Every day thousands of people pass the thick stone walls and tall iron gates but few step behind them. New York Marble Cemetery is open to the public only a handful of days each year; from March through November, the gates generally open (for a few hours) the last Sunday of each month. However, since the Cemetery lacks both staff and shelter, if the weather is inclement or no volunteer is available, the entrance to this secret garden will remain locked.
Today was the cemetery’s last scheduled opening for 2006. A stream of curious visitors came, encouraged by the open gate and the unusually mild weather. A volunteer provided literature and information about the cemetery, its founders, the current state of repair (a section of the 12-foot high walls recently collapsed) and the trustee’s efforts to protect and restore it.
New York Marble Cemetery (also known as the Second Avenue Cemetery) is the oldest public non-sectarian cemetery in New York City. Established in 1831 to serve the city’s gentry, more than 2,000 interments have taken place here. Unlike most American cemeteries, this half acre patch of green has no gravestones, ground markers, mausoleums, lamps, flower arrangements or monuments. Although the setting is stark, this isn’t a place where the original decorations have been lost or stripped away; by design, the cemetery is simple, unadorned and restrained. The original landscape consisted of a level stretch of lawn marked only by shrubbery and white sand paths.
Founded during an epidemic when in-ground burials were forbidden, interments are 10 feet underground in solid white marble vaults, each the size of a small room. The 156 vaults are arranged in a grid and access provided by removal of stone slabs set below the lawn’s surface. The numbers of the vaults and names of the original owners are on marble plaques set into the surrounding walls.
Although the most recent burial was in 1937, New York Marble Cemetery is not simply a place of historic interest; despite appearances, it is a working burial facility. Each vault belongs to the heirs of the original owners and descendants retain the right to be interred here. In fact, some have made plans to ensure that this cemetery, the last place in Manhattan where a person can still be legally buried, will be their final resting place.