I was scouting the Old Trinity Cemetery when a guy walked up to me and asked if I had seen any chickens.
OK, that sounds like the beginning to a joke. Before I delve into my odd story, let me give a quick rundown on one of the most beautiful and interesting outdoor spaces in New York City.
Covering four entire city blocks, the Old Trinity Cemetery in Washington Heights was founded by Wall Street’s Trinity Church in 1842 as an expansion to its downtown churchyard, which had run out of space. Numerous well-known New Yorkers are interred here, among them the Astor family, Clement Clarke Moore (pastor and author of A Visit from St. Nicholas), and John James Audobon, famed ornithologist on whose former farmland the cemetery resides.
Due to the wealth of a number of its residents, the graveyard is filled with great mausoleums like this one:
Peer through the glass of the iron door and you’ll see a beautiful stained-glass window, with bodies stacked floor to ceiling on both sides.
Same goes for this one…
…which features this interior:
This odd mausoleum has an interesting feature…
Climb up the hill on top of it and you’ll find these four openings allowing light into it (because corpses need some sun too, right?):
A camera flash (sort of) reveals the inside, cobwebs and all:
Here, the grave on the right seems to be sinking into the ground (as far as I can tell, it’s not just a broken remnant):
I could go on forever with pictures, but better yet, take a trip up there and discover the cemetery for yourself. You could spend hours reading the graves, peering through mausoleum doors and keyholes, and discovering the countless surprises the cemetery has to offer.
But back to the chickens…
I was taking a picture of this mausoleum when a guy came up and asked if I had seen any chickens. Strange question – perhaps the graveyard has wild chickens like some places have wild geese and turkeys?
No, he explained, he was talking about dead chickens. Or dead cows. He claims to have come across a dead cow once (to be specific, half of a dead cow), along with a number other unexpected finds: fish, eggs, and other offerings left hidden amongst the graves.
According to my new cemetery friend, a number of locals in the area practice Santeria, a religion that is most simply described as a mix between Christianity and African belief systems. I couldn’t even begin to get into the specifics (the stereotypical idea of voodoo came to mind, but he said it was more complicated), but apparently, offerings to the dead play a strong role in the Santeria faith, and this cemetery is a hotbed of such activity.
The guy pointed to the mausoleum steps, where he had noticed two oddities:
A candle (something tells me the ol’ Gould family hasn’t come to light a candle in front of this mausoleum in quite a long time)…
…and what could be a symbol formed from pinecones.
The guy told me he lives in the area, and regularly finds new offerings in the cemetery. He pointed to this gated grave at the top of a hill…
…in which were two wooden bowls.
One of the wooden bowls had an egg in it, along with a candle.
The man said that he often finds jars buried in the dirt behind graves, which have been unearthed by a heavy rain or lawn-mowing. I happened across this one…
…but exactly what was in it (something gray and fuzzy), I have no idea (I’m not a religious person, but I ain’t risking a curse for disrupting a graveyard offering!).
Note the eggs in the bowl:
Apparently, alcohol is not uncommon either:
According to my cemetery friend, the Trinity Church staff often find people sneaking in to lay their offerings late at night. Most of the stuff is eventually thrown out by cemetery caretakers, though sometimes, they let it stay for some time.
The one bit that has my cemetery friend stumped, though, is chickens. Though he has often found chicken feathers, and even smelled the scent of decaying chicken flesh, he has never actually found a full chicken.
Some mysteries, I suppose, are best left unexplained.
Again, you can’t go wrong with a trip to Trinity Park. It’s infinitely more interesting than any other cemetery in Manhattan, and holds more surprises than you can imagine.
PS – Going rate for burial? Mayor Koch paid $20,000 in 2008 for a plot in Trinity Cemetery, saying he couldn’t imagine spending eternity outside of Manhattan.
PPS – This great NY Times article from April 4, 1911, tells a very interesting story regarding the building of the Church of the Intercession, which is located in the north-west corner of the cemetery. Apparently, 20-30 graves had to be moved to accomodate the church’s foundation. However, when the coffins were opened, there were no bodies in the coffins. What happened to those corpses remains a mystery (though an interesting idea is offered).