maggie or Marge?
After the last burial in 1867, the cemetery became so overgrown with weeds that it wasn’t rediscovered until 1919, when the Queens Topographical Bureau surveyed the land. Today it’s fenced in, so I peer through the diamonds of the chain link fence. Someone’s been taking decent care of it. There’s a faded American flag and a pot of fake flowers that match the flag’s colors, a little tacky but it’s something. Signs on the fence instruct passersby to clean up after their dogs and refrain from littering, but directly beneath them is dog shit and litter. I can only count 11 headstones and make out lettering on three: Margaret, David, Samuel. The rest are obscured by an overgrowth of weeds, about the height that Margaret might have been.
Looking at a cemetery from the outside and walking among the dead are two very different things, and perhaps that is why Moore-Jackson doesn’t move me in the way that Most Holy Trinity did. What stuck with me, though, was this cemetery’s speckled past: people cared, and then they didn’t, and then they did, and then they didn’t, and now they do, at least a little.
Old West Farms Soldiers Cemetery, West Farms, Bronx
My mom grew up in the Bronx, so I would have fifty percent Bronx blood running through me if blood worked that way. When I’m feeling timid, I like to remind myself that I’m genetically (again, if genetics worked this way) predispositioned to be tough. I’m not sure if I could ever match the toughness of Juanita “Ma” Carter, though, after whom the alley next to this cemetery is named. Ma Carter was the founder of the “Not in My Neighborhood You Don’t” anti-drug and violence group, which should win an award for the most finger-waggingest organization name in history.
The alley is the first thing you come to if you are walking from the nearest subway station. On your way, you see a few tourists heading to the zoo, and a guy walking by says que linda but for some reason it doesn’t bother you today. The proprietor of a fruit stand is carving up orange peels, and from now on the 5 train rounding the tracks at Boston Road and 180th Street will make you salivate.
When you arrive at the cemetery, you quickly note that both gates are locked. When you walk down the alley, you meet a brown and white cat eating a nice meal someone’s left out for her. She flinches every time a fly lands on her, which is about every three seconds. There are several cat houses and a note that reads “FERAL CAT COLONY DO NOT DISTURB.” It strikes you that the kind of people who care for feral cats have a very particular style of handwriting.
Buried in this cemetery are 40 soldiers, each of whom fought in the War of 1812, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, or WWI. The perimeter is littered with a discarded asthma inhaler, a cigar wrapper, detritus of the living. Inside the gates the graves are undisturbed, though time has taken its toll and many are fallen or illegible. It wouldn’t be so bad to be buried here alongside these soldiers, the occasional tourist peering in to make out the name on your headstone and the spirit of Ma Carter keeping everyone in line.
But Ma Carter is dead and these soldiers are dead. What is alive are these cats, and whoever is buying them the good stuff from the Fancy Feast section of the bodega. A black cat stalks across the graveyard as though she is hunting something, and I think about how hunting is just one letter shy of haunting.
Amiable Child Monument, Morningside Heights, Manhattan
At Riverside, on the slow hill-slant
Two memoried graves are seen
A granite dome is over Grant
and over a child the green
This may be the loneliest grave in all of New York. Little St. Claire Pollock, who fell to his death from nearby cliffs, was buried here in 1797. He was not yet five. Poet Anna Markham wrote the words above in tribute. Though St. Claire was buried alone, in perhaps the only single-grave cemetery in the city, he lies across the street from General Grant’s imposing tomb. He has some company, then, but he is literally in the shadow of the memorial to the 18th president of the United States.
A crow caws as if on cue. Someone has left a bouquet of roses for this child dead two hundred years. There are two pennies on the monument. Perhaps amiable St. Claire would have considered this a fortune. The zooming cars on the West Side Highway below compromise the tranquility of the location, tucked away in Riverside Park.
This is my fourth cemetery of the day, in as many boroughs, and it is here that I realize how much I have been anthropomorphizing the dead. St. Claire must be lonely, I catch myself thinking, buried without his family nearby. He must resent the tourists who visit Uncle Grant―perhaps St. Claire would have been a general had he lived! All of these people who have been disinterred and reinterred, whose graves have been paved over to make room for a Bed, Bath and BeyondⓇ, they deserve better. But they are dead and have no idea that the place where they were intended to rest in peace is now offering a buy-two-get-one-free deal on summer-scented Yankee Candles. It seems impossible to think they might roll over in their graves— although again, I can’t be entirely sure.
Baron Hirsch Cemetery, Graniteville, Staten Island
Staten Island gets a bad rap, and most people I know from Staten Island don’t dispute this. I’ve only been twice, and I don’t pretend to know enough to opine on its worthiness as a borough. But damn if it doesn’t take all day to get anywhere beyond the ferry terminal.
For my Staten Island cemetery, I chose to go balls deep into the land of ferries and Jersey Shore castmates. I felt remiss in not having visited any Jewish cemeteries, and I chose one with a particularly painful history. In January of 1960, nearly 100 headstones here were found with the word “Fuhrer” smeared in yellow paint. Many of the vandalized graves belonged to Holocaust survivors. These people lived through the Holocaust, made their way to the Land of the Free, and even in death couldn’t escape persecution.
The graffiti is long since scrubbed from the graves, which have now fallen victim to more natural enemies. Vines twist around marble monuments, obscuring Hebrew names. Roots stretch their way out of the soil, elbowing headstones off-kilter or knocking them over entirely.
Everything here feels familiar. If I spent enough time, I could find the names of every ancestor I can think of: Tillie and Hyman and Ruth and Morris. Many of the dead lived through the 1940s and I wonder which concentration camp they were in, or if they were lucky enough to have immigrated before the war. Some of my grandmother’s aunts and uncles came to America and didn’t like it, so they returned to Europe. To think, if only they had liked it, they might have lived to be old.
The cemetery is divided into different plots, each one assigned to a different synagogue or burial association. I think of these Jews leaving their shtetls in Poland or Romania, finding themselves greeted by Staten Island’s maybe not-so-welcoming committee, and holding fast to anything that tied them back to home, all the way down to the coordinates of their final resting spots.
When I was twelve, my Sunday School class took a field trip to a nearby Jewish cemetery. We were studying the Jewish Life Cycle, which consists of four major events: Birth, Bar/Bat Mitzvah, Marriage, and Death. They didn’t take us to a wedding or a labor and delivery ward, mainly because no one wants fifteen pre-teens to watch them say their vows or push out a baby. But the dead did not seem to mind our presence. I couldn’t have known I’d be back there, fourteen years later, to bury my mom.
I don’t think my mom is a ghost. If she were, I would visit her grave more often so we could hang out and talk about so-and-so’s choice of color for her bridesmaid dresses or how I quit my job to be a writer and was it all a big mistake. When I visit now, the conversations are pretty one-sided. Sometimes the trees rustle or a cardinal shimmies in the hedges, and I think she is speaking back to me, but then again I can’t be sure.
Eliza Berman is a writer in Brooklyn, and she took all these photographs, too. She tweets and has a website with stuff you can read on it.