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Queens Cemetery Comes Alive with History and Entertainment Programs

By Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska | December 14, 2012 8:58am

QUEENS — These parties are to die for.

A Queens cemetery has become far more than a graveyard, organizing lively concerts, seminars and a holiday caroling event that will kick off Friday evening.

Maple Grove, a Victorian cemetery in Kew Gardens, has been a burial site since 1875. But in recent years, it has become a cultural center in the area, especially since 2009, when a building addition provided the graveyard with its own concert hall, a classroom and a display area.

Friends of Maple Grove Cemetery, a nonprofit organization created to promote the cemetery, has since organized many events there.

One of the most popular is “Spirits Alive,” an annual event where costumed actors bring the cemetery’s most well-known historical figures to life.

“Everything we do — every concert, every performance, every workshop — must be related to the history of the cemetery,” said Carl Ballenas, president of the Friends of Maple Grove, who is also a history teacher at the Immaculate Conception School in Jamaica Estates and who co-authored a book about the cemetery.

A classical music concert, organized recently in a hall featuring a barrel-vault ceiling, honored Russian pianists Josef and Rosina Lhevinne. A jazz concert honored several musicians interred there, including blues singer Jimmy Rushing, who was a vocalist with Count Basie’s Orchestra, and LaVerne Baker, a rhythm and blues singer who had a hit with “Jim Dandy” and other songs in the 1950s and 1960s.

Last year, the cemetery organized a magic show in honor of magician Henry Hatton, and a series of science workshops for children held by environmental experts from Alley Pond Environmental Center.

During Friday’s event, “Carols’n’Cookies’n’Cocoa’n’Cheer,” there will be a musical performance by a choral group, Voices That Blend, and a video presentation about how Jacob Riis helped introduce Christmas caroling in America.

Ballenas and his students discovered that Riis, a photojournalist, had visited sick and homebound people during Christmas and sang them carols to cheer them up. Elisabeth Riis, his first wife, is buried at the cemetery, and Jacob Riis, who lived in Richmond Hill, planted two beech trees next to her grave.

About 80,000 people are buried in the hilly, 65-acre cemetery, which local residents also use as a park. The graveyard has dozens of old shady trees and features a pond surrounded with benches. 

The cemetery also has a mini labyrinth made of path stones, which Ballenas said represents life’s journey and encourages meditation.

The cemetery was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2004.

Ballenas said many Queens developers are buried in Kew Gardens, including John Sutphin and Theodore Archer, both of whom have streets in the area named after them. Sheriff Paul Stier, who built about 700 homes in Ridgewood and Glendale before being killed by an angry tenant, is interred there, too.

The graveyard, where 23 victims of 9/11 are buried, also has a World Trade Center memorial, as well as a burial site for Tatars from Eastern Europe and an African-American burial site that was transferred to Queens from Prince Street in Manhattan, Ballenas said.

He added that he is looking for collaboration with universities and colleges, which could use the graveyard for educational purposes. Last year, St. Johns University conducted poetry classes there, Ballenas said, and the students’ assignment was to write poems, sonnets and haikus involving topics related to death and the cemetery.

Holiday Caroling: “Carols’n’Cookies’n’Cocoa’n’Cheer” will be held on Dec. 14, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. The Center at Maple Grove is located at 127-15 Kew Gardens Rd, Kew Gardens, N.Y. 11415.