Dancing among tombs on a moonlit New York night: 'It feels so alive'

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Dancing among tombs on a moonlit New York night: 'It feels so alive'
A duo performs during a fundraiser for Green-Wood Cemetery, in a catacomb at the cemetery in Brooklyn, Sept. 22, 2021. Nearly 600,000 people reside — permanently — in Green-Wood Cemetery, and on Wednesday evening a crowd of about 800 joined them — temporarily — as revelers at a benefit gala held among the graves. Amir Hamja/The New York Times.

by Sarah Maslin Nir

NEW YORK, NY.- Nearly 600,000 people reside — permanently — in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, and Wednesday evening a crowd of about 800 joined them — temporarily — as revelers at a benefit gala held among the graves.

In the moonlit dark amid the tombs, as serenading musicians wended among the headstones, the grief of a city where so many have died since the beginning of the pandemic felt both omnipresent and far away.

“I don’t think about the death when I’m here, it feels so alive,” Gina Farcas, 52, an accountant from Fort Lee, New Jersey, said as she shimmied to a band playing Brazilian music beside a mausoleum. “We need this, for the city.”

“Do you feel like you’re in a cemetery?” her boyfriend, Carmine Fischetti, 66, asked her.

“No,” Farcas replied. “Except for the tombs.”

The gala was a fundraiser for the 478-acre cemetery, a national historic landmark that first opened in 1838. It is the resting place of luminaries such as Leonard Bernstein and Jean-Michel Basquiat, as well as unsavory characters such as William Magear Tweed, better known as Boss Tweed of Tammany Hall.

Parties have never been unusual here, among and even inside Green-Wood’s crypts. In the era of its inception, Green-Wood was one of the most-visited tourist attractions in the state, according to the cemetery’s historians: Nineteenth-century Americans would picnic and marvel at its statuary.

The cemetery has held a fundraising gala for the past 14 years, typically a sit-down dinner but shifted the event, called “Moonrise,” to an al fresco, performance-dotted stroll through its grounds last year when the pandemic began, to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Buried in Green-Wood is a man who might be called the Dr. Anthony Fauci of his time, Dr. William Hallock Park, a 19th-century New York City Health Department bacteriologist. Park was responsible for helping mass-produce an antitoxin that served as a breakthrough in treating and preventing diphtheria, a disease that killed many of the small children and others who share his burial ground.

Few sipping mezcal and ume plum liquor in a cocktail called “penicillin” were aware that the bacteriologist was there, lying in repose in section 13, lot 9314. Or that Park also strove to find a cure for influenza during the epidemic of 1918, which killed more than 20,000 New Yorkers. He was unsuccessful. The coronavirus has killed nearly 35,000 New Yorkers. Guests presented their vaccination cards to attend the event Wednesday.

“Whereas people have always come to Green-Wood and walked around and maybe felt not so connected to those who were buried there, now I think there is a more direct understanding, or appreciation,” said Lisa W. Alpert, the cemetery’s vice president of development and programming.

Among the headstones and ornate memorials covering the graveyard’s hills, nearly a dozen performances took place.

An instrumental duo played in a catacomb. Within a ring of headstones, a disembodied voice told ghost stories. Close to a Victorian-era monument to a teenage girl who died in a carriage accident, an aerialist spun from a rope attached to the bun in her hair.

In a shadowy crevasse, a red-nosed clown strummed a banjo in the dark.

Taylor Mali, 56, a poet from Brooklyn, held court in front of an aboveground sepulcher in the Egyptian Revival style. Nearby, a DJ pulsed out beats from a glowing booth surrounded by headstones. Mali welcomed visitors as if he were entertaining in his family home. In a way, he was: His great-great-great grandfather is entombed inside.

He opened the door with a 6-inch golden key, revealing several still-empty burial slots (and a significant number of centipedes); one of them could be a berth for Mali, should he so desire.

A few years ago, his wife, Rachel Kahan, 46, had located the ancestral gravesite, which had only been known in family lore. “I love cemeteries,” she said. “And exclusive real estate.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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