Restoring the past one grave at a time at Green-Wood Cemetery
Meet Neela Wickremesinghe, who, along with her skeleton crew, conserves the final resting places of half a million permanent residents of Brooklyn.
For the past 180 years, Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery has been serving a dual purpose, first as an active cemetery and second as a 478-acre greenspace beloved by history buffs, bird watchers, tourists and New Yorkers alike.
But with half a million permanent residents, it takes a proverbial village to keep up Green-Wood’s bucolic beauty and all those final resting places.
“Let’s say every other person has a headstone. That’s over a quarter million pieces of stone,” said Neela Wickremesinghe, Green-Wood’s manager of preservation and restoration. “Many of them are looking great, many need a little bit of loving care.”
Wickremesinghe, 30, is a Staten Island native who has been at Green-Wood since September 2016. She has a bachelor’s in architecture and urbanism from Smith College and a master’s in historic preservation from Columbia University and previously worked in historic interiors.
“Historic buildings are my passion, and I wanted to make sure that whatever I did worked toward maintaining buildings instead of building new ones,” she said.
Metro: What does your team do here at Green-Wood?
Neela Wickremesinghe: The restoration department works toward conserving and maintaining the monuments we have within our grounds. This aspect of restoration is so unusual, I’m constantly working with our historian, development officers and horticulture staff because everything we do is interconnected.
We’re also have a high school program for student interns and are embarking on a hands-on training program in March for young adults that want to get into the masonry and restoration business.
What’s been your favorite project so far?
We’ve done over 100 repairs since we began. During the summer, we did a really nice brownstone mausoleum restoration. We had a descendant pay for the work, which was really special — we often don’t get to interact with living members of families when we do this work. It came together so beautifully.
What did it entail?
It was a full cleaning of a brownstone mausoleum (from 1853) and had many of the problems of a brownstone building: deterioration, stones coming out of alignment, roots growing on the roof, leaves, all of that. We took the entire roof apart, cleaned everything, put it back together, repointed and steam-cleaned the entire vault and made replacement tiles for the roof.
Have you had any calamities?
One of the most heartbreaking things was that we found two headstones that were in pieces, and it broke my heart because sometimes we can’t fix things. And like in archeology, reburying something is completely appropriate when you document that you know it’s there. We have wonderful archives to back everything up. Even if there’s no headstone, we have a piece of paper in our front office from the time of the burial, the burial card, the burial order. In my mind, it’s still something to represent something of that person’s life, so it’s a little bit of a silver lining.
Sometimes in life we have to be reminded that some things are not forever — they are more forever here than in some places, which makes me feel great because it’s wonderful to know that the work we do here really is forever. And as a conservator, I want nothing more.
How often does something take your breath away?
Every day. Every single day. Even if you’ve been there many, many times, something will jump out, like this person died really young or this person lived past 100 or the quality of carving — the quality we have here is astonishing. It’s wonderful to see so many different kinds of materials at play here next to each other.
What was the last thing that wowed you?
I’m astonished that we have all of these monuments that are still here. Whenever I’m up high on something, I always wonder who the last person who touched it was. Probably the person who set it up … and some birds.
And finally, I wish you no ill health, but how would you want to be buried, and what’s on your headstone?
I actually haven’t thought about it! Probably a joke or an architectural pun. I think the main thing of working here, you realize how much time and effort goes into the burial process, how many people are involved. I think it’d have to be some sort of green burial. Something easy, definitely.