Death is never far in Queens, the borough of graves, but it creeps closer in certain places than others. One such place is Mount Olivet Crescent, a slip of a street that wends its way up a hill in Maspeth and down another in Middle Village. The Crescent is bordered on one side by its namesake cemetery, a lush expanse of granite mausoleums, angels, and obelisks cut in half by the busy thoroughfare of Eliot Avenue. A few ramshackle flower shops hang on for dear life, squeezed on all sides by vinyl-sided one-family houses and a sore thumb of a chrome-plated apartment complex. The Crescent comes to rest near an enormous sign pointing the way to the parking lot for the Hess-Miller Funeral Home, host to more than a few wakes for family members of mine.
At the Crescent’s summit, the Fresh Pond Crematory looms over it all, a cream-colored slab with a circular driveway paved in brick, ideal for the approach of hearses. Built in 1884, the exterior resembles a crossbreed between federal mint and Gilded Age prison. Cremation was rare enough in those days that a Brooklyn Eagle reporter made the long trip to Fresh Pond after hearing the mere rumor a wealthy German businessman was to be cremated there. The reporter soon found himself in an Abbott and Costello-esque exchange with one of the attendants, who impatiently explained he could cremate no one until the oven was complete.
The reporter eventually got what he wanted: a graphic description of exactly what cremation does to the human body. (“The total weight of the ashes of a full grown man would only be six or seven pounds.”) He also received a defense of the practice from the attendant, based largely on the overcrowded state of the city’s cemeteries and some other concerns about corpses that haunted the Victorian mind.
Oh, cremation is what we must all come to, and it has a great many advantages when you look at it in the right light. You can’t wake up after burial and find yourself choking to death with six feet of earth over you and your coffin nailed down, and medical students can’t snatch your bones and monkey with them in their dissecting rooms. You can have your cemeteries all the same, and set these urns in them and plant flowers about the urns; that will be all right and nobody will be hurt. This thing has to come.
The crematory has grown considerably since those days, when nearby residents were worried about the smell such a facility might produce. A towering smokestack now announces its true purpose, as do the large copper letters over the main entrance, dripping green with its name. Beneath, in smaller, more polished type, is the announcement AMERICAN COLUMBARIUM CO., INC.
I drove past the crematory many times last summer, as the Crescent proved the quickest route between my house and my daughter’s day camp. It was impossible not to notice the building and feel a chill as it rushed by my window, but I made little note of that second designation, COLUMBARIUM, assuming it was an antiquated euphemism for the building’s primary function. I soon discovered a columbarium is actually a room where cinerary urns are placed in niches for display. The word comes from columba, Latin for dove, as the niches resembled dovecotes to the ancient Romans who were fond of interring their dead in this manner.
The Fresh Pond Crematory’s modest web site said the columbarium portion of facility was open to the public, and the few distant photos of its dazzling array of urns made it seem worth a visit. I even made a Google calendar appointment with myself to do so, but hit snooze on the invite many times when I couldn’t get my schedule or my mood to cooperate. Then last Saturday, I had to bring my car for annual inspection at a garage near the Crescent. The dozen or so grumbling dads on line ahead of me at the repair shop suggested a long wait lay ahead. So I could either amuse myself with outdated copies of Road & Track, or I could take a walk and make good on that promise to myself.
Passing the Fresh Pond Crematory in a car is one thing. Approaching it on foot is something else entirely. The crematory is uphill regardless of where you’re coming from, and the building itself sits on a peak set back from the Crescent’s sidewalk. I arrived from the direction of Metropolitan Avenue, and the crematory stayed well hidden until the Crescent took a slight turn to the west. Then the building suddenly emerged from behind a rusting greenhouse. It weighed heavy on my eyes, its gravity increasing with each step I took toward it.
When I buzzed at the front door for entry, I was greeted by a small, wide-eyed woman vaccuuming the carpet in the foyer. She had the sympathetic look of someone who encounters mourners every day, whose default setting for everyone she is forced to meet during her waking hours must be I’m sorry. I explained that I was interested in visiting the columbarium. She struggled to think of a response until another woman’s voice called out from some distant room, “I’ll be right there!” The woman with the vaccuum directed me to an office to my left, where different urns sat on display, displaying to visitors their options.
The woman who eventually emerged clacked toward me in stacatto high heels. I didn’t catch her name because she did not volunteer it, and I was too cowed to ask. I had the feeling I’d barged my way into someone’s living room, not a place of business. Still, I stammered that I hoped to visit the columbarium.
“Are you doing a school project or something?” she asked. I’ve reached the age where it’s flattering to be confused for anyone school-aged, but I told her no, I simply lived nearby and was curious to see what it was like. The woman tilted her head and looked, if not suspicious, then a little confused. Curiosity was in short supply here. My appearance couldn’t have helped my case, as I’d left the house unshowered and unshaved, wearing in a hoodie and well-worn Mets t-shirt, more prepared for a morning of waiting around in a Pep Boys garage than visiting this solemn location.
“Sure, go ahead,” the woman said, waving her hand in the vague direction of where I needed to go. I must have looked as lost as I felt, because after half a beat, the woman charged past me and promised to show the way.
I was led back through the foyer and up a marble staricase. We came to a stop one step from the top, by a visitor’s log book and altar donated by a local Boy Scout troop. There, the woman told me the columbarium had many sections, each with its own name and aesthetic. She suggested starting with the narrow Gothic Columbarium to my left, then working my way into the larger Arion Room, with its tremendous skylight. I nodded, finding it difficult to listen, as I was already too distracted by the brief glimpses of what lay ahead.
“You get lost, just holler,” the woman said as she click-clacked back downstairs, leaving me to my own devices.
In the Gothic Columbarium, small chambers butted against each other, railroad apartment style. The only light came from sun strained through exquisite stained glass windows, some portraying angels, others simple geometric patterns. The stone walls were pocked by niches, thousands of them, carved out of the walls in every available spot. Each niche was hemmed in by glass and brass frames that resembled old fashioned PO boxes, inscribed with family names. Seating was provided in most rooms. In some, a trio of wooden chairs were positioned so their backs formed an equilateral triangle. Others had tables with full seating and floral arrangements, as if a dinner party was about to begin. The Arion Room was more spacious, with its expanses of stained glass ceilings, and a large gleaming white pagoda-like structure that dominated the room.
No matter where I roamed in the columbarium, the surnames on the urns were overwhelmingly German. More often than not, the dedications and epitaphs were written in that language, inscribed in baroque Gothic lettering. I saw names from my own family, names that belonged to wide swaths of distant generations I never knew: Schtichler, Simon, Bauerlein. It was an echo of the time when the surrounding neighborhoods were largely German themselves, stretching from here through Ridgewood, Bushwick, and Williamsburg, a population that dated back to the time when Hessian mercenaries were billeted in Long Island during the Revolutionary War. You can find ample evidence of New York’s once large German community in most cemeteries in Queens, but the effect was concentrated in the columbarium, where aggressively Teutonic names stood cheek to jowl.
The urns themselves were as gorgeous as they were varied. The oldest, which dated back to the crematory’s opening, tended toward black tulip shapes with florid gilt script, jug handles on each side like loving cups. Newer urns leaned toward minimalism, boxy shapes, right angles, stick figure crucifixes. In between, enormous receptacles with filigree and inlaid with monochrome photos. Mini-mausoleums in ivory and jade flanked by Corinthian columns and topped with grand cupolas. Scalloped pillbox pedestals stamped with seals of membership: Masons, Elks, Oddfellows, Daughters of the American Revolution. Sprightly porcelain tubs with the look of delftware, festooned by carved eagles. Each niche held its own universe.
And yet, there was a leveling sameness to the scene. No matter where I stood, the niches continued in every direction without end. It reminded me of an aerial shot of a Levittown. If I stood back to take in an entire room, the individual touches faded, and I was left with a grid of absences.
My first thought was to compare the columbarium to a Green-Wood Cemetery in miniature. The more I thought about it, however, the less the comparison held up. Green-Wood Cemetery has a LOOKIT ME quality completely missing from the columbarium. It brought to mind the laboring German Catholic side of my family, the kind that would saw ostentation as a character flaw. What makes you think you’re so special? was their motto. This half of my lineage had their roots in the stock buried within the columbarium, possessed of a belief in hard work and handworn artisanship, but contained by a stoic recognition that in the end, there is not much that separates us, because we all wind up in the same place.
One urn haunted me. Its shell was carved from pale jade, in the shape of domed monument with a perimeter of Greek columns. But the columns had fallen off the structure one by one, and a pile of them lay in a corner of the niche, stacked atop one another like a pyramid of timber. The actual urn had been removed from the shell and placed to the side, balanced on one edge of its former home, leaning slightly to the east. The unsheathed urn was a simple tin container. It was pasted with a label to identify the remains inside, but it was turned away from me. It seemed to be waiting patiently for repairs that would never be made.
I passed through as many rooms as I could stand. For all the beauty on display, the silence and the years on display began to overwhelm me, and after 45 minutes or so I had to make my way back downstairs and out into the world of the living. Xeroxed instructions were taped to the exit, but they were confusingly worded (TURN BUTTON THEN LEAVE), and I was afraid of destroying the gate if I pushed too hard without knowing what I was doing. I was forced to petition the woman who’d let me in, who was still in the middle of her vacuuming. She knew the trick to getting the thing open and threw her shoulder into the dense iron door.
“You have to push,” she said. I protested that I tried but was afraid of breaking something.
“It’s strong,” she said with a chuckle. I tumbled down the drive toward the Crescent. The door slammed shut behind me.