A Rural Cemetery

As disease caused burial grounds downtown to overflow, Trinity Church established a Cemetery and Mausoleum in the uptown countryside

By Isabella Gomes

By the mid-1800s, New York City had had enough of its dead.

Bad air, or miasma, was thought to cause disease. (National Library of Medicine)

The immigrant boom of the 1830s had channeled poor laborers into dirty, overcrowded neighborhoods, each defined by an ethnic background—Little Italy, Little Ireland and the like. Families amassed, waste accumulated in the streets and, as so often happens, poverty bred disease. Outbreaks of yellow fever, smallpox, typhoid and cholera battered the city’s highest density districts and graveyards overflowed with rotting corpses.

The frequency of interments had become overwhelming: the need for burial was bigger than manpower, space and the Board of Health could handle. Capacity dwindled and soon many bodies lay only two or three feet under the ground, not nearly deep enough to obscure the odor of decay, believed to carry polluted vapors—miasmas—that transmitted disease.

The Board of Health did not have a reputation for efficiency. (National Library of Medicine)

The churchyard behind Trinity Church, whose spire and cross had once made it the tallest point in the city, had by then been home to almost a century’s worth of bodies. Among them, founding father Alexander Hamilton, painter William Bradford and inventor Robert Fulton. But, as nearby residents complained of the burial site’s noxious vapors, the city decided to set boundaries—first at Canal Street then 14 Street—below which no more bodies could be buried. Trinity Church anticipated these changes and in 1842 it established its own rural non-denominational cemetery in what is now Washington Heights.

In 1851, the city passed a new ordinance prohibiting the construction of new graveyards and banning burials south of 86 Street. Trinity Church on Wall Street didn’t accept further burials, though its uptown cemetery continued to house the city’s dead. Today, Trinity Church Cemetery and Mausoleum lives on, and is listed under the National Register of Historic Places and as the city’s only remaining active cemetery.

The cemetery, at 770 Riverside Drive, remains active today. (Photo by Fred Lund/Flickr)

 

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