Graveyard-Hopping in Brooklyn: Death From Above
Here, here will I remain
With worms that are thy chamber maids. Oh, here
Will I set up my everlasting rest,
And shake the yoke of inauspicious stars
From this world-wearied flesh.
— Shakespeare’s, Romeo and Juliet
Long before the five boroughs of NYC were filled by the millions, farmland brought in families and workers, not unlike much of the United States. While farming requires an ample amount of fertile soil, it also tends to be a relatively flat endeavor, for the sake of humans, animals and the crops themselves. The steep hills found throughout the boroughs were designated for the dead, since life prefers to toil without fear of falling, with an eye to the horizon, rather than the unsure terrain. Land for churches was often donated by landowners and those gifts were pragmatic, as most philanthropy tends to be. Besides the rooftop and community gardens, farming is nonexistent in the modern city, leaving the best natural views to the ones who no longer see it, the shade and rolling breezes, unfelt and unheard. While Greenwood Cemetery might be the crowning achievement of graveyards in the boroughs, other dead-full places on high bear suitable names for their lofty positions: Linden Hill, Mount Olivet, Mount Judah, Mount Zion… Whatever spell of the dead that keeps the living from seeking solace in these places still baffles me, since places like Central Park tend to host as many living spirits as any other part of Manhattan, but without the ubiquitous glass, steel and concrete, sirens and smells. No. Stones and trees are the company one keeps in these lofted graveyards, haunting birds and the occasional plot of freshly turned soil with accompanying clusters of flowers.
As long as I feel the fresh breeze in my hair
And see the sun shining strong on the leaves,
I will not ask for more.
What better thing could destiny grant me?
Other than the sensual passing of life in moments
Of ignorance such as this one?
— Fernando Pessoa
Some of these places I discovered on long runs, others, through the meanderings on my bike or simply walking through an unknown neighborhood. What all of them share, no matter the season, is the relative quietude and emptiness, the ancient trees that could never exist on city streets. Twisted Camperdown Elms look like a fallout shelter for Hobbits, while crimson-leaved beeches are so thick with Time, the bone-bright trunks look like elephants with elephantiasis. In the company of the dead, a living witness can linger longer in front of these trees, since a different sense of time is sovereign in cemeteries. A certain kind of hush falls upon my thoughts, not so much out of reverence, but for the simple beauty of being thrust out of sight and mind for a moment. These graveyards on hills were de facto creations, since death comes to all and livestock tend to keep things on the level. Onward and upward… Beauty often crowns forgotten places, since the restless Hand of human beings is kept at a distance. Now and then, while I’m walking through Brooklyn, I remember that the dead keep watch over everything, even if it’s a false attribution to those eyeless occupants.