The impressive gate that leads into Calvary Cemetery was built by an unknown architect and erected in 1892, though the cemetery itself was founded in 1848. The gate is inscribed with the name of the patron saint of cemetery workers, St. Calixtus. Photo courtesy of ForgottenNY.
Though Calvary Cemetery in Woodside is not quite as popular a haunt as some of NYC’s other final destinations, it would be a grave mistake to discount the burial ground altogether; in fact, Calvary is one of the largest and most interesting cemeteries in Queens. The original grounds were purchased by trustees of St. Patrick’s Cathedral (the one on Mulberry Street) and Calvary opened in 1848, just after the 1847 Rural Cemetery Act was passed, prohibiting the establishment of any new burial grounds on the island of Manhattan because of overcrowding–so many people were dying every day because of cholera outbreaks that the city was running out of places to put them all.
Today, Calvary Cemetery serves as the final resting place for over 3 million deceased New Yorkers. Interestingly enough, thanks in great part to this cemetery’s massive influx of residents–for lack of a better word–Queens actually is home to more of the dead than the living; to put it into perspective, the number of interments in Calvary Cemetery alone is roughly equivalent to the population of Chicago.
So who inhabits this particular cemetery in the city of death? Some were famous, some were infamous, but most were merely ordinary people. For instance, the only thing we know about the first person to be buried in Calvary, Esther Ennis, is that she died in 1848 at the age of 29 , and that she “died of a broken heart.” The number of everyday New Yorkers buried here is certainly astounding, but their, um, nutrients have made the grounds and trees especially lush, making for a beautiful, albeit morbid, stroll for any visitors.
The view of Manhattan from Calvary is alternately grim and inspiring; here the concept of NYC as a city built by the people, for the people is visually evident. Photo via Eric Lau
If you’re looking for star power, this cemetery is certainly not without its collection of impressive inhabitants: composer Joe Howard, for example, who is responsible for this song (which I grew up associating with WB’s singing frog) or mafia boss Joe Masseria, the patriarch of the most powerful organized crime family in 1920s New York. And then, of course, there are the 11 Union soldiers buried within a special Civil War Monument within the cemetery.
The cemetery also houses a beautiful chapel on the grounds, constructed by Raymond Almirall in 1895, which has been compared to the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Paris, and which was originally also intended to serve as a burial crypt for NYC’s parish priests.
The central chapel in Calvary Cemetery has been compared to the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Paris. Photo courtesy of ForgottenNY.
Though the chapel is indeed impressive in itself, the trip to Calvary Cemetery is worth the spectacular view of the city; it’s both chilling and inspiring to see the skyscrapers of central Manhattan rising from the sea of gravestones that dot Calvary Cemetery’s expansive grounds. If you ever need a visual reminder of the city’s storied past, you can find it here, in Queens’ city of the dead.
Get in touch with the author @kellitrapnell.