In an age when available cemetery plots are dwindling in New York, I feel fortunate that my family members planned ahead by reserving their final resting places in the same cemetery, allowing for the convenience of paying respect to multiple individuals in one visit. What it offers with access, Mount Hebron Cemetery lacks in design with most of its tombstones packed tightly next to each other. Roadways and walking paths are so narrow that one can trip on a tombstone.
The city’s cemeteries weren’t always like this. In the 19th century, they were deigned in the appearance of burial parks, with naturalistic landscaping, winding paths and water features. One such example is Memorial Park Lake at Maple Grove Cemetery in Kew Gardens, Queens. The above photo relates to a visit in the 1950s by local resident Jack Kerouac, which inspired a poem.
The cemetery began operating in 1875, built atop the glacial terminal moraine overlooking the recently built suburb of Richmond Hill to its south. The local newspaper of the time, Long Island Democrat praised the layout of the burial park.
“The natural beauties of the grounds have been so enhanced under the management of the Superintendent that the place has already become a great attraction to the residents of Jamaica.”
Inspired by Green-Wood and Woodlawn cemeteries, it had its own railroad station on its southern side and attracted visitors not only for funerals, but also to admire the hilltop views, trees and monuments. On its northern side was Hoffman Boulevard, later renamed after the borough, a major route that connected Newtown and Jamaica. Like the two mentioned cemeteries, it had to have a pond.
In 1876, the cemetery’s trustees approved the construction of a lake near Hoffman Boulevard. The local newspaper reported that Maple Grove was giving away the mud to farmers free of charge:
The deposit is rich and free from grass, weeds or snow, the top having been taken off previously. To facilitate the loading of the muck direct from the lake into wagons, the Cemetery Superintendent has made a bridge extending into the center of the lake. We are informed that the cemetery Company (will) give this muck to any one desiring it, and several of the farmers have availed themselves of the gift, and have carted it away.
The product was Memorial Park Lake, an oval pond that is described in Nancy Cataldi and Carl Ballenas’ book on the cemetery, where the photo below can be found.
The 1891 Chester Wolverton atlas of Queens also depicts the cemetery’s pond, along with two nearby natural ponds.
To the west of the cemetery was Crystal Lake, a glacial kettle pond that was filled in 1910 when the Kew Gardens railroad station was relocated to its present site. The red line on the map is the border between the towns of Newtown and Jamaica.
Across Hoffman Boulevard, the cemetery had its Sunnyside Plot that bordered on the property of Aaron de Grauw. This plot was unused for burials and was sold to the city in 1950 as part of the Van Wyck Expressway project. The unnamed pond was filled to make way for vehicles. What remained of the Sunnyside Plot was then designated as Maple Grove Park.
By then, the original pond appeared filled but a new pond was carved in another section of the cemetery during the expansion in between 1938 and 1943 by architect George McClure. The bean-shaped pond features a fountain in its center and an artificial waterfall. The cemetery pond’s most recent reconstruction was in 2009, when the firm Blair Hines designed the Lakeview Garden, which included paths and plantings around the pond
Like the interments, cemeteries are also mortal. Once they fill up, their leading source of income dries up. Maple Grove’s future is secure through its nonprofit support group that conducts tours and cultural events at the cemetery. A modern visitors center provides space for indoor activities. Certainly the landscaped grounds and pond are an asset to the cemetery, worth much more than the limited number of burials that can fit in its footprint.
I am not sure at what point cemeteries in New York discarded the burial park concept in favor of endless monotonous rows and whether it has any relation to the mass-produced tendencies in 20th century urban design. I have fond memories of the New Jewish Cemetery (Jaunie Ebreju Kapsēta) in Riga, Latvia, where my great-grandmother is buried. The fragrance of pine trees, benches to sit on, and plates above the grave so that one is not stepping above the interred. Here was a community that truly cared and visited regularly.
And then there is Bayside Cemetery in Queens, where one of my friends has a great-grandparent buried. Filled to capacity and with no famous individuals among its dead, the cemetery has been ravaged by vandalism and nature. It is the subject of a lawsuit but also a volunteering opportunity for those who care.
Which brings me back to Mount Hebron Cemetery. When the day of reckoning comes, will the filled-up cemetery still received “perpetual care?” In the case of the once-neglected Prospect Cemetery in Jamaica, it began with one individual and has since grown into a full-fledged nonprofit. Maple Grove Cemetery also serves as an example of a “living” cemetery thanks to the efforts of many players, the descendants, the neighbors, local leaders, educators, and historians. As for its pond, it is used for an annual Lantern Festival, attended by the cemetery’s CEO and its supporters.
For more information on Maple Grove Cemetery and its pond, get the book on the cemetery