What happens when a sprawling New York City cemetery begins to run out of space?
That's a question that Green-Wood Cemetery is being forced to reckon with, as the 478-acre burial site is rapidly approaching capacity. The Brooklyn cemetery, which was founded in 1838, is the final resting place for thousands of Civil War soldiers, infamous New Yorkers like Boss Tweed and the Brooks Brothers. But over the years, the location's space for new grave sites has started to diminish as the number of dead beneath its grounds rapidly approaches capacity.
This week, Green-Wood reached a deal with the historic Old First Reformed Church to acquire a stretch of plots that occupy just a fraction of an acre. The church acquired the land from Green-Wood in the 19th century during an era in which the cemetery was pushing for local houses of worship to bury their dead at the beautiful location rather than at their own church grounds. Much of the space that came into Old First's ownership was never used, and so the two historic institutions struck a deal to sell back the cemetery within the cemetery (known as the Cedar Dell) to Green-Wood for a cool $500,000.
Green-Wood is facing a fate that is fairly unique for cemeteries in the United States. Trinity Church Cemetery in Washington Heights stopped selling new burial plots a few years ago. Calvary Cemetery in Queens is rapidly approaching capacity. Even Arlington Cemetery is running out of room.
This pickle is a direct result of the mindset commonly shared throughout the country that one's final resting place is theirs eternally. The concept of "burial in perpetuity" is not something that countries in other parts of the world take for granted. The City of London Cemetery, for example, regularly digs up its dead and repurposes the plots for a new batch of departed souls.
In the early 20th century, San Francisco faced a major urban planning problem: The city's dead were taking up way too much valuable real estate. The powers that be promptly made the decision to no longer allow burials in the city and moved thousands of its dead to neighboring Colma, CA, which has since become a "necropolis."
Digging up a bunch of dead people isn't something to expect at Green-Wood anytime soon—the place is a National Historic Landmark, and the process to disinter a grave there is arduous and "strongly discouraged," according to a spokesperson. If you were hoping to rest eternally in the cemetery, you're probably out of luck. The cemetery does offer regular tours and host events, so visitors have ample opportunity to enjoy the gorgeous location before they kick the bucket.
This post was updated to reflect the correct selling price of the Cedar Dell.