Salem Field and Cypress Hills Cemeteries in Brooklyn

I set out this afternoon to ride the bike to Coney Island.  My old friend S. promised it was a lovely and safe ride on the bike path along Ocean Parkway.  She was right.  It just took me about three hours to find that path.  In the meantime, I rode back and forth through Brownsville and East New York searching for the elusive bike path marked on my useless-to-me map.  Coney Island, as it turns out, is the other direction entirely.  I found it eventually, but not before stumbling upon this cemetery.  I was reminded of the cemeteries in New Orleans, those vast Cities of the Dead that display so vividly death and decay as well as new growth, stuck in the middle of neighborhoods struggling to grow anew as well.  The reminder, though, was of how unique New Orleans’s cemeteries are.  Salem Field cemetery is a military burial ground, with identical tombstones lined up perfectly and stretching up hills and over flats.  The precision and anonymity mirrors the same values in military life.  There’s something creepy to me about this steady and ever-growing march and the massive Grave Locator guidebooks that lend little humanity to these plain white slabs. 

Of course this is just one way to bury the dead in Brooklyn.  Cypress Hills cemetery, as seen through locked gates, shows off a much more individualized and artistic set of graves and reminded me much more of New Orleans cemeteries–they are still unique, but NOLA hardly corners the market on mourning in style.  Cypress Hills has large family tombs, individual grave markers, obelisks, and more, all marking death and memory in different ways.  There’s no clear and steady march, but instead an almost haphazard collection of gravesites.  This seems much more human to me than the military sites.  But maybe that’s just me.  Maybe that’s just my attachment to a sense of individuality, a sense of the importance of art in memory and mourning.  One thing I am sure of is that I’m glad I got so desperately lost today.  There is so much of this place that I won’t see except by accident.  Such is the way of NYC.

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