NEW YORK – For more than 150 years, Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn has been the final resting place for many notable New Yorkers, including artist Jean Michel Basquiat and Charles Feltman, creator of one of our most iconic foods — the hot dog.
Opened in 1838, Green-Wood has thousands of trees shading miles of rolling hills. It is peaceful, beautiful, and expansive and the last place you’d expect to find a concert series. But Green-Wood plays host to unique classical music performances, so popular they sell out in minutes. The concerts are held in the cemetery’s catacomb.
Death of Classical is the creative genius of Andrew Ousley, who oddly enough came up with the idea to celebrate life.
“People often ask me why we do these shows and it’s not because I have some morbid obsession with death and the macabre.” Ousley said. “It’s really because when you’re in spaces like this, you can’t help but think about the shortness and the preciousness of life.”
Catacombs, which were popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, are underground spaces where often an entire family was buried in a vault or tomb.
“A catacomb was a more affordable way to not be buried in the ground, which was a very real concern in those days because people would often be buried alive,” Ousley said. “So people would buy catacombs so that they could kick their way out if they, in fact, had not passed away.”
Green-Wood’s catacomb welcomes a variety of musical artists. There are quartets, violinists, and singers like Daisy Press who have hauntingly beautiful voices. Press performed songs by 12th-century German composer Hildegard von Bingen.
All the musicians who participate are carefully chosen. Each concert starts with sunset cocktails before a quiet and contemplative stroll along Green-Wood’s historic winding pathways. The walk ends at the door to the catacomb, dramatically lit and bathed in red light.
“There are 30 vaults in our catacombs and each one has a different font bearing their name or a different setup in their room,” Gabriel Gatto, Green-Wood’s coordinator of public programs, told FOX 5 NY. “And I think that also speaks to the individuality that happens in memorialization and death but also coming together in this communal unified space.”
The entrance to the catacomb in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery. (FOX 5 NEW Image)
Catacombs are relics from a bygone era. It seems the more we learn about death, the more obsolete they become. And while it is common to find flowers by a tombstone, seeing them placed inside a catacomb is rare.
“The flowers, if I may be so bold to say, is really the attendees of our concerts that we have in here,” Gatto said. “They are the ones that adorn in the hallways and pay tribute and visit to the all that are entombed here.”
The next time you pass by Green-Wood Cemetery, think of it as more than just a burial ground. Green-Wood is where classical music is alive and well.
Learn more about the program at Death of Classical: The Angel’s Share.