What Does Not Belong in Calvary Cemetery
By Thomas Mira y Lopez
There’s no telling how many people are buried in Calvary Cemetery. A call to the Trustees of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the group who manages the cemetery, yields inconclusive results. “Between two and three million,” the woman on the other end reports, after putting me on hold to check. Could she guess whether the number is closer to two or three? Another pause and then slowly, considered, she says, “Honestly, mister, I have no idea.”
Most interment sites list the number not just at, but over three million. That would make Calvary Cemetery the largest cemetery in the United States. If it were a city, it would have the country’s third highest population, higher even than Chicago. It would constitute thirty-five percent of the city it is in, New York. And it is still growing. That fact, the Trustees of St. Patrick’s Cathedral can confirm. Three sections have been added on to Calvary’s oldest grounds, and plots can no longer be purchased ahead of time; only need-based internments are accepted.
In a cemetery of such a size, one can find all sorts of people. Mobsters, congressmen, immigrants. A mayor of New York City, men from Tammany Hall. The first woman to be processed through Ellis Island. The victims of an 1854 cholera outbreak. There are men who fought in the Civil War, men like Felix Duffy, a captain in the Irish Brigade killed at Antietam. The oldest grave in Calvary Cemetery belongs to Esther Ennis who, in 1848, died ‘of a broken heart’ at the age of twenty-nine. Those buried in Calvary Cemetery tend to be like most other New Yorkers: when there is no more room in Manhattan, they move to another borough. In this case, Queens. In 1847, New York passed the Rural Cemetery Act, authorizing commercial burial grounds, and Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral purchased farmland in Maspeth, Queens when its cemetery in Soho reached capacity. The Cathedral sold seven dollar plots for adults, five for children aged seven to fourteen, and three for children under seven.
But for all the dead, there are very few living. On any given afternoon, Calvary Cemetery is all but abandoned. I cannot think of a cemetery—let alone an area—in New York that receives a lower ratio of people per square footage. You can count the other visitors on one hand. It is the Alaska of cemeteries, except that the Manhattan skyline is visible from any given point.
Now Calvary Cemetery’s location desolates it. What was once farmland is industrial Queens. Nearby there are factories, auto body shops, rail yards, warehouses, strip clubs. The grandest building in the neighborhood—an old brick mansion that sits across the street from Calvary’s gate, City Views written across its top, boasting of the unobstructed Manhattan skyline—is a Best Western. The B24 bus runs by once an hour and not on weekends. Like all of New York, there is nowhere to park. Worse, Robert Moses has girdled it. The Long Island and Brooklyn-Queens Expressway encircle the cemetery on three sides, concentric concrete rings drawn by a shaky hand. Newtown Creek, with more than 17 million gallons of leaked oil on its bottom, moats Calvary on the fourth side.
This is exactly the part of Queens you drive by on your way somewhere else.
My family drove to Queens for one of three reasons: to see a Mets game, to go to the airport, or to pass through on our way to Long Island. These drives to Long Island took place when I was young, no more than five or six. My grandparents lived in East Hampton, in what had once been a Dutch barn house, across the road from the town pond and cemetery.
Barring traffic, the drive took two hours. We had an old Audi, a present from my grandfather, as much to get it off his own hands as to ease our visits. We would leave the city as soon as my father returned from work, crossing town and then the Queensboro Bridge in the late afternoon light. As we reached the Long Island Expressway, we passed a cemetery in Queens. It lay on a slope, row upon row of headstones stretching back until one’s eye reached hill’s top and could go no further. As if spooked, the road curved down and away at this point, so that the graves seemed to reverse course and march downhill, advancing upon our car. I took the cemetery as an ill-omen—it was so large that I could not do what I usually did for good luck: hold my breath until we passed to the other side and I spotted a white house. Yet what bothered me most was not that death existed in such multitude, but rather that it existed in such a dreary place. Cemeteries were meant for quiet, secluded areas, next to swan-filled ponds, across the street from grandparents’ houses. Why would so many people choose to be buried here, next to the highway, exposed to all the traffic and passing eyes? It seemed cruel to be stuck for eternity in a spot everyone else was trying to leave. Et in Arcadia ego I was fine with: Queens was the problem.
A few months ago, while idling away time on Google Maps, I discovered that the cemetery of my memory was most likely Calvary. From a satellite, it looked the right size and in the right place to be what we passed years ago. Not only that but Calvary Cemetery was within walking distance of where I lived: only 1.7 miles between my apartment in Brooklyn and its front gate. Having no pressing concerns, I decided to visit. I have often found it worth my while to come at a thing from a different angle—you learn you are dealing with something else entirely.
I entered Calvary Cemetery by a red brick gatehouse. The principal road ran to the left of this, inching upward then dropping sharply onto a lower tier. A white van, the cemetery’s I believe, rolled down the road, its windows tinted. Graves stretched endlessly east, but the midtown skyscrapers were still prominent in the west. No matter at what distance, the skyline still impressed itself upon you, rendering everything that appeared before it—graves, hill’s rise, the old obstructing elms—picturesque, borders in a frame. To the north was the Best Western, née City Views. In the distant south, the BQE looked like a mechanical spider, mounted high up in the air on teetering legs, its back teeming with squat, sluggish cars, insects upon an insect.
I wandered west, drawn towards the skyline, following the gravel path that ran behind the gatehouse. Headstones, my height if not a foot or two taller, formed a rough circle ringing the path. Engraved on them were generations of Irish families, their positioning in the cemetery so prominent either because they were the first buried there or because the Archdiocese of New York owned the land.
After a few minutes, I came to two realizations. The first was that this was not the cemetery of my memory. The hill sagged, the highway skirted by too close for this to be what we used to pass. There were brick walls where there should have been an iron fence. Nor was I far enough into Queens; I could throw a baseball into Newtown Creek on a hop. Sometimes you do deal with something else entirely.
The second was that I was out of place. I had no ancestors there. I was in no way Irish. I even harbor some aversion to Irish culture, or rather to what our culture has stereotyped as Irish: I do not like Guinness, I do not wear green, I have never found a four-leaf clover. I like Yeats and that’s about it. Neither was I Italian nor Polish, which I imagined made up a good deal of a Catholic cemetery in an outer borough. If you were to trace my ancestry, it would end with Wales, Switzerland, and a dubious claim to a trip on the Mayflower. That there was no one there only reinforced this misgiving. How easily would I be spotted for an impostor if someone were to come across me, how could I hope to explain my improbable presence here on a weekday afternoon when most of the blue-collar families whose ancestors lay here were hard at work? Already barred from my memory, I would be barred from Calvary Cemetery itself.
Now might be the time to confess that I have no ancestors anywhere. Or at least the bones, the physical remains. My family is not the burial sort. We cremate. Instead of funerals, we memorialize. On my mother’s side, my grandfather and grandmother’s ashes sit inside a low stone wall by the Episcopalian church in East Hampton. My grandfather died when I was seven and that was when we stopped driving to Long Island. At my grandmother’s memorial eight years later, my aunt opened the casket, gathered her skirts, sat on its edge, and had a conversation with her mother. This happened and two of her daughters decided to leave and I went with them and we all had a Heineken at the Carlyle Hotel, though I was only fifteen.
My grandmother on my father’s side was cremated in Brazil. I was there too and my uncle gave a speech with the casket closed behind him. He got carried away, as he is wont to do, and the other mourners had to shout over him to stop his talking: the casket had started to move, bumping its way down the trolley towards the cremator. He had gone over his allotted time and the automated trolley had kicked to life. The only burial in the family was my father’s father, who has been dead for nearly sixty years. But my uncle recently sold the plot, cremating my grandfather’s bones and scattering his ashes alongside my grandmother’s beneath a jaboticaba tree at their house in the mountains outside Rio.
My father was cremated five years after my mother’s mother, though he was thirty years younger. True to form, the memorial at Mount Sinai—the hospital where he worked and where he died a patient—was a wash. His sister flew in from Brazil, stayed at a hotel, evangelized, and flew back. His colleague, a toad of a woman, someone who snuck into his private hospital charts, someone who would not leave his bedside when my mother came to visit, read a Maya Angelou poem. It was about when great trees fell. My father loved trees, that is, specific trees: chestnuts and elms and ginkgos with their rotten fruit. But he did not read Maya Angelou.
I myself was no help. I could not be brought to write a speech, yet, much like my uncle, I stood and spoke for forty-five minutes. The speech was not very good (I have watched the video), but still I can see myself filled with placidity, knowing that this conference room half-filled with strangers must, at all costs, bear me out.
I perhaps made too great an issue of myself, standing in Calvary Cemetery: just because I was not Irish does not mean I did not look it. But all the same I came up with a story. It was, if anyone were to ask, that I was here to visit my grandfather. I was dressed for the part—black jeans, black t-shirt, and sunglasses—and the lie contained a kernel of truth: if it were not for my tracing a memory dependent upon my grandfather, I would not have been there. That his ashes lay alongside my grandmother’s within that hollowed out portion of low stone wall, I would omit. We all just want to fit in.
I left the Irish families and went west. The graves became uniform rows. I turned left at the third row in search of a suitable candidate. It was not long until I found him: the name Crowe in large block letters on a slab of roughly cut limestone. There was no first name, no date, no epitaph, no way of knowing whether a man or woman was below, though it seemed less likely a woman would have agreed to such a cro-magnon headstone. It was an ordinary Irish name, as common as a raven. No one would question that it belonged to me or my grandfather. I memorized its position and continued down the path. A minute later, a gray-haired man in racing spandex passed by on his bike. My first encounter. I caught his eye, eager to recite my story and ask him his, but he turned his head and raced on. He was only there for the exercise.
A furious rattling broke through the silence, the sound of small engines hard at work, and then the smell of gasoline. Six lawnmowers, spaced equidistantly, moved down their respective rows until turning inwards upon the next one. The men mowing were on the far side of middle age, their uniforms a set of dull green overalls that clashed with their flushed cheeks. Perhaps one or two had mown over an ancestor today. I stopped and waited for the smell of fresh cut grass, but it never arrived—it was too yellow, too close to straw to give off any scent. I reached the western wall and walked through the thick, ankle-high grass where the mowers had yet to reach, scaring up flights of pigeons and starlings. They traced an arc, beginning and ending in canon, like water from a drinking fountain, and settled down a short ways away, hidden once again. Standing in between the trees, a few feet back from the wall, I could see straight over Newtown Creek and Brooklyn, over the East River to the Manhattan skyline. I could not hear it, however, and for that it was all the more impressive: that it could stand so tall, so stately, in stillness and silence.
I turned left to head south. A ways down, a man was painting on a canvas stretched across a wooden board, his easel propped against his bike. I could not see what he was painting, but I had a fair idea. It was what I would paint, what in fact I was just looking at: the headstones, the low-hanging elms, the western wall, the skyline in the background. It was, after all, the easy view. I wondered, as I drew closer and it was only us two, if he would paint me entering his picture, this figure all in black, the same way I would paint him if he entered mine. I wanted to speak to him—we were both here, after all, to capture something—but I lost my nerve. Behind me I heard a mower putter, in search of fresh ground, and then the beep of the white van, wanting to pass, its purpose unknown, an occasional shadow that swept the grounds.
My father was cremated and we were supposed to drop his ashes into the bottom of Indian Lake, where he, my mother, and I would go for vacation every summer in the Adirondacks. But we didn’t. My mother did not want to part with the ashes. We went to Indian Lake, her and I, and rented a cabin and listened to ballgames on the radio and drove a motor boat out to the island we used to picnic on and we held in our hands the leather pouches all three of us used to wear around our necks, pouches with Indian trinkets and charms within them (little more than stones and glass and plastic colored opal and topaz) and an animal embroidered on the skin. Mine, I believe, was a bear. Instead of his ashes, we held these and dropped them and watched them sink. On the way back, I did what my father always warned me against when we used to go out on the lake. I forgot to raise the motor out of the shallows and the propeller hit a rock and the motor died and we sat there, bobbing for twenty minutes, until I could start the motor again, the spot where we dropped the pouches already indistinguishable, forgotten in the panic of a dinted piece of metal.
After the trip, I went back to college and my mom returned to New York and we never discussed the ashes again. For a time, she kept them in a box under her pillow. I would steal into her room while she was out and check to make sure they were still there. Then one day they disappeared. To this day, I do not know where they are—they could be in her closet, they could be in her dresser, they could be at her house in the country—and it is not something I am going to ask about.
What I am left with then is memory. But memory is fickle: it will not allow me to remember the way I want to remember. I can no longer, for example, willfully recall my father’s face. I cannot conjure the face I was born to, the face I gazed on for twenty years, the face I carry in my face. I can see it only obliquely now—the dream you know is a dream but which you let go on, the back of a head walking down the street, the glasses of the stooped librarian I worked for in college, the backpack two sizes too big on the back of my teenage student in Brazil. It is the same for my grandfather. He rests fainter in my memory and so resembles what is not actually present in life: images, old photos, actors in movies, a book jacket photo of T.S. Eliot, which I taped above my desk.
So when I am left with a trace of something, I jump at it. I make the three-mile walk. I put on black shirt, black jeans, black sunglasses for what I am here for if not to remember the dead? Yet—and this is a common refrain—memory fails. Calvary Cemetery is something else. It is not that memory regained. It is where others, wherever they may be, mourn their dead, others wise enough to know that memory flutters, to know to pin it to a point on the map.
I descended to the lower tier, to the land of two-story monuments that bullied the other graves. The biggest of these stood on a hill, built with dark granite, as if rain had washed over it and left it a deeper hue. Two columns stood on either side of the door. They supported a triangular arch, on which JOHNSTON was embossed; a dome sat on top of the arch and from the dome rose Christ. He stood straight, his posture perfect, right arm held out at hip, his palm outward. In his left hand, he held the cross more as if it were a walking stick than anything else, something to wield instead of to be borne. Looking at Johnston’s mausoleum, larger than my own house, I was tempted to see it as folly, another Ozymandias whom now no one visited: his name did not even appear on the Wikipedia entry of notable people buried at Calvary.
But I did care who was buried there—at least enough to write down the name, to remember the tomb, to try to find out who this Johnston was. Finding out was not easy; most people indeed do not care. Here is what I uncovered:
The mausoleum is the third largest structure in the cemetery, smaller only than the chapel and gatehouse. There is room for thirty people within the marble-lined vaults, though only six are buried there. It cost 200,000 dollars to build at the time. You can spot it in The Godfather, conspicuous in the background during Vito Corleone’s funeral.
A man named John Johnston commissioned the mausoleum. He lies inside with his two brothers, and their wives. Johnston was born in 1834 on Lake Erne in County Fermanagh, Ireland. He immigrated to New York in 1847. He worked for Ubsdell and Pierson, a dry goods company on Canal Street, for seventeen years until he started his own firm, J. & C. Johnston, with the money he had saved. J. & C. Johnston opened a department store on Broadway and 22nd and a branch, Johnston and Reillys, in Albany. It specialized in dress silks. The company was a great success, considering the depreciation in values after the Civil War.
The C. stood for Charles, John’s brother. Charles Johnston died in 1880. John Johnston, according to his Times obituary, “could not divert his mind from his loss, and as a consequence much of the responsibility of the business has been borne by Robert A. Johnston, the youngest brother.” John Johnston died in 1887 at his home on 7 West 53rd street, which would have, if he were alive today, put him a half block away from the MOMA. The funeral was at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the interment at the family plot in Calvary Cemetery. The Times obituary reported he died of “heart disease,” but the funeral service’s notification claimed he “died suddenly,” The discrepancy is either suspicious or it is not; it seems that, if anything did him in, it was a broken heart. Either way, his legacy as “a public-spirited, open-handed gentleman, greatly beloved by his employees” cemented itself. And, for what it’s worth, he was entirely self-educated.
Robert Johnston did not fare so well. He ran J. & C. Johnston into the ground: it dissolved in 1888, just a year after John’s death. From there, things took an Absalom, Absalom! twist. Here is an excerpt from his Times obituary: “He retired to his palatial home at Mount St. Vincent, on the Hudson. Later the place was sold at foreclosure and the house burned, the owner having a narrow escape. Since then he had lived alone in a barn on the property, refusing charity. He was found sick with pneumonia and insane ten days ago.” He died seventeen years after his brother John. He too was buried within the mausoleum.
This story interested me not just because of the contrast between people buried there and the irony which then layered the mausoleum, but because it provided an easy to read moral.
It is, I think, that it does not matter a lick. I remember a scene from a Saramago book I read years ago. The narrator, who works for a government registry of births and deaths, becomes obsessed with the case of an unknown woman. Shaken out of his bureaucratic trance, he tracks her down only to learn of her death. He travels to the bucolic cemetery outside the nameless city where he lives and visits her grave. He finds it, only to be told by the gravedigger that he has pulled up all the headstones and switched them around, so that this grave is not really the grave of the woman but of some other nameless soul, just as the woman now lies under another’s name. Death makes equals of us all, says Saramago, taking a pleasurable potshot at both capitalism and the Church. It’s an old thought, but an unsettling one for those who lavish their graves, the Johnstons and my grandparents included: Robert Johnston lies with John Johnston and nobody cares. If I were to enter the mausoleum, I could not tell one Johnston from the other, which king a beggar, which beggar a king and so on and so forth. But it’s also a sneaky one. The gravedigger exposes a collective ignorance, acknowledging his own and yet manipulating ours. Or mine. Or yours. He actively switches the graves. What seems poetic is deceitful. Crowe could be Thomas, but Crowe is really Crowe. What makes us equals is what makes it unfair.
And so in a population of three million, do not call so much attention to yourself.
I climbed the steps that led up the mausoleum and they were steep enough to almost rip my boxers open. Next to Johnston’s mausoleum was the crypt of John Fox, a New York congressman. In the shallow valley between them, a blackberry tree grew. A friend who knew her botany told me that blackberries do not actually grow on trees, but on shrubs. Mulberries grow on trees, she said. This, however, looked for all the world like a blackberry tree and so I call it one. I could reach up and touch its branches. I spat out my gum and ate three blackberries. They stained my fingers the color of cassis and the drupelets stuck between my teeth, my tongue rubbing against them to scrape the lingering tartness.
A blackberry tree also grows in an abandoned lot on the corner of my street in Greenpoint. Its discovery surprised me. Stepping over the smattered stains on the sidewalk, I at first thought they were bird shit. But I saw a few berries mixed in and, looking up, saw dozens hanging from their branches, most unripe but some within tantalizing reach, waiting to be picked. The lot was boarded up, a notice warning of bed bugs plastered to it, and I could not see where the berries came from. It seems they thrive on unlikely nutrients: bones and years in Calvary Cemetery, groundwater and crude oil in Greenpoint.
Much longer ago, there were blackberries in East Hampton. These grew on brambles and a briar of them ran alongside the path out back of my grandparents’ house. My mother and father and I would pick them, bringing back colanders full for my grandparents. We put them in a bowl of milk with a spoonful of sugar and ate them as the berries bloodied the milk.
As will happen in so great a space, many of the graves in Calvary Cemetery were tacky. Some were simply aesthetic mistakes: I saw engraved on a sand-colored headstone the shore, ocean, horizon line, and in the night sky an enormous, ethereal cross, hovering in place of the moon, its silhouette reflected on the water. Red carnations that spelt MOTHER in brick letters lay in front of another grave, touchingly in poor taste. Much more effective were the simple epithets: Our Beloved Mother and Dear Father, Requiescat in Pace and Died in Combat, To Be Remembered and Lest You Forget.
Then there were the Irish headstones. I do not know what else to call them, the tall slabs of marble and granite that were the first thing I saw when I walked in. Of the dozen names that share one space, the declension often began and ended with a lifespan so short it caught you off guard. Underneath the matriarch or patriarch’s name, their birthplace was listed and the date they arrived in New York. The birthplaces were not listed by town or city or even country, but by county: Co. Tipperary, Co. Kilkenny, Co. Cork. Just so. And then the word, Ireland. This was what got me, what won me over despite my not wanting to be won over: the simple evocation of a place. These families preserved a place and yet found one as well, loved and left a home yet were able to remember it by so odd a distinction as county (odd at least to me). And I could not help but think of how their green might differ from my green, of what a dale might look like, of how sheer their cliffs might be. I was as ignorant as ever, deceived by distance, but still I looked around and thought it so strange that they ended up here in Queens of all places, with the LIE thudding on one side and the BQE moving inevitably on the other, in a neighborhood full of auto body shops and strip clubs and warehouses, where the grandest building became a Best Western, surrounded by grease and oil and smog and steel. Yet despite this, the graves did not forget where they were from. They listed their counties assiduously, like catechism, like ritual, like memory, and in that way knew where they ended up: on a hill called Calvary.
I left Johnston’s mausoleum and the blackberry tree behind. I was headed in no particular direction. My feet hurt and I walked on the grass, weaving a path around the graves. I waited for something to catch my interest, feeling frankly entitled by now. Perhaps, I thought, I would stumble across the yet unseen chapel. But instead my phone buzzed in my pocket mid-step. It was not worth the bother, yet I pulled it out, held it up against the sun to shield it from the glare, and read the text. My response—no, I do not want to do that, there has been no misunderstanding—could wait for kinder words to come. And all of a sudden, phone back in pocket, it was time to go. The chapel was no loss; I did not come here for it anyway. I turned for a last view and saw two cranes in the distance, their pincers poised but still. From where I was, it looked as if they were positioned above a headstone, waiting to yank it up, like one of those claws you pay fifty cents to reach into a tub of stuffed animals and yank out a teddy bear.
The quickest path back was uphill, slightly to the east of where I entered. It passed a shed, next to which the white van lurked a third time, its engine idling. My path brought me in front of it and I had an uneasy feeling that I was going to get a dressing down for eating blackberries, for stomping all over the grass, for not having any business being there. Hello, I would say, my grandfather is buried here, his name is Crowe, he is over there by the lawnmowers, the third row in, I hope I have not caused any bother. But, when I was near enough to peek through the windshield, the driver’s head was thrown back and his mouth open. He was napping.
When I neared the hill’s crest, a surprise awaited me. There rose the top of a slender steeple, just visible on the other side, its brick burnt sienna, its point slate. There was the chapel, there my day complete. A twin surprise because I had not expected the grounds to carry on this far. My perspective had played tricks on me; I had thought the gate nearer. A few more steps, however, and I saw what I had not before. The gate stood a dozen yards ahead of me and, beyond, the body of the church rested in a triangle in the middle of the road, the highway to its left, an exit on its right. It was not the chapel. It was something else entirely. It was not the drive out to East Hampton, but the drive back, my body folded in the corner of the backseat, my head cradled in the strap of the seatbelt, sand and salt still in my hair, but no ticks because my parents had checked, twilight setting in and Bob Murphy calling the Mets game on the radio. We had passed the point of traffic and I was tired, ready for bed and satisfied, so satisfied, that we had finally taken the exit for the Queensboro bridge and that our car sat, waiting for the light, in the shadow of that gloomy, out of place church. How can one go to church in the middle of a highway, I wondered, but I did not think about it any more. I closed my eyes instead and did not see what was waiting at their side, breathing in the gathering dark, the cemetery sustaining itself all these years until it could show itself in the light of day. There was then where I am now. Here is now where I was then. Like that ribbon of highway in the corner of one’s eye, running too fast to distinguish until you are suddenly on it.
I was to find out later that Calvary Cemetery really held both memories. I had walked north, south, and west but I had not walked east. If I had only done so, if I had walked to the other entrance I did not know existed, I would have looked upon the highway we used to drive on. Once again: sometimes when you come at a thing from a different angle, you find you deal with something else entirely.
After I left, I saw the painter bicycling down the cemetery lanes. He too was on his way out, his work done for the day. As I turned to watch him, I could see his painting strapped to the back of his bicycle. It was, as expected, a landscape of the graves and low-hanging elms and skyline across the river, except he had not painted any sky. The upper third of the canvas was blank. In the foreground was the road on which he painted and I walked. And I thought, for a second, I could glimpse a form creeping into the right hand corner, strolling down its path, a figure all in black. But I was mistaken. There was no other living person there, according to the painter, except the man whose hand composed the scene. Still I would wait. Maybe, like the sky, he just hadn’t gotten around to it yet.