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Fresh Pond Crematory

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.

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Death Becomes Her

My daughter has become hung up on death, which is a common condition for people raised in Queens. It is not only the home to the Boulevard of Death, but it’s also the borough where you can’t throw a rock without hitting someone’s grave (just one more reason why you shouldn’t throw rocks around like that).

When she was still a tiny thing, I would often take her on strolls through a cemetery a block from our house. It was a quiet, shady, peaceful place in a neighborhood short on all those commodities. I’d push her around in her stroller up a steep hill, passing the graves off Civil War veterans, allegedly loving parents (no empirical evidence provided), and entreaties to the Great Hereafter in several dozen languages. At the cemetery’s highest point, you could see Manhattan flicker in the distance, a testament to all that mankind could accomplish, while we were surrounded by a reminder of where we all end up.

It could be this early exposure to headstones and such made her curious about The Grave. It could be she’s just inclined in a morbid direction; she already enjoys “scary” stuff and has a precociously completist fondness for Harry Potter. Or, perhaps she was marked sent scurrying in this direction by a sad scene we both witnessed nearly two years ago.

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