940 Comstock Avenue
Syracuse, NY 13210
Bella Morte Rating: 5 Tombstones
Forged by glaciers during the Ice Age, the terrain of Oakwood, Syracuse's crown jewel cemetery, is astonishing in its variety. Isolated flat areas are interspersed among sharply rising hills and haunting, fog-laden valleys. Dense undergrowth makes passage among some of the more obscure stones nearly impossible while, in other areas, travel is hampered only by weather-darkened mausoleums and imposing monuments that seem to thrust straight out of the earth. To date, over 60,000 people have chosen to make this their final destination.
In order to reach this beautiful burying ground, visitors will be obliged to brave fraternity and sorority house-lined streets choked with backpack-toting students enrolled at sprawling Syracuse University...a portion of whose campus borders Oakwood. Once inside the Comstock Avenue entrance however, peace prevails and one is quickly entranced by scenery which is sometimes pastoral, sometimes overshadowed by looming college structures--but always a delight. Don't be fooled by the smooth pavement however! All-too-soon, blacktop gives way to deeply rutted paths of mud or packed dirt (depending upon the season) which will challenge all but the most worthy of off-road vehicles. The Proprietors of Bella Morte visited in the spring (just after a late-season snow storm left mounds of white stuff to be dissolved in the sun) and were literally fearful of being mired! Not that being stuck in a cemetery is a bad thing, of course! Still, unless one is interested in paying towing fees, this cemetery's furthest reaches are best explored on foot. NOTE: Oakwood has had a stormy past with regard to maintenance of its grounds and the extremely challenging roadways are probably the best evidence of this. It is also a good idea to lock your vehicle and store all valuables out of sight. While the neighbourhood does seem quite safe, the cemetery is frequented by the afore-mentioned college students who enjoy sunning themselves, listening to music and, it would seem, also failing to respect the sanctity of the place. Discarded pop cans, water bottles and other refuse are not uncommon, nor is the sight of toppled stones and, to a much-lesser degree, graffiti. Quite sad. But do not be discouraged. All of the students we encountered were simply enjoying the day and we had no sense of any danger whatsoever.
Designed by New York architect Howard Daniels, the cemetery incorporates numerous circuitous roadways, circular paths and a host of truly dramatic views courtesy of the higher elevations. Oakwood is breathtaking and your efforts to explore on foot will be richly rewarded. "Dedication Valley" and "Longstreet" are among the most picturesque areas, but there are treasures to be found at nearly every turn. The original office building as well as the old chapel stand in mute testimony of a time now past when attention to detail was the norm rather than the exception. Sadly, both buildings have long-since been abandoned and, indeed, the chapel, with its purple faux-stained-glass windows and gorgeous wood-ceilinged portico seems balanced on the very cusp of collapse. Astute taphophiles will soon realize these structures, though they appear to be at the back of the cemetery, stand close to the original entrance. In decades past, the main gate stood on nearby Oakwood Avenue and it was from that spot most traffic entered and exited. In the early 1960s, construction of Route 81 began to restrict traffic flow and on 29 August, 1964 the venerable old stone gate was closed forever. Today, the brick arch lies almost wholly-obscured by vines and serpentine tree-limbs.
Oakwood also boasts two mausoleums. The older structure is actually located across the street in Morningside Cemetery (which was incorporated with Oakwood in 1976). This mausoleum, built in 1910, is filled to capacity at 354 spaces) and is no longer open to the public. We were informed by cemetery personnel that it does contain glass-fronted niches for cinerary urns. The newer mausoleum was constructed in 1970. It accommodates both full-casket entombments and cremated remains.
Although the western realms of Oakwood are the oldest and most enchanting, wondrous sights abound in all but the very newest section. For example, when entering through the main gate on Comstock Avenue, one of the first things a visitor's eyes will be drawn to is the monolithic mausoleum of Lyman Cornelius Smith. Remarkable for its size, it is also striking for the enormous stained glass window at its rear. In the evening (at least as the sun rests in spring) light spills through the glass and creates a truly mesmerizing display. Indeed, if you happen to enter the cemetery at that hour, or if you are fortunate enough to be standing in front of the mausoleum at that time, you might be tempted to believe an otherworldly being is floating in a globe of light inside the chilly stone walls!
Nearby, the fourteen Corinthian columns, curved stairs and expansive surface of the Chapin memorial serves, we have been told, as a backdrop for many a wedding party photo shoot. Close by, the Brown mausoleum is remarkable for several features. To begin, its hulking frame, consisting of two rectangular sections, evokes a distinct impression of beholding a medieval fortress, particularly in view of the narrow-cut windows and flat roof which resembles battlements. Be sure to peer inside for an interesting view. Lifting one's gaze upward will reveal a wash of gold light spilling through the aforementioned windows. If you squint, you might also be able to make out a massive globe which appears to be made of stone. It is suspended from the ceiling, but we were unable to determine if its purpose was functional or decorative. Looking straight back, visitors will see, shining out from the black wall, a gold relief fashioned to resemble a male worker. To the proprietors of Bella Morte, he resembled nothing more than a Communist-era Russian "comrade" factory worker! And then there is the floor of the mausoleum which is littered with sections of wall and flooring that has seen the ravages of time.
In another area of the cemetery, the figure of a woman holding a babe snuggled to her breast and placing a hand suggesting both protection and comfort on the head of a child, watches over the graves of children whose lives ended in the Onondaga County Orphan Asylum. This memorial was erected in 1894 by the home's founder, Christina Colvin. Before it was named the County Orphan Asylum, it was known as the Syracuse Free School and it provided education to underprivileged children. In 1845 it became known as the Orphan Asylum and that name remained until 1945 when it was changed to Elmcrest Children's Center. The facility still exists, though it has been moved to a different location and its focus is the care of children with emotional and behavioural difficulties.
In the late 1880s, John Crouse (along with his brother James) ran a lucrative wholesale grocery business in Syracuse. The men, along with their extended family, were among the area's wealthiest citizens and, happily, the Crouse's were widely known for their benevolence. Indeed, it was John Crouse who donated funds to construct Syracuse University's first building. At the time, the school was known as Crouse College. Today, John's mausoleum, with its vine-shrouded walls, gothic appearance and breathtaking height will definitely have cameras being focused from all angles. The wrought iron gate beckons a peek inside and those so-inclined will discover yet another set of gates which still afford a decent view inside. And what a view it is! One of the crypt fronts has either fallen off or been removed and it teases the imagination as to exactly what the eerie shape within the shadows might be. The John Crouse mausoleum also has the distinction of having played host to one of the cemetery's most grisly guests. (details later in listing).
Then there is the Leavenworth monument which, in addition to housing an ornate sarcophagus, features an awesome steel roof. The Granger monument is also quite striking. Consisting of massive grey gothic arches supported by eight pink marble columns, the main structure stands as a covering for the crypts which rest beneath it.
Other memorials, though not so ostentatious, possess a refined and quiet dignity. A favourite at Bella Morte was the grey ledger of G. Frederick Truesdell (15 Jan., 1872 - 8 May, 1937). Resting beneath shaded fronds of pine, it bears the following inscription:
All wasting here, I lie alone
From spring to spring
Nor hear the wintry winds make moan,
The joyous lark take wing.
But when the pollen softly blows,
Say over me a prayer:
That whither my vagrant spirit goes,
Love may be there.
Of course, the fact that we came upon his tomb "when the pollen softly blows" made it even more special! We stood a moment and sent him our wish that he did indeed find love.
Another stone we discovered, belonging to one Belden Wigglesworth (1901-1977), bore a fleur-de-lis on either side of his name and the following inscription in French:
Pendant que je restais en bas dans l’ombre noire
D’autres montaient cueielir le baiser de la gloirie
- Cyrano de Bergerac
After consulting with a friend who is fluent in the language, the quote was translated as follows:
While I remained at the bottom in dark shadow
Others ascended to know the kiss of glory
Depending upon how one regards these words, they are either hopeful or tragically hopeless. Did Wigglesworth intend to convey that his life was "dark shadow" and after his death he, too, "ascended to know the kiss of glory?" Or did he mean to suggest his Fate was dark? Perhaps family or acquaintances could answer that, but, as we have no knowledge of their names or whereabouts, we will simply leave it to each reader to determine...or to wonder.
All cemeteries have numerous stories to tell. Several of the more notable tales from Oakwood follow:
The cemetery was dedicated on the 3rd of November, 1859 and stood bereft of a corpse only five days before Ms. Nellie G. Williamson claimed the distinction of becoming the first non-breathing resident. For Ms. Williamson, Death came in the ragged robes of tuberculosis. She was only 21. At the time of her burial, the cost of an adult entombment was $8.00 (and that price included the lot)! A child could be buried for only $5.00!
The first monument to be placed in Oakwood belonged to James Crouse and family. Mr. Crouse and his wife were well-known in the community for their benevolence. In fact, Crouse Memorial Hospital stands even to this day as testimony of their good-will. It was Mrs. Crouse who took it upon herself to bring the first patients to the original hospital. These consisted of three children...all quite young and ill. Mrs. Crouse employed her own carriage to transport the sickened infants and it was that carriage which then became the hospital's first ambulance!
It was the Crouse family who also drew attention to Oakwood when, in 1904, Jacob Crouse's son, Charles, determined to memorialize his late father by having a boulder placed at the gravesite. It was one of those things that seemed like a good idea at the time; however, transporting an 80-ton boulder is no easy task. It seems Charles favoured a rock that rested on a farm belonging to the Wilbur family...five miles away in Split Rock, New York! After a number of ideas were proposed and found lacking, a crew of six men was employed to drive a team of draught horses over the snow-covered roads. The boulder was pulled onto a platform consisting of individual two-inch planks. These planks were then moved from back to front as the boulder was pulled along its winding path from farm to graveyard. Obviously, progress was slow. It took the team 8 weeks and cost Charles Crouse $4,500 to get the monument placed. And the boulder was big news! Its painstaking progress was faithfully reported upon in the local papers and it was a favourite (if short-lived) pastime of the citizenry to gather by the road to watch it pass.
If the season is winter or early spring, you'll have no problem locating the next monument; however, if you visit Oakwood when foliage is plentiful, be sure to pay close attention to the tree line across the street from the old chapel. You will be looking for a break and a small path. Follow that path about 25 feet along a slight incline and you will find yourself standing before one of the cemetery's more unusual monuments...a bronze lion before which is a flat bronze plaque, flush to the ground, which bears the single name HAGGERTY. The lion has been standing guard over the mortal remains of Michael Charles Haggerty since 1982. But Michael, the victim of a fatal auto-accident in 1974, did not begin his entombed existence in Oakwood at that time. Instead, he was inhumed at St. Mary's Cemetery in DeWitt for eight years. Why? Well, it seems young Michael had a pronounced fondness for lions. After his untimely death his mother thought it would be lovely to have a lion watch over his mortal remains. The first problem was determining what sort of lion. The second, how to obtain such a creature. The third problem was not anticipated and will be discussed momentarily. Mrs. Haggerty addressed the first problem by determining she wanted a sculpture made. That took care of the second problem as another son, Thomas, just so happened to be an art student at Syracuse University. Thomas accepted the commission and commenced work in the summer of 1981. One year later, the lion was ready to guard the lad...and this is where the third problem arose. It seems the Catholic Diocese wasn't at all enamoured with the idea of a leonine guardian. In short, they refused to allow its placement. Because of this, the Haggerty family purchased the very private (and enchanting) plot at Oakwood and had Michael's remains exhumed from St. Mary's and reinterred there where observant visitors can visit these unlikely companions.
Oakwood's most macabre tale dates back to early October, 1988 and involves yet another member of the Crouse family. This time, our tale concerns former Syracuse mayor John J. Crouse (1834 - 1886)...or, more specifically, his skull. It seems another Syracuse University art student got it into his head (pun definitely intended) that a skull would be most useful to him in his sculpting class. Rather than purchase a model cranium, however, he decided he'd help himself to a "complimentary model" at nearby Oakwood Cemetery. Accordingly, he broke into the Crouse mausoleum and helped himself to the former mayor's head! He then took it back to his dorm where he set about boiling the bones in order to clean them up. The unsavory aromatic result alerted a roommate who discovered the ghoulish item on the menu that night and alerted police who promptly arrested the grave robber. The investigation which followed led police to discover yet another skull secreted in a bag at Oakwood and evidence of over 30 crypts in four mausoleums which had been desecrated, though it was never shown the student was involved in that activity.
There are many earthly delights to be discovered in Oakwood and we will leave the lion's share to you, dear visitor, to discover on your own. Although our time in this Syracuse gem was, sadly, limited, it was richly rewarding and this cemetery is most-assuredly on our "must return to" list! Nearby residents who also happen to be taphophiles are fortunate to have such a glorious cemetery in their vicinity. For those of us not so blessed, a trip to Oakwood will definitely not disappoint.