I’ve lived in Brooklyn just a mile and a half away from The Green-Wood Cemetery for over seven years, but had never once been inside its gates. I was always so busy—working head-down at a job that I was lucky to have but which I dedicated far too much of my time to. Amazing places, even those close to my home, had gone unexplored, and my life was worse for it.
So, when my good friend, upstairs neighbor, and landlord gave me a map of The Green-Wood Cemetery in exchange for helping him move a large bureau I decided it was high time I visited one of New York City’s most celebrated boneyards, which happened to be a simple stroll through my neighborhood away.
As I walked up to the cemetery’s 25th Street entrance, map in hand, the front gates did exactly what they were supposed to do, stirring in me a Catholic childhood spent imaging the doorway of Heaven. The structure was covered in sculptures depicting scenes from the Bible. The story of Lazarus. The raising of the son of the widow of Nain. The resurrection of Jesus. Stories of death, but also of revival.
The sky was a rich blue and the sun was shining. The ground felt solid under my feet as my legs pushed my body up the first of the cemetery’s many hills. It’s not often that I think about what’s under the ground as I’m walking, but here, surrounded by tombstones, it was hard not to picture all the skeletons that lay beneath. A beautiful patch of land surrounded by city and filled with bones.
Over my shoulder and across the Upper Bay I could see the Statue of Liberty, and then the Manhattan skyline in the distance. Birds of all sorts sung brightly, as if unaware that they were in a place of mourning filled with famous and forgotten residents alike. I watched a pair of bird watchers as they watched the birds, remembering the time I spent in cemeteries as a teenager, listening to a portable radio, making out with friends, smoking stolen cigarettes and poorly rolled joints.
And then, there it was, the most stunning headstone I had ever seen. The only grave marker that’s ever made me jealous of a dead man. Up until this very moment I’d wanted my body cremated or thrown into the sea when I died. But here was a tombstone of such exquisite beauty that to possess it I would willingly let my corpse be put into the earth and made a banquet to all manner of subterranean creatures.
I asked myself, “Is it wrong to consider a gravestone sexy?” as I gazed up at the muscular, stern, beefy bronze bear that sat atop a simple slab of granite which read only, “BEARD.” On the back of the marker there were coins and other trinkets, left there by admirers of the gravestone’s majesty. I simply had to know more about this impressive headstone, so I took out my phone and typed in, “bear grave Brooklyn.” Luckily for me, New York Times reporter Andy Newman had written about the grave’s unveiling in 2002.
Beard’s full name was William Holbrook Beard, and he was very much a man, not a bear. A 19th century artist, he was known for paintings of anthropomorphized animals, the most famous of which is titled “The Bulls and Bears in the Market.”
Despite all of this Beard was buried in an unmarked grave when he died in 1900. That is until one Alexander Acevedo, a New York City gallery owner, took it upon himself over 100 years later to give the artist the gravestone he deserved. After what can only be described as a sad and unsuccessful attempt to raise funds from the Wall Street crowd, a Colorado-based sculptor named Dan Ostermiller came to the rescue and donated the bear that now sits atop Beard’s grave. According to Newman’s reporting, it is the only “modern-style sculpture” in all of Green-Wood Cemetery (at least as of 2002).
I encourage you to read Newman’s story in full, as I did while sitting by Beard’s grave. Afterward I made my way deeper into the cemetery, thinking about who gets remembered and who gets forgotten and who gets remembered again. Death and resurrection. Being buried in an unmarked grave only to have the greatest, raddest headstone in the world built in your honor, a century after you’re gone.
In that moment I looked up, and saw this:
I punched “Isaac Fitz Green-Wood Cemetery” into my phone, but nothing came up. I tried a few other phrases, all in vain. Still, it seemed Isaac Fitz had loved ones who could afford to buy him a headstone the first time around. And 78 years, especially back then, seems like a pretty good run. Most days I hope to be as lucky. I decided to take it as a good omen instead of a bad one, and continued to explore the 478-acre grounds.
Eventually, after stopping to look at numerous graves of people both famous and forgotten, I exited out of the Fort Hamilton Gate at the southern end of the cemetery. From there I walked a few blocks over to Brancaccio's Food Shop, which straddles the boarder between Windsor Terrace and Kensington, and is one of the best sandwich and Italian food spots I’ve ever been to. I ate a meatball sub as I sat on the bench in front of the store, the sun shining on my face. It was indeed a sandwich worth living for. So delicious I forgot to take a picture. When I was done, I wiped what grease I could from my beard and began to walk home.