Celebrate to Wake the Dead!

This Saturday, April 3, not only marks the 227th birthday of Washington Irving, but it’s also the date of the 160th anniversary celebration of Irving’s burial place, Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, in Sleepy Hollow, New York.

Things get started at 11:00 a.m., with plenty of birthday cake and refreshments, tours of the cemetery, and — if the rumors hold true — maybe even a rare daytime appearance by a certain headless Hessian soldier on horseback.  You’ve been warned.

I’m admittedly biased, but I think it’s a beautiful place — full of hills and nooks and meandering paths, with just enough creakiness to make it feel somewhat ancient and appropriately spooky.  There are really impressive monuments to local Revolutionary and Civil War soldiers — and, yeah, there are some really impressive people buried there, too. Besides Washington Irving, look for Andrew Carnegie, Francis Church — who wrote the famous “Yes, Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus” editorial for the New York Sun — Samuel Gompers, Walter Chrysler, and cosmetics queen Elizabeth Arden. 

Irving himself had a hand in the naming of the cemetery, which town planners — in a bit of uninspired pique —  had originally called “Tarrytown Cemetery.”  In a May 1849 letter to Gaylord Clark, his editor at Knickerbocker Magazine, Irving pooh-poohed that name, calling it a “blunder.”  Here’s Irving, in a typically entertaining letter to his editor:

I send you herewith a plan of a rural cemetery projected by some of the worthies of Tarrytown, on the woody hills adjacent to the Sleepy Hollow Church.  I have no pecuniary interest in it, yet I hope it may succeed, as it will keep that beautiful and umbrageous neighborhood sacred from the anti-poetical and all-leveling axe. Besides, I trust that I shall one day lay my bones there. The projectors are plain matter-of-fact men, but are already, I believe, aware of the blunder which they have committed in naming it the “Tarrytown” instead of the “Sleepy Hollow” Cemetery. The latter name would have been enough of itself to secure the patronage of all desirous of sleeping quietly in their graves. I beg you to correct this oversight should you, as I trust you will, think proper to notice this sepulchural enterprise.

Clark did, in fact, in the June 1849 issue of Knickerbocker, throw in a casual plug for “Sleepy Hollow Cemetery,” calling it a “beautiful” and “convenient” place.  While the cemetery wouldn’t be officially renamed until after Irving’s death, for the most part, locals have nearly always referred to it as Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.

And as he predicted, Irving did indeed lay his bones there, under an unassuming tombstone, in a gravesite he had carefully chosen next to his mother.  It may take a bit of tromping around to find the Irving Family Plot — there are no stone figures or busts to point the way, so look for the wrought-iron railing around the site, right on the edge of a hill sloping down toward the Old Dutch Church. 

I can’t make it this weekend, but if you go, tell Mr. Irving I said hello.   If you’re interested in going, more information can be found right here.

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2 responses to “Celebrate to Wake the Dead!

  1. He was very hard to find, both times I went. The first time, I had a small picnic with the Irvings. The second time, I went to visit specifically on his birthday. Alas, I have other plans this weekend but it sounds like a great tribute to a beautiful cemetery. And I’m a guy who loves cemeteries.

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  2. Brian:

    I HOPE to be there today. I was last there on Halloween, and it was amazing how many tourists — some from different countries — who visited the Irving plot.

    For me, a visit to Tarrytown\Sleepy Hollow means stoppinmg at three spots: Sunnyside, Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, and Christ Episcopal Church. Some people are unaware that the latter exists.

    Steve

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