Helen Rippier Wheeler,
Friday October 03, 2014 - 12:35:00 PM

Diane Keaton’s new book may not be great literature, but it’s available in large print. In Let’s Just Say It Wasn’t Pretty, sixty-eight year old Keaton recounts a walk in East Side Manhattan. She passes the Museum of the City of New York, where “A Beautiful Way to Go: New York’s Green-Wood Cemetery” exhibit opened last year, celebrating Green-Wood’s 175 years. 

Predating both Central Park and Prospect Park, Green-Wood Cemetery was one of the most important public green spaces in 19th-century America, the second most popular tourist attraction after Niagara Falls. It is notable for its art and architecture as well as its famous “residents.” It is a national landmark. 

Long rows of houses dominated the Park Slope and South Brooklyn sections adjacent to Brooklyn Heights. Known for rows of four-story Victorian brownstones, much of its initial development following the Civil War came about because of the horse car and trolley car. More modest row houses were owned or rented in the lower Park Slope and adjacent South Brooklyn. The development of brownstone houses and later, gray stone English basement houses, churches and other structures in the district within the relatively brief span from the Civil War to World War I provides a cross-section of important trends in American architecture of the time. 

Green-Wood Cemetery was built on Brooklyn’s outskirts, incorporated in 1838, and used as a park in its early years. GreenWood Cemetery (as it was originally known) is located in the borough of Brooklyn, Kings County. Yes, Brooklyn is part of New York City. How come I know all this stuff? I am the possessor of a GreenWood lot, which I inherited when everyone died off, and I also have relatives interred in several other GreenWood lots. My great great grandmother, Helen Amerman Dodge (1813-1896) and my great great grandfather, Alexander Forbes Dodge (1796-1873), are there.  

Sometime following their marriage, my maternal great grandmother, Mary Dodge Wardell (1839-1911) recorded that Charlie had business and was teaching in Brooklyn. There were miscarriages and early deaths until 1864, when their only child to survive was born. Three years later, the family moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn. Mary and Charlie purchased a plot in Green-Wood Cemetery, where their next two children were buried shortly after birth. A son and another daughter, both born in July, died of cholera infantum, then common in young children, prevalent during hot weather in most of the towns of the middle and southern states . 

Grandma Wardell died of “nephritis,” known as Bright’s disease, and was buried in her Green-Wood Cemetery lot in 1911. Sherwin B. Nuland, M.D. in his memoir refers to an aunt's fatal illness as Bright's disease, "at the time a not uncommon process of progressive destruction of the kidneys. It usually was precipitated by an undiagnosed and unremembered streptococcal sore throat, going on to cause renal poisoning and gradual failure. Its relentless advance toward an inevitable death took place over the course of years or even decades." Today, a urologist and a urogynecologist of my ken have, they say, never heard of nephritis or Bright’s disease. 

I recall a pleasant day’s outing as a child circa 1930 accompanying my mother on a visit to the ivy-covered, cemetery site. At that time, our lot was, as they say in mortuary lingo, “full.” Twenty years later, with family deaths in the interim and one imminent, she inquired about the status quo space-wise, and was informed that “… grave #1 will admit of probably three adult interments; graves #2 and #3 will allow of one more in each grave without disturbing the present remains in said graves.” Now, 65 years further along, there’s plenty of space for me and mine. However, I wish to be cremated.  

In December 1953 I sat next to Aunt Pearl, who was profoundly deaf. (Don’t say stone deaf.) We were in one of the limousines in the procession wending its way through Green-Wood Cemetery on the way to bury another relative. It was a brisk but glorious, spring-like day as we drove with the windows partially open through the beautiful grounds, and she asked me “Are there birds singing?”  

As a child, I wondered and asked about the burial solution when there are multiple spouses… like my father and his 3 wives. And like Grandpa, the grandmother who died before I was born, and his replacement wife. At last, my mother’s Mama and Papa were presumably together in heaven as well as in her Green-Wood Cemetery lot. The Evil Stepmother was not subsequently buried there. For one thing, by then, my mother had the deed to the lot! More about these kinfolks in my 2013 book, The Truth Must Dazzle Gradually; A Memoir.