Over more than 120 years old, Mt.Zion Cemetery has accumulated 210,000 burials, in only 78 acres of land. Certainly making it a little rough on the casket leg room. Its claustrophobic nature is one of the first things that caught my eye about this fascinating cemetery.
The reason there have been so many internments in such a compact space is because Mt. Zion is an Orthodox Jewish Cemetery, and when it was originally constructed the plots were designed for smaller “Orthodox Sized” caskets (also known as Ossuaries.) (By definition, an ossuary is just a container for human remains.) Grim, but culturally accurate.
One of my main reasons for visiting Mt. Zion that day, despite the freezing cold and several inches of snow on the ground, was to visit the grave of one of my heroes, lyricist Lorenz Hart.
Lorenz Hart wrote the lyrics to many classics, including “My Funny Valentine”, “Blue Moon”, “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered”, and many other greats. (Just a little musical fan-dom moment I had to share.)
The above photo is of a section of children’s graves, dating back to the late 1800’s. At least that’s what I could make out from the ones that weren’t drowning in the snow. These tiny tombstones were at most 5 inches tall.
Through my research, after my trip, I discovered something I had no idea existed in Mt. Zion. The original location of the what is now Mt. Zion was actually built around a pre-existing cemetery owned by the Betts family…in the 1700’s. It’s certainly different from the rest of the overcrowded land. One of the oldest gravestones is Mary Betts, marking her passing in 1757. (257 years ago.) Also, in the section of The Betts Cemetery, but not officially a part of either the Betts or Mt. Zion, is an eerie section of abandoned children’s graves.
I found all the information on The Betts Cemetery from this site: http://forgotten-ny.com/2004/07/the-faces-of-mt-zion/
(I am very thankful I found Forgotten NY, because this whole area was completely covered in snow when I went on my visit, and thus I had no idea of it’s existence. And I am certainly going to make another trip once the snow melts to check out this 257 year old historical gem.)
Later in my research I learned of a photographer named John Yang who was also fascinated by Mt. Zion’s mystery. He published a book of Sepulchral Portraits taken from some of the headstones in Mt. Zion. It was a tradition in the past to showcase photos of the deceased on their headstones. There was a very elaborate process used to ensure they were “permanently” showcased, but after over 100 years, some have begun to show their age.
Below is me holding a copy of John Yang’s book.
The book is for sale in the office at Mt. Zion, so of course I had to go back out there and buy a copy. It is BEAUTIFUL. If you’re interested in getting a copy but you don’t live anywhere near the area, it is also for sale on Amazon. (http://www.amazon.com/John-Yang-Mount-Zion/dp/B007K50QWA)
Overall Mt.Zion has a character and chilling nature that I have not experienced in any other cemetery. Perhaps it is fact that unlike any other cemetery I’ve been to, the sepulchral portraits offer a chance to look the deceased in the eyes. To see to who lies beneath. To connect to them in a way that I had never imagined, over 100 years later.