September 10, 2017 – Glendale, NY
Address: 82-30 Cypress Hills Street, Ridgewood, NY (No formal entrance, must be entered by either cemetery that borders it)
For approximately 3 miles on either side of the Jackie Robinson Parkway in Queens there is nothing but cemeteries. It’s hard to miss the sea of tombstones as one drives past. The Rural Cemeteries Act of 1847, authorized commercial burial grounds in rural New York state. The law led to burial of human remains becoming a commercial business for the first time. In 1852 the Common Council of New York City passed a law prohibiting new burials in the city, which then consisted only of Manhattan. As a result of the legislation, Queens became the burial grounds of Manhattan. Queens is home to 29 cemeteries holding more than five million graves and entombments, so that the “dead population” of the borough is more than twice the size of its live population.
Hidden in plain sight is the Machpelah Cemetery, which has nothing but a small metal sign on a fence that identifies it. The gates are locked and building at the main entrance has been torn down. The only access is through the cemeteries that border it. Founded in 1860, the cemetery is now filled up. The original families of the deceased are long gone. With no new money coming in, proper care of the graves has not been given for some time.
What’s so special about this cemetery? It is the final resting place of Ehrich Weiss, better known as Harry Houdini, the great escape artist. Harry Houdini died on October 31, 1926 at the age of 52. His funeral was held on November 4, 1926 and more than 2,000 mourners attended.
His gravesite appears to be the only one that is cared for in Machpelah Cemetery. The Society of American Magicians took responsibility for the upkeep of the site, as Houdini had willed a large sum of money to the organization. The payment of upkeep was abandoned by the society’s dean George Schindler, who said “Houdini paid for perpetual care, but there’s nobody at the cemetery to provide it,” adding that the operator of the cemetery, David Jacobson, “sends us a bill for upkeep every year, but we never pay it because he never provides any care.” Members of the Society tidy the grave themselves. The Houdini Museum in Scranton, Pennsylvania now maintains the plot.
Every Halloween, hundreds of devotees visit Houdini’s final resting place to pay their respects, party and leave offerings.
In 1927, a statuary bust was added, which is a rarity because graven images are forbidden in Jewish cemeteries. Between 1975 and 1993, the bust that adorns the Houdini grave was stolen or destroyed four times.
Houidini’s gravesite is about the only one that has been cared for. The rest of the cemetery seems to have been abandoned some time ago. While walking through the deserted graveyard, I came across a mausoleum with a missing window.
Along the cemetery road there is a line of burial vaults that were just left there.
It appears that someone has at times cut the grass, but other than that, everything else is in ruins.
Some of the tombstones have been swallowed up by the earth……
or displaced by nature.
Many of the tombstones have been toppled by vandals or have fallen over, but no attempt has been made to put them back in their rightful place.
It is disgraceful that a cemetery could be left to deteriorate in this manner. The people that have been interred here deserve much better. Maybe the City of Queens will take notice and do the right thing. Nevertheless, someone should be held accountable.