Why is Woodlawn Cemetery carving its trees into animals?

June 4, 2018

Photos courtesy of William Christ

Opened in 1863, and long known as the final resting place of some of history’s most notable figures— Irving Berlin, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Robert Moses, F.W. Woolworth, and Herman Melville, to name a few–the Bronx’s Woodlawn Cemetery and Conservatory is also home to many treasures of the living variety. When one of Woodlawn’s trees (of which there are a whopping 140 different species!) meets its ultimate fate, the cemetery doesn’t merely bury it but rather celebrates its life by carving it into an animal that can be found on the grounds.

Top:Japanese Umbrella Pine; Bottom: White Oak. Photos courtesy of The Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, NY

Spread across the National Historic Landmark’s nearly 400 acres (roughly half the size of Central Park) are thousands of beautifully maintained mature trees representing more than 140 unique species and cultivars, five of which have been identified in the “Great Trees of New York” program, including a Japanese Umbrella Pine and a native Eastern White Pine. The collection also boasts one of the largest empress trees in New York, which is native to China, and a native Tulip Poplar that measures over 125 feet tall and 63 inches in diameter!

In 2017, the cemetery’s devotion to its green giants was rewarded with a Level II Accreditation by the ArbNet Arboretum Accreditation Program and the Morton Arboretum, an impressive accomplishment for this bucolic space smack dab in the middle of one of the city’s most bustling boroughs.

Photo courtesy of William Christ

From time to time, in common with the individuals buried among their leafy greens, trees meet their demise, typically due to storm damage or illness. So last year, as part of its arboretum accreditation celebration, the cemetery came up with a unique way to bring new life to the once stately inhabitants that had seen better days and a stunningly beautiful 7-foot tall red-tailed hawk carved out of a remaining trunk made its debut.

Next, an endearing squirrel and solemn family of owls were both unveiled during the cemetery’s Earth Day celebration this past April – and plans are already underway to carry on this imaginative tradition of reclaiming lost trees with the resulting wooden menagerie continuing to highlight the vast array of wildlife making their home on cemetery grounds.

Professional chainsaw carver Jon Vincent spent two to three days meticulously crafting each larger-than-life sculpture, and when driving or strolling through the cemetery’s winding roads, visitors are sometimes caught off guard by the oversized artwork’s unexpected presence. However, they soon find themselves in awe of the exquisitely intricate and life-like detail.

Some of the sights from the Illuminated Mausoleums Moonlight Tour. Photos courtesy of The Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, NY

The wood masterpieces are only a small part of a surprisingly long list of interesting sights and events hosted by the cemetery all year long as it strives to creatively ensure its future as a historic site. From Trolley Tours that explore graveside symbolism and fascinating burial secrets to the Illuminated Mausoleum Moonlight Tours, which take visitors inside some of Woodlawn’s magnificent rarely opened mausoleums to view features like Tiffany windows, metalwork by Samuel Yellin, or domes and vaults crafted by Guastavino Company artisans, the cemetery is alive with activity. And while its primary purpose will always be to offer a final resting place honoring the lives of loved ones lost, its role as a veritable outdoor museum to the 100,000-plus visitors who tour its grounds each year is an important niche for ensuring its viability for another 150 years.

woodlawn cemetery, bronx, NYC cemeteriesVia Woodlawn Cemetery

If you’d like to check out the breathtaking wood carvings in person, The Woodlawn Cemetery and Conservatory is easily accessible from Grand Central Station via Metro North Railroad. You can learn more and find upcoming events and tours at https://www.thewoodlawncemetery.org and http://www.WoodlawnTours.org. To support the ongoing efforts of the conservatory to preserve, curate and care for the historic mausolea, monuments, landscape features and trees, visit https://www.thewoodlawncemetery.org/donate/.

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