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  • Writer's pictureAbby Brenker

The History of Woodlawn Cemetery

Woodlawn Cemetery first opened in The Bronx in 1863. It occupies over 400 acres of land and holds the remains of about 300,000 people. Its history is worth exploring. Graves from many other cemeteries in the city were moved to Woodlawn as the city expanded. Including graves from the West Farms Dutch Reformed Church, Harlem Church Yard Cemetery, Bensonia Cemetery which was originally a Native American Burial Ground and The Dyckman-Nagle Burying Ground just to name a few.

Sometimes Woodlawn is called the Jazz Cemetery because it became the final resting place for so many influential jazz artists. The cemetery not only houses graves but also memorials to these musicians. Including Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Florence Mills and so many more.

Visiting Woodlawn was the first time I noticed these chair markers at gravesites. After researching, I found out that these are mourning chairs and were particularly popular in the 19th century. Originally they were intended to provide permanent seats for mourners visiting that grave site. As they became less popular, they gained haunted reputations. Now sometimes referred to as Devil’s Chairs or Witches Chairs, these chairs and benches left more modern visitors scratching their heads. Their gothic style led to urban legends, mostly centered around the portals you may open if you sit in them. Some claimed to see the devil while seated. There are specific legends that have popped around specific chairs too. For example there is a chair in Saratoga Springs that is believed to transport you back in time.

Woodlawn is one of those magical cemeteries in New York (similar to Green-Wood in Brooklyn and Maple Grove in Queens), truly such a beautiful green-space in addition to its function as a burial ground. Woodlawn sits on top of rolling hills and it’s filled with elegant trees.

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