by Alexandra Kathryn Mosca 

Navigating the heavily-trafficked, truck laden New York State thruway on the ride to Ferncliff Cemetery, I tried to jar my memory as to whether of not I'd ever been there. I decided I hadn't or I'd surely remember, given the considerable number of celebrated inhabitants. How had I missed it? I wondered what I would find. I soon entered the picturesque, serene town of Greenburg in Westchester country, on the lookout for Secor road. And just a quarter mile up the road unobtrusively nestled in the Westchester hills was Ferncliff Cemetery. This cemetery sneaks up on you as I found out, it doesn't need to shout to proclaim itself. I drove into its welcoming gates which led to the main building, called the "Cathedral of Memories". An imposing, castle-like building, opened in 1929, and constructed under the supervision of James Baird, who is also credited with the building of the Lincoln Memorial, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Washington Amphitheater. Flanked by granite angels who greet you; I felt both welcome and watched over. I later learned that angels are a predominate theme running through the building, even taken as the cemetery's business card logo.

   Continually eclipsed by the notoriety of both Greenwood and Woodlawn Cemeteries. This non-sectarian, not-for-profit, non denominational, 63 acre cemetery, which opened in 1903, is inconspicuously located in the bucolic village of Hartsdale.

    Entering through the massive, solid bronze doors, built at a cost of 10,000 apiece, 70 years ago, I met up with Kevin Boyd, Ferncliff's president, Joe Bivona, a sales representative, who told me he is proud to be a licensed funeral director as well and Phil Tassi, chief financial officer, our tour guides for the day. The three men seemed enthusiastic to impart their vast knowledge of Ferncliff. Two young, female marketing associates joined us. It would be interesting to see the reaction of lay-people to that which we, as funeral directors, find so matter of fact. Would they see the same beauty in a cemetery that we, in the business of death, saw?

   We began fittingly enough with the crematorium, one of the busiest in New York, boasting 2800-3000 cremations a year. "We do between 10-30 a day here. We're one of the few crematories around," Kevin told us. I believed it when I saw the innumerable niches. Pricey containers of every conceivable type were inurned in glass and marble front niches. Classic Wedgewood urns, the rare green Wedgewood, unicorns, flowers, aquatic mammals, exquisite Oriental vases, Stars of David and Christian crosses, were represented. But we were told that despite the vast selection of urns available, the bronze urn at a retail cost of $1, 150, was the most popular. In addition to the standard array of urns, some were quite innovative, for example, the twin urns of Percy and Joanne Uris. Percy's urn reads "Together", while Joanne's bears the word "Forever." One of the most interesting urn stories related to us, is that of Jacob Hirsch 1874-1955, an archeologist who, on an expedition, unearthed what later became his own urn.

   After all this talk of urns, one of the marketing team asked the question all lay-people want to know, "What do cremains look like?" In response, Kevin aptly explained that cremains are "similar in texture to crushed sea shells."  She seemed comforted by that simile. I, too, learned something surprising - that Ferncliff's first cremation had taken place in 1934. Somehow, I stubbornly persist in thinking of cremation as a relatively new option. For families desiring a service along with cremation, "A Cathedral of Consolation" is situated on the grounds. This dark, wood - panelled chapel seems strangely incongruous to the building which houses it. Beginning to show it's age, we were told the chapel is on the list for a minor face-lift.

   There are a number of alcoves which serve as columbariums, designated by section numbers, others by the traditional floral names and another on the left of the center hall, whimsically named for the signs of the zodiac. Once, niches were flush against a flat wall, but even cremation has a more modern styling today. A wall of recessed, convex and concave niches led the way to a courtyard containing rose bushes, bearing a sign which reads "Judy Garland Roses".

   It warrants mention that not all of Ferncliff's famous clientele have opted for a permanent niche on the grounds. Some cremains have been returned to the families. Among the notables quietly cremated there, John Lennon, Jim Henson of Muppet fame, Yul Brenner, Nelson Rockefeller, and the legendary composer Oscar Hammerstein.

   Entombment is almost as big as cremation at Ferncliff. In fact more people are entombed than buried in the ground. As is typical, there are many wall crypts, and then there are the beautiful private crypts, which are actual rooms. Each private crypt is beautifully ornamented by a brilliant stained glass window which lends itself to a most individual style of expression. Religious motifs, seascapes, mountains, flowers, homes, swans, sailboats at sea and even New York City's Central Park are depicted. The rooms are further enhanced by altars, benches, and personal possessions, such as photos, religious items, and stuffed animals for children, creating an intimate atmosphere for contemplation and commemoration. In one case, a colorful window of St. Anthony watches over, fittingly enough, a deceased with the given name of Anthony. And the three entombed family members of another private crypt are unusually identified by the words 'Mother', 'Father', along with their daughter, Gemma.

   This main building is adorned by intricately patterned, oriental rugs and flooded with natural light throughout. Of particular interest is the "floating" staircase to the second floor. The ultra-modern staircase with no visible means of support was designed by the architect, Joseph Mangan.

   Walking down yet another gorgeous, marble corridor, Kevin pointed to the crypt of Gordon L. Harris, the founder of Ferncliff's Cathedral of Memories. "He's the reason we're here," Kevin proclaimed proudly. His private crypt is designated by a plaque which provides meaning by proclaiming, "Character is the real foundation of all worthwhile success."

   Ferncliff boasts over 75 famous permanent residents from such diverse worlds as entertainment, classical composing, journalism, business entrepreneurship,  politics and civil rights. Among the nations notables who have been buried, entombed, or whose ashes remain encased in an urn there, are an eclectic mix, which includes the multi-talented Judy Garland, early variety show host, Ed Sullivan whose funeral service in October of 1974, at the famed St. Patrick's Cathedral was attended by 2,000 mourners, the legendary actress Joan Crawford, entombed with her fourth husband Alfred Steele, the former chairman of Pepsi-Cola, Moss hart, playwright and director, who authored the satirical play, "You Can't Take It With You", and directed "My Fair Lady", Basil Rathbone, the original Sherlock Holmes, Diana Sands, the first black actress to star on Broadway and Ona Munson who played Belle Watling in Gone With The Wind. Having recently seen the re-release of Gone With The Wind, Rhett's parting words,"to see if a place of beauty and grace still exists," echoed in my ears as I surveyed the Ferncliff vista.     Fittingly enough, Howard Arlen, author of "Over the Rainbow", Judy Garland's signature song, for which he won an Oscar in 1939, is too, a Ferncliff resident, as is  Jerome Kern, the composer of the enduring musical 'Showboat'. In an ironic twist, Mr. Arlen and Mr. Kern collaborated over the years with one another, and with Oscar Hammerstein and Paul Robeson, a singer and actor, also buried there, who sang in the screen adaption of 'Showboat'.  

   Representatives from the world of government include, T.V. Soong, onetime minister of China, VK Wellington Koo, an advisor to Chaing Kai-shek, William Passannante, former member of the New York State Assembly and Betty Furness Midgley, consumer advocate.

   Charles Revson, the founder of Revlon cosmetics and his sons Peter and Douglas, John Gunther Jr, whose father wrote so poignantly and eloquently of his death at the age of 17 from a brain tumor, in his renowned book, "Death Be Not Proud", and the infamous 1950'd deejay, Alan Freed, implicated in the 'payola scandal' - his life story portrayed in the movie "American Hot Wax", are among many significant permanent residents. Here, human souls from all spheres co-habit side by side, in this peaceful terrain, equal in death, as many of them had prayed for or worked toward in life.

   Passionate about ice-cream, the sight of Tom Carvel's crypt brought a smile to my face as it evoked childhood memories. My generation was brought up on their ice-cream. Our tour guides told us that another old favorite, Howard Johnson, has reserved a room. How fitting they should spend eternity together! I had a momentary vision of them hashing over the ice-cream business of today. Would they approve of Ben & Jerry's mix-ins?

   The staff of Ferncliff is fond of pointing out that there are quite a number of funeral directors who have chosen Ferncliff as their final resting place. In fact, Walter B. Cooke, perhaps the most famous name in funeral service on the East Coast has a mausoleum there. What better endorsement for Ferncliff could there be? Ferncliff is the cemetery of choice for funeral directors who could choose to be interred anywhere.

   After viewing the renovated main building, we next visited the Shrine of Memories, the mausoleum built in the fifties. No worse for the wear, there are few crypts left available, and there are no private rooms in this structure, only singles and companions. In this sand-colored, limestone building, the crypts are more basic, lacking the lavish trappings of the more modern crypts. Marble slabs bearing the likeness of such luminaries as Jesus, Moses, Aristotle and Columbus, adorn the walls.

   Rosewood Mausoleum, the newest jewel in the crown is scheduled to open in April of 1999. At 28,000 square feet it is almost the size of a football field. This opening will be particularly gratifying after a six year court battle with the local town government, to get the necessary permits for the new facility. Resistance, by some town residents opposed to any further development of the cemetery and claims that the large building would  obscure their "panoramic view of both the Catskill mountains and the World Trade Center," persisted and held up the project through three lawsuits. Finally, the cemetery counter-sued the town for 150 million in a civil rights action. At last the town acquiesced and the cemetery withdrew it's suit. Sincerely concerned about not offending their neighbors, the management correctly points out that their facility would be the least intrusive of any building on the site. Obscured by shrubbery, it looks like a stately mansion on well manicured grounds.

   An additonal, unrelated delay in opening Rosewood has been the unacceptable quality of Italian marble offered so far. They anxiously await a new marble shipment. Exacting in their standards, they have spared no expense in their quest for the highest quality materials available. Two hundred artisans and craftsmen have been involved thus far in this project. This is quite understandable, when one sees the sheer enormousness of this work in progress.

   Rosewood will follow the successful combination of natural light, stained glass windows, granite and terrazzo floors. In addition, the first floor will feature an exquisite, inlaid marble floor. And like the Cathedral of Memories, will offer a magnificent free-floating, glass and marble staircase in the atrium-like center of the building, again designed by Joseph Mangan. Three elevators will be installed, two for the convenience of families and friends, the other a service elevator. Approximately 32 private rooms will be offered for sale, beginning in the Fall. They confidently expect to have this building completely occupied within twelve to fifteen years. The mausoleums are magnificent, albeit pricey, so I was surprised when Joe told us that the middle class makes up the bulk of the crypt purchases.

   This meticulous attention to detail can be seen in the ceaseless activity of improving and upgrading the grounds and structures and tending to the lawns and lush foliage, thus making it easy to see where the money goes and the cause of the pride taken in the surroundings.

   In contrast to the opulence of the mausoleums, the graves are simple, most adorned only by a small grave marker. Yet, grave space is considered tight. There are approximately 1500 new graves, which include three older sections, now filled, once strictly reserved Jewish burial. Among these simple graves is the grave of Malcolm X, tragically and prematurely joined in death, in 1997, by his wife Betty Shabazz, moving in it's simplicity. A simple grave marker marks the sight, adorned by flags of the million women march, a cause close to her heart.

   A funeral at its best, is a celebration of a life that has been lived and a way to honor that life, a cemetery is a permanent memorialization to that same life. And just as each persons life has been unique, a final resting place ought not be standardized either. Ferncliff offers burial, entombment and cremation to mark the lives lived and offers survivors a place of dedication and remembrance, peaking in verdant hills with gentle slopes and quiet pathways, to which they can go to reflect, grieve and communicate.

  Death, as it is said, is the great equalizer. It transcends class, color, religion and natural origin and in a strange way represents what a perfect world should be. And a cemetery is a community where these people from all walks of life, the famous, infamous and "just plain folk", the everyday unsung heroes, reside peacefully, harmoniously and equally... forever.


       Alexandra K. Mosca is a licensed funeral director, and free-lance writer, whose "Story" appeared in our May 1998 issue. She has appeared on talk shows across the country, written a newspaper column on funeral related matters, and lectured to religious, civic and educational groups in an effort to educate the public about the funeral business.


Copyright (c) 1999 by Kates-Boylston Publications Inc.