Gate of Heaven Cemetery
A Mix of History and Tradition
by Alexandra Kathryn Mosca
In Greek mythology, "Valhalla" means place of the Gods. It is also a most apt name for the idyllic Westchester, NY town that is intimately connected to Gate of Heaven Cemetery, a resting place for mortals. Tradition and history live here on the 250 acre pastoral grounds which also incorporate the towns of Hawthorne and Mt. Pleasant. Easily accessible by its own train stop on the Metro North Railroad or by car, Gate of Heaven Cemetery, run by the NY Archdiocese, was formally consecrated on July 14, 1918, by then Archbishop of NY, John Cardinal Farley. Since that time, the cemeteryís hillsides have filled with legend, incorporating a mix of famous and obscure denizens, who have chosen memorials that range from the basic to the grand.
Driving through the familiar main gates, past a life size statue of Jesus, arms outstretched in welcome, is the way, as a funeral director, Iíd entered any number of times over the years, for the committal part of a funeral service. But on this picture-perfect, June day, I was there for a more pleasant reason, a private tour of the grounds by Jim Ford, Gate of Heavenís genial and knowledgeable superintendent.
Unknown to most outside the funeral industry, a wealth of unique and exceptional individuals reside within. However, GOH chooses not to publicize them, so this tour was a rare privilege indeed. Babe Ruth, Billy Martin, James Cagney, Dorothy Kilgallen, Bob Considine, N.Y. Mayor Jimmy Walker, Sal Mineo and Mrs. Harry Houdini, call GOH their final resting place; people seemingly so diverse as to have nothing in common but a shared faith. Yet, one can better understand the history of the cemetery when one understands the history of the people interred here.
After pausing before the Memorial to the Unborn, a shrine imperative to a Catholic Cemetery and situated on the approach to the office, I met up with Mr. Ford, a former teacher of English at Cardinal Spellman High School, in the spacious and impeccably maintained office. Visible through the large picture window, was the lake, water glistening in the sunlight, beyond which a wealth of historical markers, statues and Spring floral displays could be seen.
As we readied ourselves to leave on our tour, Ford told me how his part-time job turned full time 18 years ago. Able to incorporate his love of teaching into this vocation, Ford spoke with pride about working for Gate of Heaven." This cemetery is dedicated to serving the Catholic population, which runs the gamut from the most recent immigrants with just a toe- hold in their new country, to the older, established and well-off clientele. Our mission as a Catholic Cemetery is to serve these divergent families as best we can, no matter their station in life".
The conical- shaped Chapel of St. Francis, set amid the crypts, was to be our first stop, however a funeral was taking place. Instead we headed up the road to view the grave of Anna Held, the first wife of Lorenz Ziegfeld, master showman of early 20th century.. A showgirl, who often headlined the Folies-Bergere, Held was born a Jew in Warsaw Poland in 1870. Later, Held would claim Paris as her birthplace, shave a few years off her age and convert to Catholicism upon her first marriage to a Spanish playboy. Held met Ziegfeld in 1896, when he hired her to be in one of his productions. By 1897, the two were in love and despite being denied a formal wedding, (her first husband would not grant her a divorce), were, after seven years, considered husband and wife by virtue of N.Y.ís common law. It was Held, who inspired the ĎZiegfeld Folliesí. Held died on Aug. 12, 1918 from multiple myeloma, a rare disease at the time. Her funeral took place at Campbellís in NYC and was well attended by stars of the era, save for Ziegfeld, who abhorred funerals. Heldís "Empire-style" burial site, boasts a stone arch and two benches. Purchased for her by actress Lillian Russell, Heldís was one of the first funeralís to take place in the newly dedicated cemetery.
Not far away, lies the bench-like monument of 1930's crime lord Dutch Schultz, buried under his real name, Arthur Flegenheimer and like Held, a convert to Catholicism. Schultz, a notorious figure in the thirties, was murdered in 1935, by rival gangsters. Befriended by a Catholic Priest, Fr. McInerney, while in prison, several years before, Schultz underwent what amounted to a deathbed conversion. His funeral, which took place at a Manhattan funeral home, remained a closely guarded secret. That morning, a crowd of 2000 gathered, along with members of the Press, for what they thought was Schultzís funeral. Unknown to them, his Chestnut casket had been whisked away in the early morning hours for a leisurely ride to the cemetery. What they were witnessing instead, was the funeral of a local resident. At the cemetery, Father McInerney performed a short Catholic service for the handful of family members in attendance. Afterwards, his mother, Emma, draped a Jewish prayer shawl over his casket. Outrage followed at such a notorious & recent convert having been buried on sacred Catholic ground with the rites of the church. An editorial in Catholic Weekly reiterated what many were feeling "If a guy like that can go to heaven there wonít be anybody in hell?"
Monsignor John L. Bedford of Brooklyn, countered with an article in The Monitor, which read in part, "Was Schultz worse than the penitent thief? He was a criminal. He seemed unworthy of the least consideration. Perhaps he was. But who will close the gates of mercy? The fact that he received the sacraments is no guarantee than he received Godís forgiveness."
If there be any doubt about Schultzís state of grace there can be none about Lisa Steinbergís (nee Launders). Only steps away from Schultz, is the grave of little Lisa. It seems an eerie juxtaposition of innocence and evil.The story of six -year- old Lisaís death in November of 1987, at the hands of Joel Steinberg, her adoptive father, is humanity at itís most depraved. Upon Lisaís birth in 1981, Steinberg, an attorney, was entrusted with placing the newborn in a suitable adoptive home. Instead, he kept the child for himself and his companion Hedda Nussbaum. A violent, monstrous man, who, along with Nussbaum, indulged in drugs, beat Lisa into a coma on November 1, 1987. At autopsy, the medical examiner noted that "she died of a brain hemorrhage and that there were extensive cuts and bruises of her head, back, legs and arms". The official cause of death was listed as Ďhomicide.
Protesting his innocence, Steinberg was subsequently convicted of first-degree manslaughter, and sentenced to a prison term of 8-25 years, the maximum allowed. Nussbaum, portrayed as a battered woman, was granted immunity for her damning testimony against him. Ghastly headlines of the day captured the attention of the nation and brought the subject of battered women, as well as child abuse to the forefront, at a time when both were still somewhat shrouded in secrecy.
John Cardinal OíConnor, was one of the three hundred people, most of them strangers, who attended the wake services for Lisa, leaving hand-written letters, Mass cards and flowers in and around her small casket. A Rabbi and a Catholic Priest held a joint prayer service at the funeral home and the next day Lisa was buried next to her maternal grandfather in a private ceremony with only her natural mother and a handful of relatives in attendance. A city moved by her ordeal, responded with offers to assume all funeral costs.
"Her grave has become a shrine of sorts for other abused children", Ford told me. A point noted, after the sentencing, by U.S. News and World Report writer, Roger Rosenblatt, "People who never knew Lisa paid homage at the grave in modest memorials-heartfelt and helpless". And it seems they still do, judging by the fresh flowers and knickknacks which had been left at the site. Indeed, as the sunshine spilled onto the flowers which adorn her grave, the intensity of the scene was almost palpable.
Changing gears, we strolled up a hill to the grave of Babe Ruth, Ford told me that this site is "the most recognized and visited on the grounds".
His grave, a bonanza of Yankee memorabilia, is a treasure. Baseballs, bats, Yankee caps, pennants, cigarette lighters, and World series tickets have been left as signs of homage, by the life-size stone carving of Jesus reaching out to a small boy dressed in baseball clothing. Local little league teams make a pilgrimage here at the start of their season for luck. What better way to kick off the baseball season than with the blessing of Babe Ruth.
George Herman Ruth Jr., considered by some sports afficionadoís to be the best baseball player to ever have lived, was born in Baltimore, MD on Feb. 6, 1895 to working class parents. An incorrigible child, his parents sent him to live at the Roman Catholic run St. Maryís Home for Boys. It was there that his love of baseball took hold, soon becoming the schoolís star player . His professional career began in 1914, when Ruth was 19. Nicknamed "Babe" by his first coach, the left-handed pitcher first played with the Baltimore Club of the International League, soon being traded to the Boston Red Sox and finally to the N.Y. Yankees. In 1918, he switched positions to "hitter" and played in the outfield for the duration of his career. With Ruth, the Yankees claimed seven championships and four World Series titles. From 1920-1935, Ruth was the dominant figure in American baseball, doubling his $80,000 salary with endorsements. However, when his career ended in 1935, the opportunity to manage a major league team, eluded him. He was thought to have retained the wild and unmanageable traits of his youth. And that coupled with overindulgence in alcohol, rendered him a poor candidate for managing a team. In 1946, Ruth was diagnosed with throat cancer. Surgery and radiation treatments were tried, to no avail. He died two years later, on August 16th, at the age of 53. The world of baseball accorded him the equivalent of a State funeral. His casket was placed in the rotunda of Yankee Stadium, where 100,000 people came to pay their respects, with his Mass held at St. Patrickís Cathedral. Although any number of biographies are available on the life of "the Babe", one of the most widely recommended is "The Babe Ruth Story as told to Bob Considine" a fellow denizen of Gate of Heaven.
As Ruthís career was coming to an end, a young Alfred "Billy" Martin was showing signs of the talent that would, at the age of 17, result in him being signed to a professional baseball contract. Born in Berkeley, California on May 16, 1928, he was raised by his mother and grandmother, after his father left the family before Martin was a year old. Affectionately called "Bello" (cute), by his Italian grandmother, Bello somehow evolved into Billy. Growing up poor, during the Depression, with Italian-American prejudice a fact of life, his aggressive and violent nature was formed, a nature that lasted his lifetime. Sports became the only positive outlet for his aggression and fortunately he had not just the drive but the talent as well. By 1952 he was a N.Y. Yankee. Mentioned by manager Casey Stengel, and teammates Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle, he proved a valuable asset to the team. In 1952, he helped them win the American League Pennant and in 1953, Martin was named the ĎSeries Most Valuable Player.í
Dubbed the "Bad Boy of Baseball", his violent tendencies caused him to be traded six times between 1957 and 1961. And after a scuffle with a Cubs pitcher, one violent encounter too many, his career began to wind down. Managing came next, yet still unable to curb his hot temper, he was hired and fired by a number of ball teams. It wasnít until 1975 when George Steinbrenner hired him to manage the Yankees, that Martin found a measure of stability. And Steinbrenner was rewarded in turn, for Martin proved a gifted manager. Under Martin, the Yankees won the 1976 pennant and the 1977 World Series. Yet, his lifelong pattern of being hired and fired continued, his frequent hirings and firings by Steinbrenner being the stuff of front page headlines.
Troubled by the characterizations of himself as explosive, hard drinking and out of control, Martin attempted to portray his volatile nature as an asset, in a Sports Illustrated interview. "They talk about my temper. Well, I havenít seen a good racehorse yet who wasnít high strung....the way I see it, my temper is great ally. It is what has pushed Billy Martin".
On Christmas day in 1987, a day spent drinking with a close friend in a local pub, Martin, 61, died in a traffic accident, when his truck veered off an icy road in upstate New York. His funeral, which took place on December 29th, was attended by 6,500 people, among them former President Richard M. Nixon, George Steinbrenner, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Phil Rizzuto and Mickey Mantle. That morning, Bishop Edwin Broderick quipped to the mourners at St. Patrickís Cathedral, "The Cathedral was the last place you would expect to find Billy. But it so happens this is the last place we find him". His pride in being a Yankee is reflected by the inscription on his stone, where a bat and baseball have been strategically placed, the number 1 carved on each end. "I may not have been the greatest Yankee to put on the uniform, but I was the proudest".
From Martinís gravesite atop a verdant hill, one may get an overview of the cemeteries various edifice offerings. Private mausoleums, two sections of communal crypts, flush markers and upright monuments are all represented in varying degrees of ornamentation.
"In the early days of this cemetery, there was a proliferation of stone masons in the area, accounting for the artful carvings," Ford explained.
"Now, Iíd say 90% of families choose upright monuments. We require a religious symbol, but beyond that, people may personalize their memorial in any tasteful way, albeit with the approval of the cemetery."
And many do. Inscriptions, photos, biblical quotes, poetry and timeless maxims about life and death can be seen. One example of creative personalization is the upright stone, on which a verse from Robert Frostís poem, ĎStopping By Woods On A Snowy Eveningí are inscribed. The Woods Are Lovely, Dark and Deep, But I Have Promises To Keep And Miles to Go Before I Sleep And Miles To Go Before I Sleep.
Another interesting example is the exquisite photo replication of a mother and son, inscribed with the words "You and Me Against The World" taken from a popular 1970's song.
Our next stop was at the simple flush marker of the 1950's & 1960's actor, Sal Mineo, buried beside his parents. Born and raised in the Bronx, Mineoís boyhood ambition was to be an actor and by age 11, he would take the train to N.Y.C.ís Broadway to audition. By the time he was 15, he had realized his dream in a major way. Cast as one of the troubled youth in the soon to be classic, 1955 film, Rebel Without A Cause, his part earned him an Academy Award nomination. Continually typecast as a troubled youth, he seemed to play out in real life, the troubled persona he affected on the screen. By the late 60's, his boyish, brooding type was no longer in vogue and so his career waned. Yet, he continued to work in the industry, albeit in smaller stage roles. It was on February 12, 1976, while rehearsing for the opening of a play in L.A. that he was stabbed to death at the age of 37, in the garage of his apartment complex. Speculation on the motive for the murder, circulated throughout Hollywood, until an inmate in a Michigan prison confessed to the crime, as well as ten more brutal robberies. Mineoís death spawned a mystery novel and a play.
Another perplexing death was that of columnist, reporter and Whatís My Line panelist, Dorothy Kilgallen, who was found dead in her apartment on November 8, 1965 soon after returning from an interview in Dallas with Jack Ruby. Found in her bed, in a sitting position, fully clothed, the official story was that she died from an uncharacteristic combination of alcohol and barbiturates. However, many in the Press doubted this version, as all her notes and the article she was working on pertaining to the Kennedy investigation, were missing. For some time prior to her death, she had boasted about having information that was, "Going to break the whole JFK assassination mystery wide open". Curiously, the media made no mention of her Dallas trip or Kennedy murder investigation; almost all news accounts dealt with the 52 year old journalistís 15 year career on Whatís My Line".
Wilhemina Rahner, better known as Mrs. Harry Houdini, the man considered the most famous magician in history, is buried in one of the upright monument sections. Rahner and Houdini married shortly after meeting, becoming partners in the magic act, as well as in life. After the death of Houdini, Bess held an annual seance on Oct. 31st, the anniversary of his death, a tradition that continues today. In 1943, Bess died on a train traveling cross country between her East and West Coast homes. And although Houdini had long ago stipulated in his will that his wife be buried beside him in Macpelah Cemetery, the cemetery would not allow the burial of someone not of the Jewish faith. So sure was he that they would be buried together, he had Bessí name inscribed on his headstone with her birth date of 1876-19 Ė, leaving blank the last two digits and thatís the way it remains today.
Unlike her husband, who vowed to return, Mrs. Houdini stated before her death, "When I go, Iíll be gone for good. I wonít even try to come back".
NYCís popular and colorful Democratic Mayor, James (Jimmy) Walker, one of three mayors interred in the cemetery, is also buried beneath a simple, upright stone. Born on June 19, 1881, Walker came reluctantly to politics at the urging of his Irish born father. A lackluster student of Parochial schools, he attended one year at St. Francis Xavier College. However, at his fatherís insistence, he enrolled in law school and graduated two years later, although it took another ten years for him to become a member of the Bar. In the meantime, he indulged his passion for songwriting in Tin Pan Alley. By the age of 30, Walker forayed into the political arena, first as a local assemblyman, than as a senator, winning the mayorship in 1925. As NYCís gregarious mayor, he continued to relish the theatrical, sporting and gaming worlds. And although he seemed to prefer NYCís nightlife to his administrative duties, he did much to modernize the city. It was during his administration that the Dept. of sanitation was created and construction begun on many modern roadways - the Queens-Midtown Tunnel, Triborough Bridge and West Side Hwy. Even his very public love affair with actress Betty Compton, did not sour New Yorkers on Walker, as he seemed to embody the bon vivant in all of them. Despite his popularity with the people, in 1930, investigators looking into Tammany Hall activities uncovered graft and incompetence. By 1932, allegations of bribery were leveled and Walker resigned. In short order, he reevaluated his life, divorcing his wife marrying his mistress and settling abroad. Upon returning to the U.S., several years later, he was employed in the private sector. After the death of his second wife, his spark for life seemed to extinguish. Seeking solace and meaning, in 1946, he reconnected with his Catholic faith, but a mere six months later, on Nov. 18th, he was dead of a blood clot on the brain. On November 19, 1946, a front page N.Y. Times story chronicled his life and political career. His funeral Mass, like Ruthís, took place at St. Patrickís Cathedral.
If any section can be said to be the true heart of the cemetery, in Gate of Heaven it is the Guardian Angel Plot, named for the statue which stands as itís centerpiece and on which is inscribed "To his angels he has given command about you. That they guard you in all your ways".
This section is reserved for stillborns, newborns and young children.The memorabilia which adorns the site tugs at the heart; stuffed animals, angel figures, flowers, happy birthday balloons, toys and curios . A moving experience for anyone who views it.
"Itís one of the nicest things we do here, " said Ford, with obvious feeling. I agree. There are few things that touch us as much as the death of children. It is grief unimaginable, as it mocks the natural order of life.
Names of the children buried at the site are listed in columns denoting the year of their deaths. When I remarked that some of the babies had not been given first names, but were instead identified by the designation of Baby boy or Baby girl, Ford explained that, "Many had been left behind in neighboring Westchester County Medical Center, by parents too overwrought to deal with a burial". A local funeral director has assumed the responsibility of removing these infants from the hospital, and after a waiting period, to see if the family comes back wanting to bury their child, bringing them to be buried at Guardian Angel section.
If a family can afford it, they are charged the fee for an infant interment, if not, the fee is compassionately waved.
"I have observed parents interacting with one another, possibly finding comfort in sharing their grief with others who understand. It appears therapeutic for them", Ford remarked. Mourning the lives that would have been, many seem to find solace in returning here time and again.
The loss of a child, of any age, is something the Zambetti family knows all too well. October 17, 1989, Marc Antony Zambetti, 27, grandson of the Stella DíOro Co. founders and son of itís CEO, lost his life when the highway he was driving in Oakland California, collapsed during the San Francisco Bay Area earthquake. In nearby Candlestick Park, the World Series came to an abrupt halt, as the stadium was evacuated amid the chaos. One of over 270 casualties of the deadliest U.S. earthquake since 1906, Zambettiís family has erected a most atypical family mausoleum in his memory. Resembling more a marble and stone gazebo, than a mausoleum, the structure faces away from the road, so as not to call attention to itself. Embedded in the ground, leading to the entrance, is a large stone plaque, bisected in the middle, signifying a life cut in half. Etched in the stone is a compelling inscription which reads, "If he who has the most fun wins the game of life, Marc was triumphant".
At the time of his death, Zambetti, a sales director for the family business, planned to attend medical school. To honor that aspiration, his family has established a Ďprofessorship of medicineí award in his name, requesting that the funds be used for research.
Another family involved in a branch of food service, was the Hardart family of Horn & Hardart Automat fame. In 1888, Frank Hardart, a waiter teamed up with Joseph Horn, borrowing a $1,000 to open a small cafť in Philadelphia,where Hardart did the cooking. At first, profits were slim, but their coffee was soon known as "the best to be found in Philadelphia". In 1902 , the partners, inspired by an innovative German prototype, decided to open an automat in the U.S.. In 1911, the company expanded to N.Y.C.ís Times Square, which became itís most famous location. In itís heyday, there were 180 locations throughout Philadelphia and New York. Horn and Hardart was, in a sense, a forerunner to the fast food chains of today. Immortalized in the lyrics of a 1932 Irving Berlin song, "Letís have another cup of coffee," they were said to serve 800,000 patrons a day. Frank Hardart died in 1972, but his automats continued to do business until 1991, when the last one closed. Hardartís grave is well marked by a large stone cross surrounded by an even larger stone arch. A part of Americana, Horn and Hardartís original automat is on display in the Smithsonian Institution.
The opposite of the Hardart memorial, is that of Conde Nast, whose name has become synonymous with magazine publishing. The magazine scion and his family are buried under a most modest family stone, itís inscription faded with time. A resplendent purple-leafed tree lends the only decoration. Born on March 26, 1873, Nast became one of the worldís most successful magazine publishers; his vision spawning an empire.
It was at Georgetown University where he teamed up with classmate Robert J. Collier, whose father owned Collierís, to edit their schoolís newspaper. In 1897, Nast went to work for Collierís, soon proving to be a visionary in the world of magazine publishing. He expanded the magazineís circulation, while increasing itís advertising revenue, introduced color pages, two page spreads, issues devoted to one topic and divided the U.S. into marketing regions.
In 1907, he left Collierís, venturing out on his own. He soon purchased American Vogue, as well as the British and French editions, and before long added Vanity Fair, House & Garden and Travel to the fold. The 1929 stock market crash had a dire effect on his company. The value of his stock, once valued at $93 a share fell to 4.50. Two million dollars in debt, he lost control of his empire, to his bankers. But Nast wasnít down for the count, rebounding with the purchase of Life magazine and a new magazine he created, in 1939, named Glamour. By 1941, Nastís health began to fail. Suffering from high blood pressure, he had his first heart attack, and became dependent on oxygen. Yet, he managed to keep his health problems a secret until suffering two more heart attacks. Nast died on September 19, 1942, at the age of 69, in his N.Y.C. penthouse apartment. 800 people attended his funeral Mass at St. Ignatius Loyola in Manhattan. Despite his success, he was deeply in debt at the time of his death. And sadly, in January of 1943, his possessions were auctioned off to pay those debts. The Conde Nast publishing empire thrives today with circulation in the millions.
Our last stop, at the St. Francis of Assisi Crypts, took us from the grave of the magazine scion to the unadorned crypt of fabled journalist Bob Considine. A writer who possessed talent, as well as accuracy and speed, Considine oddly enough, became a journalist as a result of a quirky encounter with the Washington Post. Complaining to an editor that his name had been spelled incorrectly in several articles about the tennis matches he had participated in & which the Post had covered, he told the newspaper in no uncertain terms that he "could do a better job himself". They took him up on his challenge, hiring him on to write a weekly sports column. Only a year late, he was hired as a full time reporter.
After a stint with the Washington Post, he was hired by the Washington Herald, where he first wrote his famed column On The Line; a column he continued to write for 40 years, from 1933-1975 and one which was syndicated in over 100 newspapers. He also covered many of the most important historical events of his era, winning numerous awards along the way. Considine clearly loved his newspaper work, once declaring, "Call it vanity, call it arrogant presumption, call it what you wish, but I would grope for the nearest open grave if I had no newspaper to work for, no need to search & sometimes find the winged word that just fits, no keen wonder over what each unfolding day may bring". In addition to his newspaper work, he authored as many as 20 books, some made into motion pictures, one being The Babe Ruth Story in 1948, as well as hosting a talk show, America After Dark, from 1951-1953, considered by many to be the forerunner of todayís political talk shows.
Considine died of a stroke on September 25, 1975. In an eerie twist of prescience, his last column, written a week before, stated, "Iíll croak in the newspaper business. Is there any better way to go?"
As befitting this journalistic icon, his obituary ran in The New York Times, Washington Post, News-American, Long Island Press, Time Magazine, Newsweek and Current Biography.
Also entombed in the St. Francis crypts, is the legendary actor James Cagney, one of Hollywoodís most beloved actors. Born on July 17, 1899 and raised in the Yorkville section of Manhattan, he endured a rough & tumble childhood. As an adult, he held various jobs, before an audition for a Vaudeville show changed his course. After spending several years touring with various Vaudeville productions and trying his hand at Broadway, he was discovered by no less than Al Jolson , who was instrumental in Cagney getting a movie studio contact. He made his mark in films portraying gangsters, but in a humanistic way so as to make them oddly sympathetic and likable. Cagney caught the publicís attention in a big way in the 1931 movie classic, Angels With Dirty faces, smashing a grapefruit in the face of his female co-star. In 1942, he was an Oscar for his performance in the film, Yankee Doodle Dandy, loosely based on the life of George M. Cohan, but, by the 50's, his career was on a decline . He spent the time working on his autobiography "Cagney by Cagney", published in 1976 and becoming the first recipient of the American Film Instituteís Life Achievement Award in 1974. In 1981, he made a movie comeback, appearing in Ragtime. In 1984, he was awarded the Medal of Freedom from the U.S. Govt., Americaís highest civilian award.
Two years later, on March 30, Cagney died from cardiac arrest and complications from diabetes. John Cardinal OíConnor offered his family the use of St. Patrickís Cathedral for his funeral Mass. They chose instead to hold it in St. Francis DeSales, the parish of Cagneyís youth. Eight hundred mourners filled the church, among them Mayor Ed Koch and Governor Mario Cuomo. Ronald Reagan, then U.S. President, made a public statement, calling him " a classic American success story who was the best at whatever he did, a hero, a villain, a comic, or a dancer...Jimmy burst upon our movie screen with an energy and a talent we have never seen before and will never see again." As if asserting his heritage, from his crypt, a small flag of Ireland flutters in the breeze.
"He garnered enormous publicity at the time of his death. Huge crowds descended upon this cemetery. And here was a man who never sought publicity in life. We anticipated this constant stream of visitors would continue, but over time, interest soon died down to a trickle and now visitors hardly ever ask," commented Ford.
Returning to the nearby Chapel of St. Francis, a vision of artful simplicity, we entered together. Inside, the vivid shades of stained glass in deep blues and greens, illuminated by the late afternoon sun, formed intriguing patterns. Some appeared positively ethereal.
My head bowed reverently in silent prayer, swept up by the beauty and rarefied peace and serenity of the place, I reflected on the human desire to remember and be remembered; the need for continued connection. A fervent hope which renders the famous and non-famous equal, as evidenced by the often elaborate and unique memorials erected by more private citizens that Iíd seen that day. It seems not so much the length of time someone lives that matters, but that their names and accomplishments are remembered and commemorated, as they are here.
Gate of Heaven represents what a Catholic Cemetery is at its best - a place of embrace, comfort, forgiveness, spirituality, and the promise of the Catholic faith for eternal life.