By Olumide Ebimo Amungo
A walk around Jamaica Avenue introduced me to New York’s vast Cemetery Belt and the ghosts that may lie within.
The French call it promenade, I call it good old strolling. I love to take a walk and since arriving New York it has been my favorite pastime. While in East New York I decided to explore the area towards Queens. Usually I take one of New York’s many straight and long roads and walk all the way to the end. One day, I decided to go up Bradford Street and head towards Jamaica Avenue. The blocks kept falling away as I crossed Sutter, Pitkin, Liberty, and Atlantic avenues until I got to Jamaica Avenue.
The green allure of Highland Park on Jamaica Avenue was too inviting to turn down and I went in and watched families picnicking, teams play various sports and children zip about on their bicycles and scooters. Summer is a time for fun. I sat down on a bench for a while and soaked in the frenetic serenity of the place before continuing on my walk. I moved in the direction of 75th street. I had not gone far when I came across Cypress Hill National Cemetery.
There is something about the sight of cemeteries that connects to the primal neurons in our brains and stimulate fear across all anthropological divide of humanity. Cemeteries evoke phantasmagorical thoughts of silhouettes and wispy shadows that are out to get us. It is a place of the living dead. As depicted in Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and several zombie movies. These grotesque, spittle-dripping, slow moving corpses creep out of their graves in the dead of the night to terrorize the living.
But the cemetery I was walking past was a tranquil sanctuary. The graves were in neat rows and it looked benign, pristine, and peaceful. As I walked further down the avenue I came by several other cemeteries, but the one that stood out was the Cypress Hill cemetery. Cypress Hill cemetery is vast, civering over 225 acres of land and it is non-sectarian and non-denominational. The graves were well-tended, and different types of tombstones pay tribute to dead fathers, mothers and children. I read the names; they were Jewish, Chinese, Italian , Irish , Slavic , Russian names. Some of the dead had been judges, bankers, architects, musicians, bank robbers and murderers and baseball players like the legendary Jackie Robinson. But Cypress Hill cemetery is contiguous with other cemeteries where people kept their ethnicity, heritage and religion in death as they did while living. Some of the dead lived in the nineteenth century so I wondered what roles they played in building New York City.
There are over 50 cemeteries spread out across the 5 boroughs of New York City. A vast majority of them are in Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island due to a law passed 1832 after cemeteries in Manhattan became crowed. The largest, Calvary Cemetery in Queens, contains close to two million burials. Others like Potters Field and Greenwood are approaching a million interments . The whole area is known as the cemetery belt. Space has almost run out in New York to bury the dead and cemeteries are now inventing ingenuous means of creating new burial space.
As I walked on, I came by an aberration that stood at odds with all the order around, a bent pillar on an otherwise straight fence. My mind started racing. The nascent thoughts of a novel took form. A novel with an evil and blood curdling plot and ghostly characters. A fearful story of ghouls and zombies. A fantasy tale that would make Stephen King cringe. I have a title:
“The Secrets tale of the Bent Pillar at Cypress Hill Cemetery”