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American Lives

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery (NY)

by P L Kessler, 12 August 2023

 

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, New York
Photo © Dana Grohol

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery sits adjacent to the small town of Sleepy Hollow, New York state, in the New England area of the USA.

When Washington Irving published 'The Legend of Sleepy Hollow' in 1820, he forever blessed - or cursed - the town of Sleepy Hollow, turning a modest cemetery in an otherwise unremarkable village in New York State's Hudson Valley into a tourist attraction.

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, New York
Photo © Dana Grohol

Maybe he knew this himself, as he chose to be buried in that cemetery, which has since grown immensely, and has gained many other prestigious burials.

Originally called Tarrytown Cemetery, it was founded in 1849, after Washington Irving and Captain Jacob Storm had noted the need for additional burial space in the growing communities of Tarrytown and Beekmantown (now Sleepy Hollow).

The Dibble family plot is shown here.

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, New York
Photo © Dana Grohol

The cemetery occupies a long rectangular plot of eighty-five acres (34.4 hectares), and contains approximately forty-five thousands graves as well as a new mausoleum. Its interred population is about twice as many as the current populations of Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow combined.

It was built around, but is not affiliated with, the historic Old Dutch Church. This lovely stone and wooden structure was built in the 1700s near a pre-existent graveyard. The burial grounds of this church, going back to the Dutch ownership of New York, must be one of the oldest in the country. There are still tombstones on the property with Dutch-language headstones.

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, New York
Photo © Dana Grohol

Over the years, trees have grown up and nearly engulfed graves within their trunks. The Reformed Church of the Tarrytowns still holds services in the church every Sunday, with the congregation sitting on traditional wooden pews.

The much later-built Sleepy Hollow Cemetery itself is non-denominational.

The Disbrow mausoleum is shown here.

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, New York
Photo © Dana Grohol

Across a rough-hewn wooden bridge which spans the babbling Pocantico River are the more recent burials, somewhere that funerals and mourners are most often seen. The bridge is often mistaken for the one from Irving's story, but it did not exist in his day.

The real location of that bridge is near the Old Dutch Church, where a sign marks its former location. Nowadays the Pocantico River is spanned by a less attractive concrete bridge in place of the wooden one, carrying traffic along the busy Route 9.

The Irving inscription is shown here.

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, New York
Photo © Dana Grohol

The cemetery is well kept and somewhat beautiful, very park-like in places and almost as heavily wooded as the nearby forest, full of cedars, sycamores, and oaks, European beeches with scarlet leaves, and tiny Japanese maples whose seeds have blown into the park next door where they have taken root.

There are so many bushes and ferns that the cemetery has become very popular with the local deer, who slip in through a hole in the chain-link fence.

The Irving gate and plot are shown here.

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, New York
Photo © Dana Grohol

The cemetery is a sea of names, read and soon forgotten. But several famous names stick out. Washington Irving is, of course, the most famous denizen here. His tombstone is simplicity itself, a rectangular slab with a rounded top. If it were not for the flags which flank his grave, most visitors would probably walk right by it.

The Lister family plot is shown here.

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, New York
Photo © Dana Grohol

A family man in life and in death - he supported his brother and his nieces when they fell on hard times - Irving is buried in a family plot. As the first internationally-famous American author, his funeral was a national event. It was also the subject of a Harper's Magazine cover. So many people crowded into the Christ Episcopal Church for the event that it was feared the floorboards would break.

The Lister family plot is again shown here.

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, New York
Photo © Dana Grohol

The Helmsley mausoleum, final resting place of Harry and Leona Helmsley, features a window which reveals the Manhattan skyline in stained glass. This was built in 2007 by Leona Helmsley at a cost of $1.4 million. She had her husband's body moved from its resting place in Woodlawn Cemetery (in the Bronx, New York) to this new mausoleum.

The Read family plot is shown here.

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, New York
Photo © Dana Grohol

The cemetery is a ten minute walk from Philipse Manor station on the Metro-North Railroad's Hudson line, making it an easy trip place to get to. Today it is operated as a non-profit, non-sectarian organisation.

The Rockefeller family estate which is known as 'Kykuit'), has its grounds abutting those of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. This estate contains the private Rockefeller cemetery.

All photos on this page taken by Dana Grohol, 2009.

Main Sources

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery

A Walk through the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery

 

Images and text copyright © Dana Grohol & P L Kessler except where stated. An original feature for the History Files: American Lives.