There are two marble cemeteries in the East Village, the New York Marble and the New York City Marble. They have nothing to do with each other, but they’re both very old and almost always locked to the public, except for a few weekends each year.
The smaller of the two, the New York Marble Cemetery, is almost completely hidden, a secret greenery between tenements, marked only by a small gate on Second Avenue. Inside, surrounded by a high stone wall, the flat lawn is decorated here and there with butterfly bushes and blue aster flowers. There are no gravestones—and no graves. You wouldn’t know you’re in a cemetery if it weren’t for the wall plaques that mark the underground vaults where bodies lie.
Marble cemeteries have only marble-lined vaults, constructed for the purpose of containing miasma, the toxic vapors long ago believed to be emitted by rotting corpses.
A descendant of the original purchaser of a vault was present at a recent open house. As an owner, she can be entombed here. No one’s done it in nearly 80 years, but she’s considering it.
Around the corner, on East Second Street, is the New York City Marble Cemetery. It’s the larger of the two and the more visible, with a long wrought-iron fence through which, at night, you can watch feral cats grapple in the shadows. The place is also lousy with pigeons, flocks of them fed by someone with a penchant for peanuts in the shell.
Mostly marked by plaques, some of the vaults here have monuments above them. One of the largest belongs to Mangle Minthorne Quakenbos, real estate magnate with a spectacular name. But the most famous here is Preserved Fish—famous for his curious name, not for his life, which was spent in shipping and banking and outliving one wife after another.
A cemetery volunteer shared the apocryphal story behind Mr. Fish’s naming: “As a baby, while traveling by ship, he fell overboard. He washed ashore and was found by a whaling captain, who gave him the name.” Because he was like a fish preserved.
It’s a pleasure to stroll through a cemetery, a peaceful activity not often possible in Manhattan. As people wandered over the graves, long-time East Villager Helen Stratford played her accordion. She wore a black dress and black-feathered wings, the angel of death playing Andy Williams hits, like “Moon River” and the “Theme from Love Story.”
As I strolled along, I didn’t notice any miasmatic vapors, so the marble must still be doing its job.