One by one, they shipped out for a life at sea. Then one by one, they came to Brooklyn to die.Every once in a while the discovery of a forgotten cemetery or the removal of one never forgotten makes the news. But cemetery "removal" is a big business and it happens every day. It happens for a lot of reasons, but mainly because the cemetery in question occupies valuable land, has gone bankrupt or was simply abandoned by its owners, and has no powerful friends to defend it.
From 1831 until 1910, when there was almost no room left for another grave, as many as 2,000 sailors and Marines (and their relatives) were buried in the Naval Hospital Cemetery, on the outskirts of the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
Their bodies were exhumed in 1926. Nine hundred and eighty-seven individual remains were transferred to the Cypress Hills National Cemetery in Brooklyn. It has never been clear — and it may never be — what happened to hundreds of other burials that were known to have taken place there.
The closing of the cemetery left a verdant wound on the eastern edge of the Navy Yard.
Now, it is beginning to heal.
Replanted as a meadow — the lightest possible touch on the land — the 1.7-acre cemetery has reopened to the public as the Naval Cemetery Landscape, an integral part of the growing Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway, a planned 14-mile path for bicyclists and pedestrians. The landscape cost just about $2 million and was developed in partnership with the Brooklyn Navy Yard Industrial Park.
But this has been going on for centuries, and in the past standards were different. One thing I have learned in my work as an archaeologist is that until very recently the process was extremely sloppy. One common approach was just to remove the skulls and thigh bones from each grave and leave the rest. So whenever I have dug at a cemetery from which the bones were allegedly removed I find lots of human bones.
But parks have their own problems with maintenance costs and attraction of bad elements. In this case the connection to the planned Brooklyn Greenway will eventually draw lots of people, which is the key to keeping a park a park. And personally I would much rather be buried in a meadow that people value and enjoy than in one of those modern soulless cemeteries with flat stones in crowded rows, decorated with plastic flowers.