Egyptians held a deep belief in the afterlife, and preserved their bodies and possessions for use after death, placing them in elaborate pyramids, mastabas, and rock-cut tombs. New Yorkers have long looked to ancient Egypt for inspiration when it comes to memorializing their dead. The great cemeteries of NYC are nestled in the boroughs: Calvary in Queens, Green-Wood in Brooklyn, and Woodlawn in the Bronx. These cemeteries have extraordinary grave markers and mausoleums, some of them quite Egyptian in style including temple mausoleums, pyramid tombs, and ubiquitous obelisk tomb markers. Common features include pairs of guardian sphinxes, papyrus-stalk columns reminiscent of temple facades, lotuses, and the winged disk of Osiris, god of the dead, which is often depicted above the entrances of mausoleums.
Obelisks and pyramid tombs gained popularity in Europe after Napoleon's campaign in Egypt (1798-1801). The cemetery of Père Lachaise in Paris is filled with great examples, and almost immediately this trend was felt in America. Obelisks first appeared as tomb markers and memorials in New York in the early 19th century and examples can be found in cemeteries throughout NYC.
To read more about obelisks in NYC see "Touring the New York City Obelisks."
4902 Laurel Hill Blvd. Flushing, Queens
Subway: 7 to 33rd St. Walk down 33rd, left on Hunter's point, right on Greenpoint, cross Long Island Expressway and enter on Greenpoint.
Hours: 8 a.m. to 4:15 p.m.
First Calvary Cemetery
Calvary Cemetery came into use in the mid-1800s as a Catholic burial ground. The cemetery contains many obelisks, from tomb markers to a great number of Civil War memorials, and most have very interesting mixes of Christian motifs. Calvary also has some of the best views of the Manhattan skyline.
Metzner Mausoleum, Calvary Cemetery
Although Calvary Cemetery is not well known for its mausoleums, this structure is a superb example of Egyptian Revival architecture, with papyrus columns and a mix of Egyptian and Christian motifs from winged disks to crosses.
500 25th St. Brooklyn
Subway: R to 25th St. walk one block to 4th Ave.
Hours: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Founded in 1838, Green-Wood in Brooklyn, with its rolling hills and ponds, was an inspiration for Central Park. By the 1860s, the cemetery was a popular spot for picnics and walks attracting some 500,000 visitors a year. The cemetery is filled with obelisks, but the pyramid tombs and temple mausoleums are the real highlights. Green-Wood contains some of the earliest examples of Egyptian Revival grave architecture in NYC, and the cemetery once held tours to visit the Egyptian-style tombs. Today, it is great to wander over the manicured 478 acres and discover these tombs yourself.
Spofford, Tileston, Bryce, Dambann Mausoleum
Four families are interred in this large vaulted mausoleum with Egyptian elements, winged disks, four doorways with slanting entry frames like pylons, and a temple facade. Paul Spofford (d.1869) and Thomas Tileston (d.1864) were business partners who created a shipping company in 1818 and grew wealthy. Lifelong friends, they lived next door in Greenwich Village and built their two family vaults attached in this mausoleum. William and James Bryce, brothers from Oyster Bay, and New York banker Charles F. Dambmann are interred in the mausoleum's other two vaults.
Van Nes Parsons Pyramid
This pyramid tomb was built for Albert Ross Parsons (1847-1933) and his family. Parsons was an American composer and amateur Egyptologist who published the book The New Light from the Pyramids (1893). Parson's pyramid includes a winged disk above the entryway and a large sphinx. The entrance is flanked by two statues, a Madonna and Child and Jesus holding a lamb, which create an interesting mix of Christian and Egyptian motifs.
Henry Bergh Pyramid (David Shankbone/Wikimedia Commons)
Entombed here is New Yorker Henry Bergh (1813-1888), who founded the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). The tomb is a typical pyramid structure with a winged disk of Osiris above the door. On the door itself is a plaque dedicated by the ASPCA.
B. Stephens Pyramid
This pyramid, on a hill near the Green-Wood Chapel, includes a winged disk above its iron-gated door. The steep slanting sides may have been inspired by New Kingdom pyramids, such as those at Deir el-Medineh (the settlement of workers who labored in the Valley of the Kings), or the 26th Dynasty ones at Abydos and Thebes. But it might reflect the steep-sided pyramids found in Meroe, Nubia (modern-day Sudan), capital of the Kushite kings who conquered and ruled Egypt during the 25th Dynasty (752-656 B.C.). (See "The Other Pyramids.")
Webster Ave. & E. 233rd St., Bronx
Subway: 4 to Woodlawn
Hours: 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Situated in the Bronx just south of the Westchester County line, Woodlawn Cemetery was annexed as a NYC cemetery in 1868. Encompassing more than 400 acres, it is famous for its numerous and elaborate mausoleum tombs designed in nearly every 19th and 20th century revival style. Woodlawn is filled with Egyptian mausoleums of varying shapes and sizes, and presents some of the grandest examples of Egyptian Revivalism in the United States. Exploring the cemetery to discover the dozen or so Egyptian tombs flanked with columns and decorated with sphinxes, lotuses, and winged disks, will make one feel almost as if they are visiting authentic Egyptian temples, except on manicured lawns.
F.W. Woolworth Mausoleum
Founder of Woolworth Department store, Frank Winfield Woolworth (1853-1919) and his granddaughter Barbara Hutton (1912-1979) are entombed in this elaborate mausoleum designed by John Russell Pope, the architect of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington D.C. With traditional Egyptian architecture combined with 19th-century architecture and Egyptian Revivalism, this white temple-like tomb includes two guardian sphinxes, a bronze door with detailed figures exchanging an ankh (the Egyptian symbol for life), papyrus columns, and elaborate Egyptian carvings.
Jules Bache (1864-1944) was a banker and avid art collector, and his Egyptian temple mausoleum at Woodlawn reflects his great love for the aesthetic. Also designed by John Russell Pope, this tomb is based on a small Egyptian temple dedicated to the goddess Isis that stood on the island of Philae in southern Egypt. The first Aswan Dam was constructed between 1896 and 1897, and the Nile threatened to cover the island of Philae, the mythical birthplace of the god Osris, and its Isis temple. News of Philae's potential destruction spread across the world in the late 19th century, and the tiny temple gained fame. The temple survived the 1890s damming, but was moved off Philae in the 1960s to escape inundation by the Nasser Dam. With its large brass door, Egyptian carvings, and huge papyrus stalk columns on all four sides, this mausoleum is an extraordinary sight.