A memorial in The Olde Towne of Flushing Burial Ground honoring the dead who are buried there.
It’s shocking but true. Many parks across the United States were once cemeteries. There is nothing inherently wrong with turning a cemetery into a park. If done properly, it can be a sign of respect to the bodies there. Most of us think of parklands as a welcoming and restful place, often filled with fond memories.
In New York City for example, Washington Square Park-where so many NYU students and Greenwich Village residents go to enjoy a bit of sun or a walk-has the remains of a massive pauper’s grave. The site interred more than 20,000 corpses between 1797 and 1825, many of whom died during successive yellow fever epidemics.
Elizabeth Meade is an archaeologist with one of the biggest environmental engineering firms in the northeast (Allee, King, Rosen & Flemming (AKRF)). She is completing her Ph.D. at the City University of New York, where she has documented 527 cemeteries in the five boroughs. Shockingly for many of us, the roughly 200 resulting maps show the boundary lines of graveyards still open for business, historic sites just beneath the surface, and tombs 30 feet deep.
“There were quite a few that were reclaimed specifically to make parks,” Meade said. Washington Square, Madison Square, and Bryant Parks are the best known, given their well-documented histories as 18th and 19th century as potters’ fields—a plot where the city held indigent burials. In these cases, “the city owned [the land] already, and they could easily convert it,” Meade said.
You may remember our blog post about Seneca Village, a free black community the city cleared away to build the first public park in the United States. Downtown, in Greenwich Village, James J. Walker Park was built on the former St. John’s Burial Ground, which buried more than 10,000 bodies between 1799 and 1858. In 1895, “the city just took it by eminent domain,” Meade said. Only the bodies of well-known New Yorkers were moved. The rest remained.
Another example is Weccacoe Playground in Philadelphia, PA. In 1810, Richard Allen of Mother Bethel AME Church founded the city’s first non-denominational Christian cemetery on the site. Until 1864, it accepted the remains of black Philadelphians whose bodies were banned from other, segregated burial plots. The church buried an estimated 5,000 bodies in just a quarter-acre. The site was eventually closed and then rented out for different uses. Over time, evidence of a graveyard was beaten down by people, draft animals, and carts. In 1890, the church sold the land to the city for use as a pocket park.
In 2013, a group of influential Philadelphians came together and decided that the site needed to be commemorated. The city appointed a committee to reevaluate the use of the land. The city that loves outdoor art is evaluating submissions from artists around the world for a piece of public art that will commemorate the history of the site.
Traditionally run by the Department of Corrections, New York City’s current potter’s field, Hart Island, is the final resting place for more than 1 million bodies. In December of 2019, the city council passed a law that will transfer the land to the Department of Parks. “This is about giving respect and dignity to the people who are buried on the island,” Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez said in a committee hearing.
Sadly, this is a very current topic and one that is quietly being discussed in New York City as the coronavirus death toll increases. According to city councilmember Mark Levine New York is considering “temporary interments.” “This likely will be done by using a NYC park for burials (yes you read that right),” “Trenches will be dug for 10 caskets in a line.” Mayor Bill de Blasio said he doesn’t want to talk publicly about the city’s plans.
Perhaps not, but it’s certainly caught our attention.