A Final Resting Place and Its Afterlife: Woodlawn Cemetery Is Transforming Into a Cultural Institution…But for Now, Bring Out Your Dead

aerial photo 1921 A Final Resting Place and Its Afterlife: Woodlawn Cemetery Is Transforming Into a Cultural Institution...But for Now, Bring Out Your Dead

Aerial photo of Woodlawn Cemetery from 1921. (Courtesy Resnicow Schroeder)

This is how life works: a person is born and then begins dying.

The person lives for a short period of time or an average period of time or a longer than average period of time. One day, either suddenly or after a long or short period of suffering, or maybe peacefully in his or her sleep in the way that is referred to as natural, the person dies. The person has a family or has no family or has a family but does not speak to them. Perhaps the person is remembered by a lot of people he or she never even met, but more likely, the person dies and is only remembered by close acquaintances and family (this is probably the case even, or really especially, with the family that is not on speaking terms). Then those people in the family or those close acquaintances also die and they are remembered or not remembered by their own separate close acquaintances and family and so forth. Every person becomes an “it.” What do we do with it, the family or the close acquaintance asks, as in, “What do we do with the body?” Worldwide, around two people die every second. Close to 120 people, give or take, have died in the time it has taken you to read this paragraph—that is a lot of “its” to deal with.

There are more than 1,700 not-for-profit cemeteries listed on the New York State Division of Cemeteries website, and about 30 of them are inside the limits of New York City. At some point in the near future, “near” being relative to, well, eternity, all of them will run out of space if they haven’t already. This is one consequence of the fact that everyone dies, though probably not one that you spend much time thinking about.

Depending on whom you ask, Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, which began a lengthy 150th anniversary program this year that will culminate in 2014 with an exhibition at the Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University, has anywhere between 20 and 100 years left as an active cemetery (that’s the industry term for a place that still has open burial plots for sale). Some 300,000 people are buried there—Herman Melville, Fiorello La Guardia and Miles Davis among them—and there will be many more to come. It was only in the last decade or so that many of America’s cemeteries, taking a cue from Mount Auburn in Cambridge, Mass. (the final resting place of the poet Robert Creeley), began establishing themselves as nonprofits and, paradoxically for places that are so literally about the past, thinking about the future. Probably more than any other cemetery in the country, Woodlawn has already taken major steps toward preserving itself as a kind of outdoor museum: in 2006, the cemetery donated its papers to Columbia’s Avery Library (in all, they comprise 800 linear feet). In 2011, the U.S. Department of the Interior designated the cemetery as a National Historic Landmark, making sure that, like the mausoleums that bear the names of certain long-forgotten, once-powerful families, it will survive long after its active life is over.

Susan Olsen, Woodlawn’s historian for the past 11 years, drove me around the cemetery in a Lexus last week and told me about the monuments and how cemeteries have changed over the decades.

“We have 20 acres left at Woodlawn,” she said, “and we’re very cautious with this space, as far as the use of in-ground burial as opposed to above-ground burial. Compared to most New York cemeteries, we’ve got a considerable amount of land left, but it’s the changing demographics of how people are using that land that is important.”

She said the trend in burial right now is cremation and that it’s “hugely on the rise.” For a cemetery that’s eventually going to run out of unused space, that’s a good thing: When Ms. Olsen started working at Woodlawn, back when the cemetery buried about 1,200 bodies in the ground and cremated as many more each year, there was 50 years of space left; the annual cremation rate has risen to 2,500 and Ms. Olsen now estimates Woodlawn has another 100 years of new sales.

The first cremation in America took place in Washington, Pa., in December 1876. The body was that of Baron De Palm; the crematory was built by Francis Julius LeMoyne. At the time, it was seen as a pagan ritual and caused a media sensation, until a few queasy journalists decided to watch the body burn. Cremation, no longer taboo, takes up less space, but comes with its own problems.

“Our biggest challenge,” Ms. Olsen said, “is people thinking, ‘Oh, I’ll just scatter these. I don’t need to have this space where I commemorate the person I’ve lost.’ We are trying to get the public to realize it’s important to memorialize everyone.”

The car pulled up to Miles Davis’s grave, a simple but large stone with a trumpet and several bars of music engraved on it. Davis wanted to be buried here for the same reason jazz musicians from all over the world do: because it’s where Duke Ellington’s grave is. They want to be buried as close to Ellington as possible. The constellation of graves around Ellington’s includes Lionel Hampton, Max Roach, Illinois Jacquet and George Wein, the founder of the Newport Jazz Festival, who isn’t dead, but his wife Joyce is, so the numbers on the other end of the hyphen after his birth year are still blank. The different pockets of Woodlawn are miniature neighborhoods—the jazz musicians are in one corner, the philanthropists in another, the industrialists in their own precinct, all the monuments communicating and competing with one another. Ms. Olsen calls it a “little city.”