New York City’s Calvary Cemetery has a very interesting history. If you visit today, you’ll see a historic cemetery with Manhattan’s skyline as a backdrop. Many people use the land as greens pace in the city, using its paved roads as walking and bike paths. There are 71 sections of graves, it’s massive.
In the early 1800s a cemetery on Mott Street in Manhattan was nearing capacity. The owners, the Trustees of Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral knew they needed to expand. Around the same time, the city was faced with a cholera epidemic and sadly needed to do something to increase burial sites. The state of New York passed the Rural Cemetery Act in 1847 that allowed for the burial of human remains to become a business for the first time.
The board of trustees of Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral purchased land in Queens to turn into a cemetery.
Calvary Cemetery was officially opened in 1848. It’s spread across 365 acres of land, an expansion from the original 71 acres. It has approximately 3 million interments which makes it the cemetery with the most burial sites within the United States. The cemetery now belongs to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York and is still managed by the trustees of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
The first person to be buried at Calvary Cemetery was Esther Ennis on July 31st 1848. Her cause of death is listed as “a broken heart.” Annie More is also buried here, known as the first person to pass through Ellis Island.
After its opening, the cemetery was burying up to 50 people a day. Many, many of those - just under half - were poverty stricken Irish children under the age of seven.
Because the influenza and tuberculosis epidemics took so many lives, grave diggers couldn't keep up with the need..and family members were forced to dig the graves for their loved ones themselves. At this time it costs between $3 and $7 to be buried at Calvary Cemetery depending on your age. In the mid 1800s bodies were also transferred from a Manhattan cemetery to Calvary in Queens to make room for new land development.
Within New York’s Calvary Cemetery is a family burial ground that pre-dates the surrounding graveyard. In 1691 Richard Alsop inherited an estate and farm from his family along Newtown Creek. Alsop remained here until his death in 1718. He was buried along with his uncle, who he had received the land from, on top of a small hill. This hill would be the burial spot for the Alsop family for the next 170 years.
Richard’s son and grandson (both named Richard) went on to become prominent men in the area, and they and their families were laid to rest here. When the land was secured for Calvary cemetery, purchased from the Alsop family, it included the Alsop Family Cemetery, which is officially the oldest part of Calvary. It is still maintained to this day by the trustees.
Calvary is still an active cemetery with new burials and planned expansions. You can visit everyday between 9:00am and 4:30pm.
It remains one of my favorite places to explore in New York City, no matter how many times I've visited in the past.