This article is from the In-Depth Report Science of the Occult
Science Talk

Cemetery Science: The Geology of Mausoleums

For Halloween, we take a tour of Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, N.Y., with geologist Sidney Horenstein and Woodlawn expert Susan Olsen, concentrating on the geology of the rock used in the memorials. Plus, we'll test your knowledge of some recent science in the news. Web sites related to this episode include;

For Halloween, we take a tour of Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, New York, with geologist Sidney Horenstein and Woodlawn expert Susan Olsen, concentrating on the geology of the rock used in the memorials. Plus, we'll test your knowledge of some recent science in the news. Web sites related to this episode include;

Podcast Transcription

Steve: Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American for the week of Halloween. (laughs) In the spirit of spirits, we'll take a walking tour of one of the great cemeteries in the U.S., Woodlawn Cemetery, in the Bronx, New York, where over 300,000 people don't live including Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Herman Melville, F. W. Woolworth, Fiorello LaGuardia, "Bat" Masterson, Joseph Pulitzer and lots of others. But since we are science people our focus is going to be on the geology, especially that of the rock used in the over 1,300 opulent mausoleums to be found at Woodlawn. You'll hear the voice of Susan Olsen; she is the executive director of the Friends of the Woodlawn Cemetery, and you'll hear geologist, Sidney Horenstein; he is the environmental educator Emeritus for the American Museum of Natural History here in New York City. Now, let's go to the cemetery.

Olsen: This monument for Matthew Borden, Matthew was the calico king of Fall River, Massachusetts— made his millions in fabric. This monument was constructed in 1904, the architecture from Carrére and Hastings, who gave us the New York Public Library. They are the ones who designed this piece and what have we got?

Horenstein: So, the most prominent stone is the one you're standing on right here and this is from Milford, Massachusetts. It's about 350 million years old and you, probably all of you would have seen it because it's the main entrance of the Museum of Natural History at Central Park West; it's the same stone. Unfortunately there they tried to clean it and several years ago they used hydrofluoric acid to clean it, so it's bleached white, but it's beautiful pink granite. If you want to see what the original color of the stone was at the museum, look at the benches, they didn't clean the benches. So those are the original pink color; see, you can actually contrast it. So this is slate and slate is a metamorphic rock. So here is the whole transition that you may be familiar with. Mud that forms on the sea floor eventually gets hardened to shale, and [when] shale is subjected to heat and pressure, it becomes slate. When you then add more heat and pressure, it becomes phyllite, a rock that you don't see too often, that you may not be familiar with; and then when you add more heat and pressure to the phyllite, you get schist— and everybody is more or less familiar with the Manhattan schist— and then if you add more heat and pressure, it melts and becomes an igneous rock.

Olsen: One of the things that's astounding to me though is, of course, how so many of our wealthy New Yorkers decide to treat us, the little people, to their travels and we do have a wealth of Egyptian things. Our Egyptian things traditionally date from around the time when they were excavating King Tut's tomb. Egyptomania hits New York, everybody is crazy about it and I remember in the '70s when King Tut toured, we all were wearing our little Pharaoh earrings and that kind of thing. Same thing, but this one, of course, dates [to] 1916, a little bit earlier. Jules Bache, well known as a stockbroker, goes to Egypt and of course, he is so inspired as he gets there that he decides to recreate his own tomb.

Horenstein: So, what is a tomb? It's the Kiosk of Trajan, here it is. In its setting, that is, it's the exact reproduction of it, except for one thing which I will explain to you in a moment. This is no longer in the original spot it was built in because of the Aswan dam and the rising waters of the Nile, so it was moved. There was the entryway into a temple complex, and so here it is. So you see, what do you see, just a few of the motifs. You see the ends of the columns, right, lotus blossoming— rebirth. If you see up at the top, you see the vulture wings that's the maternal aspect of life, the sun gives life, the snakes, the asps, those are [a] pair— death, see; and one of the reasons why Egyptian architecture was so important in cemeteries is because of the fact that they were so involved [interested] in death, and as you all know. So it is a lot of interesting motifs that are reproduced. There are papyrus leaves also, and mixed in with the lotus and those represent knowledge and rebirth. So they all [there] are [all] kinds of symbolism that's involved in it. Now the Egyptian revival architecture, there were three periods of Egyptian revival architecture. The first one occurred when Napoleon invaded Egypt and there was a tremendous flurry of interest in that, and then there was another one in the 1840s and 1850s; and, for example, if you go to Mount Auburn in Massachusetts, the entryway there, that is an Egyptian revival. But we have a lot of, we had a lot of, Egyptian revival architecture in New York: the Croton Aqueduct Reservoir on 42nd Street. The Tombs downtown on the Centre Street, no longer with us;- [that was] Egyptian revival and, of course, in terms of Egyptian revival, we don't think about that, but guess what?

Voice: A dollar bill?

Horenstein: On the dollar bill? That's all part of it. See: a pyramid. You see that, see. So, very interesting place, and where does this stone come from?

Olsen: It comes from Barre, Vermont.

Horenstein: Barre, Vermont.

Olsen: One of the things that has been interesting in preparing for Sid's tour and at the same time period Woodlawn is working on our National Historic Landmark Application and what we have learned is that a lot of the stone types that are selected are based upon trends: what people were building downtown, what was the fashionable color at that time as well as certain vendors or architects, they were hooked into this quarry. So Farrington, Gould and Hoagland is the monument firm. You'll see their work across the street at Gates, Woolworth, etc.— they always get Barre granite. Everything they build is always done out of the same stone.

Horenstein: So, an exciting place, if you ever get up there, go on a tour. You'll have a good time.

Olsen: And the cemetery there is crazy because all the monument makers decide to do their own custom things. So the cemetery has got some of the most fabulous, distinct, and unique memorials you'll ever see.

Voice: Sidney, the original in Egypt, was that of limestone?

Horenstein: The original was limestone, the Mokattam limestone, 40 million years old. Now, I'm glad you said something because I said there that this is exact reproduction except for one thing that's there, but not here and guess what? It was, the most studied part of the original monument: is graffiti. There is graffiti going back hundreds and hundreds of years; people who came— it was a great place to visit— they left carves [carvings], initials, everything, and people have studied this year after year trying to figure out who left their marks. So it's far full of graffiti, but fortunately it's [there's] none here.

Steve: You've heard of the Julliard School. We next stopped at Julliard's mausoleum.

Horenstein: This is a pink granite from North Carolina. If you see, it is a little coarser than what we have been seeing; the minerals really stand out, the black mineral. There are two black minerals in granite, one is biotype mica and the other one is hornblende, and the darker the granite, the more hornblende and biotype mica there is. Now one of the interesting things about the various Greek and Roman architecture is here. So Ionic, Corinthian, and Doric are the three main ones, okay. Tuscan is stripped-down Doric. So the Romans and the Greeks actually used things from nature to signify, to make their designs. So for example, the volutes, the Is in the Ionic. If you take a snail, many snails and you cut it open, slice into half, you see the curve of it; but what happened was an interesting thing. Vitruvius, who first documented all of the various Roman and Greek motifs in architecture, said after anthropomorphosis of many of the architectural elements, and so he said Corinthian columns represent God and Ionic columns are feminine and Doric columns are masculine. And so many of the mausoleums have an Ionic entrance because it's feminine and so you're reentering the womb. And then of course the volutes actually represents curls of pubic hair, see, so they've extended this and since all architects study Vitruvius in the past to get all the design elements, they have carried that forward, and so it's an interesting aspect of all of the architectural and the meaning of some of these things.

Steve: Here's the resting place of playwright, Clyde Fitch.

Olsen: It is 140 pieces of marble, but there was someone on the tour who loves Clyde Fitch plays. Is [Has] anyone ever seen a Clyde Fitch play? Anyway there is one guy out there who loves him and donated $30,000 for us to restore this wonderful piece. On our list it's called Knoxville grave, but Sid will be able to give you a little bit more understanding about this Tennessee marble.

Horenstein: Tennessee marble is formed during the Ordovician period; it's the same age as the Inwood marble. So, during the beginning before the Appalachian Mountains existed, there was this interior sea way that extended from Vermont, Vermont marble all the way to New York and all the way down to Alabama and in that sea was deposited lime. Remember that limestone, this is limestone, forms only in tropical and subtropical seas, and so whenever you see, if you see, limestone or marble in Vermont, you know that that originally formed in a subtropical or tropical sea in the past. And, of course, in North America was really south of the equator for [a] very long time or even equatorial and then because it's a sea and different environments in that sea, different types of limestone that's formed and so Knoxville was the marble capital of the world. Knoxville has many, many different types of limestone that are called Tennessee marble as we know now, which really is a limestone, geologically not a marble, geologically and so there is deep cedar-red, Knoxville flooring; all different types of limestone in this vast quarry district around Knoxville and you can see and if you want to see it elsewhere, the floor of Grand Central is pink Tennessee and the lions in front of the New York Public Library is[are] another, not marble, limestone[, not marble,] from Tennessee also. So it stands up very well. These wall fragments of fossils in here, which are hard to see, which [there] has been a little alteration in the rock and so but there are little tiny fragments of it; in some places it's better than others and so you can see that, other places you can see the fossils more clearly. Of course if you go to Grand Central and get down on your hands and knees and look at the floor, you may not think you are too cool there, but anyway. Another thing we should mention is the sarcophagus. See, usually the people are not buried in there— they're underneath— but it's so symbolic, and the interesting thing about that is the word, sarcophagus, sarco— you know what sarcomeans? –Flesh, and phagus means eat. So, the sarcophagus was a place where flesh was eaten— but why? I mean, why would that happen? Well, the original sarcophagi were made of a kind of sandstone that was very caustic and the name stuck. So it has no relationship to the present time and it was the peculiar sandstone that did that originally, and that's why it continues, so it's a misnomer today.

Olsen: One of the things that happened to Woodlawn is the price of the lots. If you are Cornelius Bliss on the corner there, you paid a little bit more because you're on the inner section of the road; you're really in the star situation [section]. His daughter gives us the Museum of Modern Art. His grandson gives us Texaco and the opera and the radio, so the Bliss family is good. Anyway, so circular lots were more expensive, crossroads were more expensive, but what was surprising to me is if you want a rock outcropping, that cost even more. You'd think it would be cheaper because you can't bury where the rock is, but because you had the opportunity to do a fabulous design, you paid more. Recent constables wanted here, For them it wasn't the monument that was the memorial, but the landscape; they get their own stepbrothers to do their landscaping, where many of these families brought their own landscape designer, so it was an ideal spot. Now why is there a rock outcropping? I don't know.

Horenstein: Because the bedrock came to the surface, here, and which reminds us that Woodlawn, its straddles sort of the top of the Bronx and the bedrock is not too far below the surface covered by glacial deposits, and lots of boulders. Probably if you dig down, you'll find a lot of them, but it's on the top and so back there, there is a small ridge and that is the continental divide of the Bronx, and what that means is that it's a drainage divide, and on this side all of the streams that used to exist here flow down eventually into the Hudson River. On the other side, where did they go? Into the Bronx River, see, so and that goes into the East River. So this is an interesting place from that point of view. Now the bedrock itself is the Fordham gneiss which is the oldest rock in New York City. It's 1.1 billion years old. Gneiss is a type of metamorphic rock and [a] lot of the Bronx is made of it. That's why we talk about the Bronx being nice, like Woodlawn being nice and that Manhattan is full of schist.

Olsen: Now, this one I know is pink marble and not granite.

Horenstein: And it says Knoxville pink marble, which is actually a limestone. I very clearly can see the layers in the limestone. It was the acid layers, but it has another feature and these are called stylolites. It is a zigzag feature that you see in here, looks like a seismogram record, you know, and what they are is that when this limestone was laid down in layers, there was a lot of pressure on it, and as a result of the pressure there was dissolving away of some of the calcite— the mineral that limestone is made of— and then redeposited in other parts of the rock; that's what gives the rock its stability and its strength and [so] the stylolites so are solution features, and they are black because in every rock it's not pure, it's not pure calcite, there's other minerals in it and they are clay minerals and so as the calcite is dissolved away, these are residue of clay, and it gets concentrated along the lines where the dissolving is taking place and so that we know this is limestone because if it's metamorphosed and becomes geologic marble, those stylolites are destroyed. They are in the recrystallization of a rock.

Olsen: You'll see just all of a sudden a ton of obelisks everywhere. You get to show off that you are rich. You get to have this big monument, but you still want to be in the ground and that's why, also when Sid and I were practicing we were like, are those identical, are they different? There is always a little bit of difference. We did not let you be identical to your next door neighbor. You had to present the image to us beforehand— we look at your design and make sure that it was appropriate for the lot, appropriate for the neighborhood and wasn't identical to who was around you, because this whole overall look was extremely important to us. Also somebody has asked, do we give tours? Yes, Woodlawn gives regular tours. One weekend it's jazz, one weekend it's theater, one weekend it'll be art and architecture, sometimes it's specifically sculpture. Last weekend it was the Piccirilli Brothers, the six brothers from the Bronx who carved the Lincoln Memorial. They also carved that little pink angel across the street. They did that for Daniel Chester French, the guy who did the Lincoln Memorial. We've got lots of custom sculpture out here, but of course those six brothers from the Bronx were the guys who carved everything; I can find their monuments like that because now I know what Tennessee pink is and they always carve in Tennessee pink; it's their preferred stone type and so it's real easy to pick out a Piccirilli. One of Sid's favorites is this one. It's Foster Fasteners. He made snaps for gloves. All he got [had] to do was come up with that one thing everybody needs and you're a multimillionaire after that. What tickles me about the monument was, it was done in 1895, is on this side, you see this very flashy signature, and I always think of you know, when you're a little kid and you start out in school, and you first learn cursive writing and if you go on the other side, you see his wife's Bertha's signature. Berrtthhhha! Foster had the flair in this, but it's got so much stone going on, I want Sid to tell you about what he has discovered about Foster.

Horenstein: First of all it's an interesting structure because it's actually a sarcophagus with a canopy over it— a tent— but the tent happens to be in stone, you know; and the granite is very distinctive as you can see, pretty much not with any blemishes. We're going to talk about that in another place. Some granites have blemishes in it, but you can see up here, the white material, and look at it on the column over here, you could see it coming down and that is called a fluorescence. So we have a structure that now has water infiltration and what it's doing is, the water is infiltrating into the joint system and dissolving out the water and then when it comes out on the surface, the water evaporates and then deposits the lime on the surface of the stone. It's not a good thing because it's disappearing. I mean, that's why the West Side Highway collapsed— for the same reason, because all the concrete was being dissolved away and they had tremendous stalactites forming and so flowstone, which that is called, is very similar to the stalactites. Stalactites come down from the ceiling, this comes down on the side of the wall. It's the same process that forms not only in buildings and structures but also in caves.

Voice: Can we fix it?

Horenstein: Oh yeah, you need to re-point that.

Olsen: So here is our crisis: There are no Foster descendants.William and Bertha are up in the crypt up top. There were four side crypts built for other folks; nobody ever used them. There is no kids and so what we are going to do? And that's...

Voice: endowment.

Olsen: No there is a minimal endowment for this but not sufficient to care for it. Did you check the right amount? (laughs)

Steve: Does the pH of the rain have an effect on...?

Horenstein: Oh, yeah, all rain is acid. By the way, just a minute, while we were here, Susan mentioned the obelisks. So here is an obelisk that was just finished in the quarry; it's going to be put on a railroad and carried to Woodlawn. See.

Olsen: And of course the obelisk becomes really popular when two things happen: The Washington Monument gets finished; [and] Cleopatra's needle— good enough for Central Park, good enough for Woodlawn— and that's when we see this flurry of obelisks all over the place.

Horenstein: And the obelisk, you know what the obelisk represents? It represents a ray of sunlight and then of course the Egyptian obelisk always had a gold cover at the pyramid at the top to catch the rays of sun and be transported down. That's a ray of sunlight.

Steve: Our next stop was at the tomb of the naval architect, William Webb.

Olsen: Made an extraordinary fortune building ships, the faster ships from clipper ships to early steam ships etc.; leaves his entire state to create the Webb School of Naval Architecture, and if you ever had the ability to do this it's in one of the old Pratt mansions on Long Island. I'll have Sid tell you about his time in the Bronx, but you go there, there is total scholarship, only 60 students and I get to go there regularly. The kids are great, they came marching amongst us and they come out every year and then they'll be there, "Lunch got over, I got to go to sailing."(laughs) What's incredible is the school program, with [a] 100 percent employment rate, [Webb is] one of the hardest schools [to get into for young engineers,] that's equally hard to get into [as] Stanford [and] M.I.T., and Webb for young engineers. Because of the employment rate the kids have to go to sea, internships, they have to work in ship[s] building things. It's a really intense program and hard to make it through, but they are just fantastic. Anyway...

Voice: It's also free.

Olsen: Yes, but not easy to get into and those kids are smart. It's like nerd heaven out there. (iaughs) Why we open this, again with the marble types which I am having trouble gaining a handle on, because there is such a diversity. The Carrera marble from Italy which Michelangelo carved David in. A lot of our interior works, although some of the outside works have this very soft white marble, there is a terrific relief of Webb and his wife here. And so we wanted to open that up so you could get a look at the distinctive marble. It also has pretty terrific Tiffany windows.

Horenstein: First of all, the Webb Institute for Naval Architecture was located where? In the Bronx, where? On Fordham Road and unfortunately that beautiful massive building was torn down and the Fordham Heights Apartment Complex, the yellowish stone is built on the site, that side and so Carrera marble comes from Mount Altissimo— that's where Michelangelo got his marble— and this is over 5,000 feet high, slowly disappearing; it's real when the trucks come down the roads, it's get out of way. (laughs) And it's a phenomenonal place to see, but just keep in mind that this marble is called statuary marble and statuary marble is pure marble. There is no veins in it. There is no imperfections, and that's very rare and they're findings less and less of it in Carrera. You also keep in mind that the cheapest marble, it's called a Italian gray marble, that comes from Carrera also. So it has a cliché to it, but it's not various kinds of marble that are located there and it is true marble. It's not limestone.

Olsen: A lot of the new monuments we have, some of you have asked about the jazz section; in the jazz section you'll see some really big black monuments. The new technique of putting your picture on them is to computer scan and then sand glass so that, you know, you wouldn't care with a nine-foot statute of you playing the saxophone. But to do this, you need to use a dark-colored granite. It won't work on light granite and most of this stuff comes from India today, but back in the old days, it didn't come from India. We wanted to stop here to show you some of the distinct darker granites that you'll see. This is William Buckingham Curtis, the founder of the New York Athletic Club.

Horenstein: This stone is dark Quincy granite, Quincy granite was a large quarry area just out the [outside of] Boston and had varieties of different stones and the one that was the most desirable, the most expensive was dark Quincy and it had a problem. You can see that some of the feldspars are turning to clay— [this is a] process called kaolinization— and like Kaopectate, kaolin, same thing, and so that's what happens to the feldspar minerals but it really went into a tremendous decline when they discovered that they were doctoring the stone. They were taking oil and carbon and rubbing into the stone to get it dark and eventually what happens it starts to wear away and then when that was discovered, that they were doing that, and you know it got lighter and it got splotchy, no one would allow Quincy granite to be used— dark Quincy granite— to be used anymore and so the quarry is basically closed up as result of that. Those happened in the 1930s, when they were desperate to get more business, and today you can go to Quincy and see many of the old quarries. Many buildings in New York City are made of Quincy granite. The first commercial railroad in the United States was built through Quincy granite from the quarries to Boston to build the Bunker Hill Monument in 1821.

Horenstein: So, you have a whole bunch of, this is a new granite from New Hampshire. Some of you may have seen it in the film, The Fountainhead, and they worked in the Fletcher quarry, that's the stone here. New England is just so richly endowed with so many varieties of granite— different colors, different textures— and a thing to remember about granite, it is a rock that forms six, eight, 10 miles below the surface of the Earth, and that's where it cools and that's where it crystallizes. And so when you see granite where you can quarry it on the surface, this means that the crust of the Earth has risen upward and all of the overlying rocks is stripped away by erosion over millions of years to expose that granite. So, it's really, anytime you see the granite anywhere in the world, there is a testimony to the dynamism of the Earth.

Horenstein: But one of the things I wanted you to notice is, for example, in that column there about half way up less the rest than that you see a black mark— you see it? And then up there and then over here. They are all around, and these are called xenoliths, xeno— X-E-N-O. Xeno means foreign, like xenophobia, so xeno— foreign— rock, and what this is, remember that this is molten rock and so as it is forming in this chamber, it's reacting with the sides of the huge chamber. You find about a huge massive material, pieces of the sides fall into the molten material and they got dissolved usually but sometimes they don't and they remain and they don't get completely dissolved away and so those are the xenoliths. So these are part of the chamber walls that have fallen in and still remain, that's why they call xenolith, they are foreign to the molten material itself.

Steve: We continued on to the Harkness Memorial Garden.

Horenstein: And notice that the stone that's used in the actual structure sort of matches the bedrock. The bedrock is the Fordham gniess and you can see the layers all running in the direction of my hand here, probably in this way. But the stone itself is unrelated to it, it's not gneiss metamorphic rock, it's actually a Dolomite. Now Dolomite is somewhat related to limestone. The basic composition of limestone is calcium carbonate, the mineral calcite, but however magnesium easily substitutes for calcium. So, when you have a calcium magnesium carbonate, you have now the mineral Dolomite and which is what that it is, but it also has in addition iron oxides, and the iron oxides, it's what gives it the various shades of brown to tan, and so it's still quarried today. A lot of it is used for flooring, and it's very durable because it is not soft like calcite, it's Dolomite, but it has a lot of holes in it because of the way it was deposited.

Olsen: Okay let's thank Sid.

Horenstein: Let's thank Susan.

Steve: For more info, Google "Friends of Woodlawn Cemetery"; and Sid Horenstein is working on a book about the geology of the cemetery. It should come out sometime next year.


Now it's time to play TOTALL....... Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories; only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL....... Y BOGUS.

Story number 1: Sales of Halloween masks of presidential candidates have successfully predicted the winner of the elections since 1980.

Story number 2: Black cats aren't bad luck; in fact they are good for your health.

Story number 3: Albert Einstein, dead low this [so] many years, is still in the top 10 list of celebrity moneymakers— well his estate is, you know what I mean— because his image is everywhere.

And story number 4: Attempts to break the world record heaviest pumpkin set just last year failed, so the 2007 champ still stands.

Time is up.

Story number 1 is true. The presidential candidate whose Halloween mask outsells his opponent has won the election every time since 1980; and that's according to Halloween mask manufacturer By the way, Obama masks are outselling McCain masks 55 percent to 45 percent which is eerily close to poll numbers.

Story number 2 is true. Black cats can improve your health; so can any pet. Pets have been associated with lower blood pressure, less anxiety and boosted immunity.

And Story number 4 is true. The 2007 world record heaviest pumpkin is still the champion grown by Joseph Jutras of Rhode Island. It weighed in at 1,689 pounds. They also had this year's biggest pumpkin at the Southern New England Giant Pumpkin Growers Competition a couple of weeks ago, but it was a paltry 1,507 pounds. For more on giant pumpkins and the people who grow them, check out the Science Talk episode from October 31st, 2007.

All of which means that story number 3 about Einstein being among the top 10 celebrity moneymakers is TOTALL....... Y BOGUS. But what is true is that Einstein does rank fourth among dead celebrity earners. His estate pulls in about 18 million dollars annually, thanks to the licensing of his famous face and scary hair, and that's according to Forbes magazine. Einstein will soon be selling sneakers with Kobe Bryant. The money goes to Hebrew University in Jerusalem.


Well that's it for this edition of Scientific American's Science Talk. Visit for all the latest science news, special In-Depth Reports and slide shows. For Science Talk, I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

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