Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
A 177-year-old cemetery is preparing to digitize millions of records that shed light on New York City’s shifting demographics.
A burial often involves a casket, or maybe an urn, possibly a headstone and a bouquet of flowers or wreath. But there’s also a lot of paperwork.
Some 560,000 bodies are laid to rest among the 478 grassy acres of Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, dotted with statues and placid ponds. There are records of every burial since the first body was interred in 1840, says the cemetery’s archivist, Tony Cucchiara.
Crammed into staff offices are 50 filing cabinets holding instructions from monument designers, stone masons, and families, and blueprints for hundreds of mausoleums. There are also stereoscopic photographs of the grounds circa 1850, when the rolling hills attracted nearly as many visitors as Niagara Falls, and families spread out picnics on the lawn. Since 2009, a team of graduate students and volunteers has excavated the materials from brown accordion pouches, unfolded them, and shimmied off metal paperclips and anything else that might damage the delicate surfaces. They’re still only about halfway through. “It’s an enormous undertaking,” says Cucchiara.
But Cucchiara and his colleagues also realized that the information contained in the archives could have fascinating significance for researchers and the general public. “The records have been proprietary— they were created for the sole purpose of conducting cemetery business,” says Cucchiara. Now, he adds, “they have taken on an added value.”
Cemeteries are already a popular source of information for professional and amateur genealogists. “Families from Minnesota or Atlanta will ID that they have a relative here, and will come and take a trip to see the burial site and connect with their family’s history,” says Lisa Alpert, the director of development and marketing at Green-Wood. She refers to this as “genealogical tourism.”
It’s only recently, Cucchiara adds, that the information held in the cemetery’s archives is being recognized for its appeal to a broader audience. This maps on to a bigger trend of unearthing and digitizing forgotten or underappreciated holdings at museums, archives, and libraries. “There’s a great emphasis now in making known the so-called hidden collections,” he says. Earlier this year, as my CityLab colleague Laura Bliss reported, the New York Public Library digitized 180,000 holdings in the public domain. Many archives are bucking the stereotype of resolutely staying put in the analog age.
Now, Green-Wood will follow suit. A recent $40,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities will allow the cemetery to convene a panel of experts to help determine best practices for digitizing the archives for public use.
In addition to tracking the daily operations of the cemetery, the archives also offer insight into life as it was lived over the past 177 years. They chronicle some families’ upward mobility during an industrial boom. (By looking at how much families paid for lots and monuments over the course of multiple generations, Cucchiara says, you can glean information about their rising class status.)
The records also hold a wealth of information for anyone interested in demographics. Oversized books, referred to as the chronological burial registry, note nativity, age, and cause of death in meticulous script. A handful of entries from July 1863 list cause of death as “shot in a riot,” suggesting that they were slain in the Civil War draft riots in Manhattan, says Alpert. These records also have an application for public health, tracking disease outbreaks. Plus, looking at names and places of birth can shed light on immigration patterns throughout Brooklyn and Manhattan.
Alpert speculates that the material could also be useful to biographers studying some of the cemetery’s high-profile residents, including Boss Tweed, Louis Comfort Tiffany, and Jean-Michel Basquiat—or to stitch together a portrait of daily life for the people who made up the fabric of the city: the tens of thousands of nurses, grocers, teachers, and other everyday people who are buried there, too. (The archivists are mindful of privacy concerns for the descendants; the digitized material will date from 1910 or earlier, Cucchiara says.)
The cemetery is bordered on one side by the Prospect Expressway, on another by an MTA bus depot. The city continues to hum outside of the gates, cars tearing down the freeway, taco trucks rolling into position down the block, buses kneeling to pick up passengers at the stop across the street. The city is vibrant alongside death. From some angles, the silhouettes of the grave markers are reminiscent of the skyscrapers jutting up on the other side of the harbor.
The digitized archives will continue to tease out connections between the area’s present and history. Says Alpert: “We want very much to keep these stories alive.”