Monday Morning Greetings 2018 #19 – Morbid Anatomy at the Green-Wood Cemetery

May 7th, 2018

What’s a nice Hare Krishna doing in a place like that? Barring how I got there, Green-Wood Cemetery is arguably one of the most beautiful places in New York City. Walking through rolling hills and dales and sitting by its beautiful ponds and glacial moraines, I could see why this 500 acre cemetery couched in an natural park-like landscape served as the inspiration for the creation of Central Park, even though it was still technically a graveyard.


And what is this “Morbid Anatomy”? Oh, that. Just an exhibit of art and artifacts “designed to connect with the most universal of all human conditions: death.” I chanced upon the exhibit at the Fort Hamilton house just inside the park’s entrance on my way in for the afternoon walk.


My thoughts on my lovely afternoon at Green-Wood Cemetery


First thoughts. Why thoughts? Just enjoy the walk. I just finished a beautiful meal with my hosts David and Ann-Mary at their apartment just a few blocks a way. They go to the cemetery often. They wanted to take me for a pleasant and very interesting after lunch stroll. The city is externally hellish. Śrīla Prabhupāda once called modern day cities “dungeons of demons” and quoted part of a poem by the British poet Cowper: “God made the country, man made the town”. So after being cooped up in the city for a week why not just absorb the surroundings made by God and reconnect with the divine by a type of osmosis?


Of course, with all the tombstones, mausoleums, and obelisks, there was more to peak my interest than just a country-type walk in the middle of Brooklyn. I was especially intrigued by the personal epithets on the graves. They seemed to bring the dead lying there back to life, as many wore their personality on their tombstones.


I chuckled when I passed the tombstone of one lady who left her friend and relatives a perky message: “Get over it!” I loved the inscription on Billy “The Butcher” Poole’s grave, spoken just before dying after being shot in a Brooklyn saloon. Scribed on his tomb, serving as a good example of a typical disintegrated alpha male were these final words: “Good bye boys. I die a true American.” Mostly I appreciated the inscription of the pious, expressing their faith and peace in Jesus.


And naturally there were also some philosophical thoughts. As we approached the beautiful archway entrance on the other side of the park at the end of our journey, I couldn’t help but be struck by the contrast between where I was standing and the bustle and grime outside:  “Why on this absolutely beautiful sunny spring Saturday afternoon were there just a handful in this paradisiacal park, and millions standing just outside the gate in a hellish place by their choice?” I came up with two theories:


People are just conditioned to pleasures that don’t serve their happiness. I thought of the story of Indra, the king of heaven, who was cursed to take the body of a hog. His family and subjects finally found him after many years, and informed him that the curse had ended and he could resume his form and position as the king of heaven. They were shocked how conditioned he was to his degraded position. He replied, “Why should I go when I have such good stool to eat and so many good pig friends and family?”  In a similar way, it seems most people in Brooklyn would rather hang out on a dirty, noisy street corner than cross the street into a bucolic park, a place that by its very mode would elevate them to goodness and peace. How much are we all Indra, attached to pleasures that make no sense and cause us grief?


To be fair, it is a cemetery—but still, its open spaces and beauty should be a lure for the millions bordering it. It makes me suspect that people mostly avoid crossing the street due to the powerful psychological impulse of denial or fear of death, one of the five classic kleśas,[1] or foundational psychological conditions binding one to material existence. I again thought of a relevant story called “The Pool Of Death”.


Standing before the pool of death, Maharaja Yudhiṣṭhira, the king of righteousness, is challenged to answer one hundred questions by the Lord of Death, or else be immediately slain. He deftly answers the first ninety-nine questions correctly, but is seemingly stumped by the last one, “Of all the things in the world what is the most astounding thing?” Just an instant before the reaper of death is about to strike, the correct answer finally comes to his mind: “My father has died, my father’s father has died, and every father’s father died, but still everyone lives as they will not die. Denial of death is the most amazing thing.”


I took a last glance of this beautiful park and meditated on where all this ends—no pun intended—and pondered over how well I am gearing my life to this most stark fact of being, death. Crossing the street back to the real Brooklyn, I remembered a line from Bhaktivinoda’s Ṭhākura’s Aruṇodaya-kīrtana which depicted the thinking of an enlightened soul.


“This temporary material world is full of suffering. Take shelter of the holy name of Krishna as your only business.”


And that’s what a nice Hare Krishna was doing in a place like that.



[1] The impediments to samādhi are ignorance, ego, attachment, aversion and fear of death. (Yoga Sutras II.3)

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