I made it out to Calvary on Sunday. Normally this would not be especially exciting or even remarkable. But Calvary has been closed to the public for about two months as the workers there handle the influx of burials from the Covid-19 pandemic.
No funeral services had been allowed, though from a birdseye view from the Kosciuszko Bridge’s walkway I had seen the Calvary workers performing the burials pay suitable and appropriate respects to these dead, who they almost certainly never knew.
I was feeling good. It was a beautiful day, I was headed for a place I love, thinking about a
soul-stirring email received earlier from a new woman in my life who has absolutely set my brain on fire.
Calvary has only been closed for about two months. But between her and the other recent life-changing world events it seemed I had not been to Calvary in a very long time.
I hit up some of my favorites sites, remembering as I went along some of the war stories from my forensic genealogist days. Section 8 remains synonymous with the time I nearly plunged into a freshly-dug open grave, with a stack of coffins on the right and a deep pit on the left, just inches in front of me. No way could I have climbed out if I had fallen in.
Normally a sheet or two of plywood covers freshly dug graves. What seemed to have happened here was that a funeral was about to begin, and the workers had removed the plywood in anticipation of that. Minutes later I would see a procession of cars entering Calvary, heading toward Section 8.
It would have made quite the 911 call from me, telling the dispatcher “You won’t believe where I’m calling from.” It would also have made a startling image for the funeral goers.
The chapel is closed until further notice, as are the cemetery’s bathrooms.
The Johnston Mausoleum had been a long-time interest of mine. The structure is bigger than some houses. I recently did some fresh research into the structure, learning that the tomb was broken into and robbed in the 1950s. I care enough for that mausoleum that learning of this felt like the house I lived in before I was born, and which never existed, had been robbed.
I checked in on the Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore site. He’s not known much today but he was for
many years the biggest name in concert band music. Madison Square Garden was formerly named Gilmore’s Concert Garden”.
I revisited the site where the funeral scene from “The Godfather” was filmed. I was the first person on the Internet to pinpoint its exact location, which is surprising considering how heavily scrutinized and analyzed that film has been.
I looked into the Razzetti mausoleum, with a busted up stained glass of Jesus that, whilst I was still inclined to feel just a tinge of guilt about my lapsed Catholicism, served as a metaphor for that guilt.
The Civil War Soldiers Monument, built by the Draddy Brothers, is in the same half-blossomed state of renovation it has been for years now. I played a small part in getting the Parks Department to restore that monument restored, but funding ran out. That Soldiers Monument is, uniquely, the only city park contained within a cemetery.
Near the Soldiers Monument is the site of Phillip Cardillo, said to be the only NYPD officer killed in the line of fire whose killer has never been identified. There is, or at least used to be, an annual motorcycle procession to Cardillo’s site.
I saw all the familiar dilapidated marble monuments, most of them crafted by the Draddy Brothers. Around the turn of the 20th century marble monuments represented wealth. Only the rich could afford the material and the expertise to craft it. The Draddy Brothers were considered the best of the best in New York in marble funerary art.
The Draddy Brothers are buried within Calvary, a site I also passed by this day, in section 1-W, not too far from the fictional burial site from “The Godfather”.
Ironically, marble is a material more prone to the elements than almost any other in cemeteries. The names of those wealthy have been mostly washed away by rain and wind, while the names of those who purchased “zincers”, the zinc-based tombstones dubbed the “poor man’s mausoleum”, rise up clear as day across the generations.
There was other good stuff to see again. I really felt a kind of joy, I know that’s a poetry-leak word, but it was like a family reunion one would actually want to attend, versus thinking it an expensive chore.
I knew what was coming. This is the real reason I went to Calvary, to remind myself, as I had on my Kosciuszko Bridge treks, that all of what we’ve been hearing about in quarantine has really been happening.
On the road at the foot of a long dirt trail through section 6-B I spotted 7 or 8 parked cars. That’s a lot of traffic for this cemetery, too old for much visitation activity.
Along the dirt trail, which ends at the fence separating Calvary from Laurel Hill Boulevard, I spotted what were almost certainly Covid burials: Unmarked graves with mountains of flowers and makeshift tchochkes.
At the end of that dirt trail, which I promptly dubbed “Covid Corner”, I found dozens of mourners gathered at the burial sites I had previously seen from up above, on the bridge. This was their first opportunity to pay respects, to consider the intrusions into their lives of these needless, avoidable deaths.
I couldn’t help but cry, it was devastating but beautiful as well, this obscure corner of Old Calvary suddenly symbolic of the reality of a pandemic. I’d been taking pictures all through this journey but couldn’t do it here. Too intimate. Why was I even there? What business had I barging in on the funerals of those I never knew?
Someone looked away from their funeral service and saw my tears. That made me feel I was there for my
own purposes, my own self-satisfaction, as if to inject my gluttony for sadness into these mourners’ proceedings.
I skedaddled away from Covid Corner, refreshing my outlook with visits to other familiar sites at Calvary, but shaken by this connection to the grim, dismal reality. I wept not just for the dead but for the living.
There’s a spot where you can hear sounds from the Kosciuszko echo off the tombstones. It’s kind of an incredible experience, I think, hearing that wash of sound come out of stones on a burial hillside from which one would expect nothing but silence.
The sound is not like it used to be, though. The old Kosciuszko was a rickety, noisy old structure. This new one is positively serene by comparison.