Greenwood Heights

Green-Wood Cemetery tour digs up fun facts

October 27, 2014 By Paula Katinas Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Members of the tour group strike the same pose as the statue of Minerva, who stands at the highest point in Green-Wood Cemetery and seemingly waves hello to the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. Eagle photo by Paula Katinas
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One of the liveliest places in Brooklyn is a spot where the dead are buried.

Green-Wood Cemetery, a historic 478-acre spot where 600,000 people are interred and where you’ll find the final resting places of everyone from Boss Tweed to Leonard Bernstein, is also a place where you’ll see tour buses.

The Green-Wood Fund, a group dedicated to preserving the cemetery’s monuments, offers tours of the place. Visitors are picked up near the main gate on Fifth Avenue and 25th Street in buses that look like trolleys and are driven around the cemetery to see headstones and mausoleums of prominent people, get a view of architecture and take in the bucolic setting.

June Johnson, a Bay Ridge civic leader who is a member of Community Board 10, organized a tour on Oct. 25 for a group of her friends. “I thought it would be a nice thing to do. The weather is beautiful and the cemetery has so many interesting things in it,” Johnson told the Brooklyn Eagle.

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Johnson’s tour group, which numbered about 30, boarded a trolley for a tour of the cemetery’s highlights. Guide Lia Niskanen packed a lot of facts into the two-hour excursion, giving the visitors a lot to think about. She called the cemetery’s ornate main gate “Victorian eye candy.”  The gate’s spires contain nests where monk parrots live. The parrots escaped from a shipment at Kennedy Airport in the 1960s, found their way to Green-Wood, saw the gate and made themselves at home.

The Green-Wood Cemetery was founded in 1838, a time when Americans’ view of death was changing. “In the early days of New York City, the dead were buried in church yards, close to the living,” Niskanen said.

Green-Wood, with its perfectly-manicured lawns, rolling hills and country estate-like setting, was revered for its beauty. By 1860, Green-Wood was “the second most popular tourist attraction in the country,” Niskanen said. The most popular was Niagara Falls. “People would come here to commune with nature, see public sculpture, enjoy an afternoon,” Niskanen said.

The guide led the group past several graves of historical figures, including New York Governor DeWitt Clinton, who spearheaded the construction of the Erie Canal and whose remains were brought from Albany to Brooklyn and laid to rest in Green-Wood.

The group also saw the final resting places of Elias Howe, the inventor of the sewing machine; political titan Boss Tweed; composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein; Samuel Morse, the inventor of the telegraph; and business tycoon John Mackay, whose elaborate mausoleum even has heat and electricity.

The tour also offered a close up view of the Statue of Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom who stands at the highest peak in the cemetery. The bronze statue was erected on the cemetery hilltop in the 1920s at the behest of Charles Higgins, a millionaire who wanted to create a tribute to the Battle of Brooklyn. Minerva’s arm is raised as if she is waving to the Statue of Liberty in plain sight across New York Harbor.

Johnson and her group posed for photos striking a Minerva pose.

For information on tours, visit



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