Storied cemetery contains surprises


Jackie Hoffman Chin, a freelance museum collections manager and art historian, wanted to find the grave of her cousin, songwriter Sam Lewis, who died in 1959. He was known as a “song doctor” with a knack for tailoring lyrics to the vocal style of a singer and co-wrote hits such as “I’m Sitting on Top of the World” and “How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm?” She downloaded information from the internet, but it only told her the coordinates of his grave and she learned from relatives he had a heart-shaped, pink granite headstone. Ms. Hoffman Chin, who has visited cemeteries around the country, hoped to find her relative during a Second Sunday Tour at Woodlawn Cemetery. The trip was also a way for her see the statues, stained glass, mausoleums and headstones that she loves.

“I really like to see the old stuff, especially the craftsmanship, the allegorical themed figures, the Tiffany windows. It’s amazing what people put into the death celebration, so to say,” Ms. Hoffman Chin said.

The 90-minute walking tour gives an overview of the cemetery, the final resting place of the rich and famous, where tombs range from ornate to modest. A visit also offers a unique glimpse into New York history, including Riverdale’s.

“If you are a history buff, there is nothing better than cemeteries,” said Bruce Campbell, a volunteer guide at Woodlawn. Dressed in a navy Woodlawn Cemetery cap and navy blue Woodlawn polo shirt, he led a group of tourists around the grounds filled with lush trees, beautiful statues, elaborate mausoleums and eclectic headstones. The self-described history buff said he enjoys giving the tours because they provide another perspective on American History.

Beth Nevins, who was there with her husband, brother and cousin, went on the tour last year and returned with her relatives.

“Some of these tombs here are nicer than then the homes we live in,” she remarked.

Mrs. Nevins added that places like Woodlawn change the way you view cemeteries thanks to the site’s historical park, elaborate artwork and wide open spaces.

“It’s not a cemetery the way most people envisioned a cemetery,” said Myra Tattenbaum, Mrs. Nevin’s cousin. “You can view it as a beautiful place and a historic place.”

Among other highlights, the tour features a number of Riverdalians’ tombs.

Giovanni P. Morosini, who died in 1908, had a mausoleum built for himself and his family. He was a business associate of railroad developer Jay Gould. The Renaissance-style structure has a stone lion on each side of the front doors. Stained glass widows inside the space depict blue and green ships. The vaulted ceiling is bright blue and painted a constellation of stars resembling the famous decoration at Grand Central Station.

Quietly tucked into one of Woodlawn’s rolling hills is the resting place for two members of the religious group Order of the Living Christ. Passersby can easily miss the area because there are no large headstones or plaques. The group was responsible for the Chapel Farms mansion at 360 W. 253rd St. built in expectation of Christ’s return to Earth.

Ms. Hoffman Chin did not see her cousin’s headstone during the tour, but found out his plot number. She plans to return and visit his grave. Her next project is to get her cousin included on Woodlawn’s online list of notable people buried at the cemetery.

Because many of Lewis’ songs are associated with singer Al Jolson, known today for performing in blackface, Lewis’ legacy is complicated.

“He’s sort of lost to the ages. I’d just like remind people that this writer did a lot of cool stuff,” Ms. Hoffman Chin said.