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Inside Green-Wood Cemetery's catacombs

On Sunday afternoon, some 150 visitors came to Green-Wood Cemetery, crunching their way through freshly fallen leaves to view the graves of the cemetery's famous and infamous residents.

The nearly 500-acre cemetery is the final resting place of about 560,000 people, including Jean-Michel Basquiat, actress and witness to Lincoln's assassination Laura Keene,legendary gang leader and boxer “Bill the Butcher” and famous murder victim Dr. Harvey Burdell.

Green-Wood historian, Jeff Richman, led the tour, decked out in a Halloween-inspired vest under a velvet cloak, donning a black top hat.

The ultimate stop, and the only one that elicited gasps and screams, was Green-Wood’s catacombs, nearly pitch dark except for several areas illuminated by a skylight.

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The above-ground building was built in the 1850s, explained Richman. The spot was carved out by glaciers, and lies between the cemetery’s rolling hills and flatlands. The developers decided to construct an “above-ground apartment house,” Richman said, instead of filling in the hole.

“Above ground was very important in the 19th century, because they did not want to be buried alive,” Richman said. “They did want to have the experience of putting a casket into the ground and hear dirt being shoveled on top of you.”

The 30-vault catacombs have 15 rooms on each side, in which multiple members of a family are buried in their own sections off of the main hall.

Perhaps the most famous resident, Richman said, is Ward McAllister, the New York “arbiter of society” in the Gilded Age, who died in 1895, and who believed only 400 people in New York really mattered.

Inside, iron gates separate some of the family chambers, and coat of arms and other adornments break up the otherwise sparse interior.

The private mausoleum is only opened on select occasions. The last burial in the catacombs was around the 1960s, Richman said, and descendants of the deceased buried there still have the keys to access it.

“I’ve always wanted to do the tours, even though I grew up in New York, I’ve never been here, said Ksenia Winnicki. “I feel like it’s definitely a New York tradition … there’s something about the cemetery and the statues that I’m very intrigued by.”

"It's the unknown," said Justine Fiore, when asked why hundreds of people turn up for a cemetery tour that promises a peek inside a catacombs. "I like to be scared, but just a little bit."

More information on Green-Wood Cemetery is available athttp://www.green-wood.com/.

 
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