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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Richard Moylan

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-09-01

Richard Moylan of Brooklyn knows at least 560,000 men and women at his workplace he'd love to meet. But that's unlikely because they're resting.

"It's really frustrating," Mr. Moylan said yesterday. "Many of these people are truly exceptional Americans, some of them with enduring associations with New York."

They include Leonard Bernstein, the music maestro; Henry Ward Beecher, the abolitionist; William Magear Tweed, the "boss" of Tammany Hall; Horace Greeley, founder of The New York Tribune; Susan McKinney-Steward, the first African-American woman physician in New York; Henry Pierrepont, the Brooklyn planner; Charles Lewis Tiffany, founder of Tiffany & Company; Nathaniel Currier and James Ives, the celebrated printmakers; Frank Morgan, who portrayed the Wizard of Oz in the classic 1939 film; and DeWitt Clinton, the New York governor and presidential candidate.

They even include Albert Anastasia and Joey Gallo, the mobsters.

It isn't that these figures are avoiding Mr. Moylan. It's just that most of them have been long dead.

They are, in fact, buried at Mr. Moylan's workplace, the Green-Wood Cemetery, one of America's oldest graveyards and quite possibly the biggest of New York state's 2,000 cemeteries. Their tombs, monuments and 600 private family mausoleums, spread over 500 acres of rolling lawns and undulating hillocks in the heart of Brooklyn, constitute a major treasure trove of the country's history.

"It's this history that needs to be preserved," Mr. Moylan said. "I've always believed that a cemetery is really an outdoor museum. And Green-Wood is really so special."

Such sentiments are forthcoming from him not only because Mr. Moylan is president of Green-Wood, a not-for-profit cemetery (as all cemeteries in the state are required to be by law). He has a special relationship with the institution because his father Joseph, and grandfather Richard, both worked at Green-Wood.

"I grew up here," Mr. Moylan said. "My first job after high school was here, mowing lawns. I may not know the species of all of Green-Wood's 10,000 trees, but I certainly know most of them."

He also knows virtually every turn, curve and gradient of Green-Wood's 20 miles of roads. He knows the cemetery's history dating back to its design in 1838 by David Bates Douglass, who also created the Croton Aqueduct and was among the engineers responsible for the Erie Canal.

Mr. Moylan can recite, almost by the month, the 3,000 burials and cremations that take place at Green-Wood annually. With practiced ease, he will tell you that the first burials at Green-Wood took place on Sept. 5, 1840; interred were Sarah Hanna, John Hanna, Richard Hanna and Sarah Draper, who had been removed from New York City's Marble Cemetery. They were buried together in the same lot, one of Green-Wood's 44,000 lots.

"This was a common practice in our early years - many Manhattan burial grounds moved their dead to Green-Wood," Mr. Moylan said.

He paused, smiled, and said: "You know, we wouldn't be having this late lunch today were it not for what happened at Green-Wood - we would be having high tea."


"Well, this was where the Battle of Brooklyn was fought in August 1776," Mr. Moylan said. "Washington's army lost that battle, and he escaped narrowly. American history would have been very different had he been caught by the British."

It would be another 60 years before the battle's site was transformed into a cemetery by Douglass. And it would be another 150 years after that when Mr. Moylan would accept his father's suggestion that, after graduation from Hunter College with a political science major, he join Green-Wood.

And it would another decade or so after his decision that Mr. Moylan, now armed with a degree from New York Law School, would become the institution's president.

"I never regretted not practicing law," Mr. Moylan said. "I would probably be a very unhappy lawyer today. Now, after 33 years at Greenwood, I still look forward to going to work every day."

Part of his work day is spent in administration of the facility, which employs 140 people, about half of them seasonal maintenance workers. Part of the day is spent on planning preservation of Green-Wood's monuments. And part of the day is devoted to shaping Green-Wood's financial future.

"Half of our annual budget of $11 million comes from 'sales' - the cost of burials at Green-Wood," Mr. Moylan said. "The other half mostly comes from investment income."

Mr. Moylan reckons that in five years Green-Wood will have absolutely no room for new burials. A steady revenue stream will dry up.

So Mr. Moylan and his board of trustees - who represent the 45,000 plot holders - have embarked on an ambitious program to widen Green-Wood's relevance to New York. He's hoping that this program will attract funds to make up for the potential loss of revenue from burials.

"We want this to be not just a place to mourn and remember the deceased," he said. "We want Green-Wood to be an integral part of the community - a place where New Yorkers can study architecture and biology, enjoy nature, and appreciate America's rich history."

To implement such objectives, Mr. Moylan is expanding Green-Wood's lecture series. He's instituted bird watching tours. He's organized dance and music festivals. He's encouraging more students to visit the cemetery.

"I want Green-Wood to be accepted as a cultural institution," Mr. Moylan said. "We want people not to have a morbid apprehension about cemeteries."

Some of that apprehension concerns ghouls and ghosts, of course. Has he ever felt their presence?

"I don't believe in ghosts," Mr. Moylan said. "I don't even believe in the ghost of Mae West."

What made him mention the legendary Hollywood star, who died in 1980?

"A lot of people think that she's buried at Green-Wood," Mr. Moylan said. "She isn't. Therefore, no ghost."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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