Not-So-Living History: The Queens Cemetery Belt
This post was written by Museum intern Sophie Brous.
If you’ve ever flown over New York City, you may have noticed the huge number of cemeteries spanning the area around the Brooklyn-Queens border. Known as the Queens cemetery belt, this massive stretch of land claims at least 5 million interred in its soil. In fact, it is said that there are more deceased residents of Queens than living ones! How did this unusual phenomenon come to be? Let’s look at the fascinating history of cemeteries in Queens, and discuss their interesting connections to the history of Eldridge Street and Jewish New York as a whole.
Before we can understand the Queens cemetery belt, we need to know the story of cemeteries in New York. Trinity Church cemetery may be the most famous of Manhattan’s earliest cemeteries. The burial place of Alexander Hamilton and many other famous historical figures, Trinity Church cemetery was founded in the 17th century and is now a popular spot among New York tourists. However, fewer are aware that the oldest Jewish cemetery in the country–and the second oldest extant cemetery in New York–is actually located not too far from Eldridge Street. Congregation Shearith Israel, New York’s first Jewish congregation, was founded in 1654 by Jewish immigrants from Spain and Portugal. The congregation operated three different burial grounds across Manhattan, but the oldest one, First Shearith Israel Cemetery, is located at 55 St. James Place, in the heart of Chinatown. The plot, known to some as Chatham Square Cemetery, is incredibly easy to miss. Tiny and half-hidden, many walk by each day without noticing its presence. However, this incredible historic cemetery claims a fascinating history. Reverend Gershom Mendes Seixas, the first American-born rabbi, is buried there, among a number of Jewish Revolutionary War veterans. Sadly, the cemetery’s size has been greatly reduced over the years, as construction and development have taken over a large portion of the original plot. Today, only a small portion still remains.
In the early 19th century, the state of cemeteries in Manhattan began to cause something of a crisis. Unsanitary and hazardous conditions put workers in danger during burials and became vehicles for the spread of diseases such as yellow fever and cholera, which ravaged the city during that time. In 1852, the severity of this problem finally led the city government to outlaw all new burials in Manhattan below 86th Street. So where were the deceased to go? Realizing the ample space available in Queens and Brooklyn, the government passed the Rural Cemeteries Act in 1847, which made it extremely easy to purchase land for burial use in undeveloped parts of the boroughs. So, cemetery proprietors began moving into these areas, where they were afforded cheaper prices, safer conditions, and more breathing room. These rural cemeteries were often made to look like parks, with beautiful landscaping and rolling hills. Since this was before the advent of large public parks, many cemeteries became popular destinations for families looking for a quiet place to picnic and spend time outside. (The planning committee for Central Park actually cited the popularity of cemeteries as a reason for their new project!) New rail lines were built to take promenaders straight to the gates of the cemeteries for a fee of just a few cents. While cemetery hangouts are not quite as popular as they once were, today Queens still claims a total of 29 different cemeteries, 14 of which are Jewish. Kahal Adath Jeshurun, Eldridge Street’s historic congregation, is known to have interred members in at least five of these, as well as several cemeteries in Brooklyn, Long Island, and New Jersey.
The congregation’s early burial records in the museum’s archive show that congregation members had a choice to inter their family members in a few different cemeteries: Union Field, Machpelah, Bayside, Washington, Mount Sinai, and Beth David. Bayside Cemetery, the oldest of these, was founded in 1865, and to this day is one of the oldest extant Jewish cemeteries in New York City. Rabbi Avrohom Aharon Yudelovitch, the synagogue’s first full-time rabbi, was buried in Bayside after his death in 1930. Unfortunately, due to lack of funds and other issues, the congregation which owned the cemetery eventually abandoned it, leaving it to fall into disrepair. In the past 15 years or so, multiple attempts have been made to restore the cemetery to its former condition, including a cleanup by the Community Alliance for Jewish-Affiliated Cemeteries (CAJAC), but unfortunately much of the cemetery is still in a state of disrepair with no resources to facilitate regular upkeep.
Union Field Cemetery is a name mentioned frequently in the congregation’s burial records. Owned by Congregation Rodeph Sholom, this cemetery has been active since 1878, and counts those such as Bert Lahr–who famously played the Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz–among those buried in its grounds. The cemetery eventually split up into two separate plots, with one remaining as Union Field and the other becoming Machpelah Cemetery. Kahal Adath Jeshurun continued to bury its deceased in both, although it appears their financial troubles eventually began to cause issues there as well. Multiple angry letters, addressed to the congregation’s secretary Morris Groob, claim that the congregation had not paid for upkeep of their plot in Union Field, which was beginning to fall into a state of neglect. Unfortunately, neglect would follow for Machpelah, which was abandoned in the 1980s due to lack of funds. While the land is supposedly still cared for, this would sadly not be apparent to any visitor: the gate remains locked, the entrance building has been torn down, and the graves are covered in weeds and litter. However, one grave stands out among the rest: Harry Houdini is famously buried here, and fans flock there each Halloween to pay their respects.
Records also show a purchase of a section of land in Mount Zion Cemetery, and a significant number of congregants seem to have been buried here. Spanning 78 acres of land, Mount Zion claims over 210,000 burials, the first of which occurred in 1893. Interestingly, one important founder of the synagogue was buried here, though far away from other congregants. After leaving the Lower East Side to move uptown, Sender Jarmulowsky, Eldridge founder and important banker, helped to found a second congregation, Zichron Ephraim–better known today as Park East Synagogue. After his death in 1912, Jarmulowsky was buried in Mount Zion along with other Zichron Ephraim congregants. Rabbi Idel Idelson, Kahal Adath Jeshurun’s rabbi from 1930-43, is also buried in Mount Zion. Unrelated to Eldridge but quite relevant to the conditions of life during the time of the synagogue’s founding, the cemetery features a memorial to the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, and a number of its victims and survivors are buried there as well.
Whether you’re looking to visit a deceased relative or to explore their incredible history, the cemeteries of Queens (and, of course, the rest of the city) are fascinating places rich with historical significance. Sadly, however, many of the city’s cemeteries have been long neglected and even abandoned as funding ran out and interest was lost. If you are interested in learning more or helping to preserve their history, consider visiting some of the city’s magnificent cemeteries, or volunteer to help clean up cemeteries that have been abandoned. While some cemeteries have their own volunteer programs, organizations such as CAJAC organize volunteers to clean up those that have been neglected (visit their website to learn how to get involved). One of the greatest mitzvot (good deeds) in Judaism is to care for the dead, as they cannot do anything for us in return. As such, doing your part to help preserve these aging cemeteries–whether you are cleaning them up, doing research to uncover their history, or simply visiting them and appreciating them–is a huge mitzvah.
Sophie Brous is a Museum at Eldridge Street summer intern. She is a rising junior at Haverford College, where she is studying Linguistics.