Woodlawn Book

One of my last travel-writing assignments before the pandemic involved visiting a cemetery. If I had known we were on the precipice of a protracted period of death and disease, I would have advocated for a subject that was less morbid and on the nose.

Then again, what locale wouldn’t have seemed poignant in retrospect? Maybe traversing acres of loss was the only appropriate way to prep for the Covid-19 era.  

The graveyard in question was Woodlawn Cemetery up in the Bronx. I was putting together itineraries for that borough for tourists who want to see more of New York City than Times Square. 

I recommended Woodlawn on account of its parklike landscaping, impressive mausoleums, and high number of famous people planted there, including Celia Cruz, Herman Melville, Miles Davis, and many more artists, activists, business moguls, and national heroes such as Milano-disseminating cookie magnate Margaret Rudkin of Pepperidge Farm. 

“But for all the stargazing you can do here,” I argued in my Bronx piece, “the cemetery has a democratic, we’re-all-in-this-together spirit that feels very New York. Woodlawn is unaffiliated with any particular religious tradition, was never segregated, and has always reserved space for the less well-to-do. Encompassing neoclassical mausoleums for millionaires as well as simple stones for German, Italian, and Irish immigrants, it’s a city of the dead where forgotten socialites, hard-working middle-class folks, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and J.C. Penney all share space.” 

That’s the old death-as-the-great-equalizer argument. “Golden lads and girls all must, / As chimney-sweepers, come to dust,” as Shakespeare put it.

Personally, I wish he hadn’t singled out the Golden Girls like that—especially since there’s still no evidence to refute my suspicion that Betty White is an immortal deity of some kind. 

But I get what the Bard meant. The rest of us, no matter who we are, face a future that’s similar to, but much grosser than, what’s happening to the banana peels in your compost bin. 

Isn’t that what makes elaborate funerary monuments so ridiculous? And so poignant?

In another sense, though, it feels wrong to describe death as egalitarian when the circumstances surrounding it are anything but. The last 12 months or so have only underscored the disgraceful truth that some lives are disproportionately vulnerable to ending prematurely due to violence or inadequate health care or white supremacy. 

When a disease has its most lethal impact on poor people of color, when Black folks have to start a movement to assert that their lives matter, when Asian Americans become targets of gunmen, how can we claim that death deals evenhandedly with everybody?

In the early days of Woodlawn, one of the founders, Rev. Absalom Peters, wrote a celebratory poem about the place. Called “The City of the Silent,” the text is more jubilant than mournful, as though the author believes he can throttle grief with a combo of gung ho Christianity, American gumption, and rural landscaping. 

He does, however, touch briefly on death’s power to reduce differences: 

And such a leveler is death, that all the ranks
Of life, that mingle in the busy world, or proud
Or lowly there, will find their level in these grounds;
And every circle formed on earth of life and love,
Will find its outer circle here — "the rich and poor
Together met, the Lord the Maker of them all."

But universal moldering in the ground doesn’t have to be the only form of equality we can hope for. Our task, and I think the Lord would agree with me here, is to work toward peace, fairness, and justice for the living.

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