Take the 4 to Woodlawn
Updated: Jul 17, 2021
The Blue and White tours the Elysian fields.
By Nia Brown
I notice the brightness around me as the nearly empty 4 train makes its last stops. The thing about taking the subway so far out is that it’s no longer sub(terranean), but up above the streets in the air and light. The automated voice declares “This is Woodlawn” at the final platform—I have arrived. The station’s stained glass windows let in a hazy light and, apart from a few transit workers, it is empty.
The Woodlawn cemetery gates and the entrance structure are elegant yet understated and slight for “America’s most architecturally resplendent cemetery.” Designed in the post-Civil War landscape-lawn style, graves aren’t visible from the entrance, it instead looks like the beginnings of an expansive park. The large map, past the lone, whistling guard, is immediately overwhelming with its many red bubble-marked points of interest and faded details.
I take one of the avenues to the right and see a seemingly endless number of mausoleums. They are the works of artists from McKim, Mead & White to Daniel Chester French. All are impressively ornate and dignified in shades of grey, but the stylistic variances couldn’t be more different. Some look like scaled down Parthenons, with impossibly rounded columns that seize the the rays of the high hanging sun to radiate it out themselves, immortalizing their occupants like the gods. Others resemble small Notre Dames, gothic, crowned with an eau-de-Nil roof; bas-reliefs of biblical scenes.
I pass a muted grey sarcophagus without a conspicuous name, and a vast number of obelisks. There is a palpable stillness over these four hundred acres. It is broken only by the rattle and crunch of the autumn turning leaves underfoot and the scattering of squirrels, unsettled by my apparently disruptive presence.
Large stones mark family plots with names carrying antiquity: Closius, Eylers, Megrue, Gould. The surrounding smaller stones designate individuals together in death, one even marked only with “Father.” The feeling of being in an endless space is subdued with the view, from atop a hill, of a crowded sea of modular grey cubes. Many of these were pairs, a husband and a wife, sisters, but many were individuals buried alone. I wonder how many of the 300,000 people buried in this necropolis were resting in lone graves.
Next to the grey valley there is a sign reading “Notice of Lots Abandoned” and I wonder how it is that lots can come to be abandoned. Information on buying plots was in small print at the bottom of this curious bulletin, a reminder that this is still an active cemetery.
I keep exploring the many avenues. Central Ave, the wide thoroughfare, is populated by people with eyes on their cellphones and suits with briefcases. I take a few turns off it to Jazz Corner, where Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and Irving Berlin and many others are laid to rest. Miles Davis’ tombstone is the most pronounced, at a fork in the worn down road. It’s sculpted from a darker stone than the usual gris, engraved with oddly theatrical and modern looking music signage with little rocks placed on the top, surrounded in deep green ivy. Another resting place with a quiet grandeur. None of it, not one part of this place, feels morbid—just still. All these people in beds of earth, in well landscaped rows, behind arches and housed in stone.