Strangeness Afoot in Old Trinity Cemetery

I was scouting the Old Trinity Cemetery when a guy walked up to me and asked if I had seen any chickens.

Cemetery 01

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:

Cemetery 02

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.

Cemetery 03

Same goes for this one…

Cemetery 04

…which features this interior:

Cemetery 05

This odd mausoleum has an interesting feature…

Cemetery 08

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?):

Cemetery 09

A camera flash (sort of) reveals the inside, cobwebs and all:

Cemetery 10

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):

Cemetery 11

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…

Cemetery 12

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:

Cemetery 13

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)…

Cemetery 14

…and what could be a symbol formed from pinecones.

Cemetery 15

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…

Cemetery 16

…in which were two wooden bowls.

Cemetery 17

One of the wooden bowls had an egg in it, along with a candle.

Cemetery 18

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…

Cemetery 19

…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!).

Cemetery 20

Keith15, an excellent photographer, has some amazing photographs on Flickr he took in Old Trinity Cemetery of Santeria practices:

Santeria #20405, Trinity Church Cemetery

Note the eggs in the bowl:

Santeria #1020378

Apparently, alcohol is not uncommon either:

Santeria #1485

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).

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  1. Washington Heights is north of 155th Street. Trinity cemetery is in Hamilton Heights (Harlem).

  2. I always love your posts and this one is no different. I’ve never seen anything like those offerings being left before, but its worth researching. :o)

  3. The empty coffins were remaining from the 1870s when the city built the Boulevard (present-day Broadway) from 59th to 155th, bisecting the cemetery.

    Take a virtual tour of the cemetery here:

  4. I love walking in cemetaries- esp old ones…but this sort of gave me the creeps

  5. Great site!

    about those chickens, though–practitioners of Santeria usually eat animals that are killed in ritual sacrifices.

    Maybe a UFO got them.;)

  6. Regarding the “skylight” on the mausoleum above:
    I learned on a tour of Graceland Cemetery in Chicago that vents are necessary on crypts for… off-gassing. Apparently an older approach involved sealing the crypt air-tight. People noticed that after a new “deposit” was made to a crypt that the nice windows would mysteriously break outward. Turns out it was from pressure building up inside. Or souls escaping; whichever.

  7. Santeria is the mix of a Yoruba religion brought to the Americas by slaves, which was later masked under the veil of Catholicism since there were repercussions in practicing religions from the old world.

    The reason there might be feathers alone is because different things are needed for different offerings. So it’s not a dead chicken that might be needed, but three feathers from a chicken. etc.

    Lately I’ve become interested with the idea of religions like Santeria, Voodoo, and other religions of the African diaspora always being seen as “black magic”. Our society is filled with ideas of vampires, aliens, and ghosts etc.

  8. I grew up in NYC and had no idea. Glad you’re out there scouting.

  9. While working at my previouse job for the utility I was doing some work near one of the parks in Harlem and saw a barrell full of bloody rags and some kind of paper. I walked over and the guy cleaning it up was a park worker. We got to talking and he told me that in the city parks it’s a real problem with the religiouse people from the islands who practice these ritualistic cerimonies as you mentioned. He told me he would find tongues of cows with a 100 or so pins , chickens , goats etc… and all of this going on at nigth in the city parks and cemetaries. I didn’t know what to make of it. But it is strange to say the least.
    I once also visited Trinity cemetary in Washington Heigths and walked around on my lunch break and there are some famouse folks there. It must have been really beutifull at one time. But the creeps that go around stealing the copper and brass trim work mess it up for everyone. Just down from the large Astor mosoleum there was “whats left of a beutifull bronze gate that was torn up for it’s value of metal -including the railings and saround is enough to make one sick. But it is an irony that the Astors who made theyre fortune in real estate would wind up in what is now a very dangerouse slum of a neighborhood / that was once beutifull no doubt. -B

  10. I love this blog. About seven years ago I took a walk the entire length of Broadway – and way uptown, in a cemetery with some of Dickens’ family buried in it there was a little black chicken running around loose. I remember thinking it odd at the time… For what it’s worth.

  11. To Boyo: This area is no longer and by any means a “dangerous slum of a neighborhood” as you stated. The area is well into the process of gentification with many apartments selling for well over a million and with many professionals in business, law and the arts in residence. It’s been over two decades that drugs were a blight on the neighborhood so it must have been over 20+ years since you last visited. It is true that the cemetery has lost some of its original glory, but it is still the most peaceful and unique escape from the city within Manhattan that you will find. Give it a chance again. Visit again.

  12. This was the cemetery featured in the Wes Anderson film ‘The Royal Tenenbaums,’ which I love! Thx for posting.

  13. I live across the street from the cemetery. Came across a plate with a cow head, several feathers, and red and yellow paint today in one of the doorways to the cemetery. Gave me a little shock. I’ve seen other offerings before, but this was the most elaborate.