One day, hopefully no time soon, Caroline DuBois will be placed in a full-body wicker basket and lowered into the earth directly beneath the bench in the East Village where she’s now seated. Hers is Vault #54, an eight by ten-foot Tuckahoe marble suite—first row, third from the north wall in the New York Marble Cemetery, on East 2nd Street between Second Avenue and the Bowery.

For laypeople in want of a Manhattan grave, this is it: a humble, lovingly landscaped half-acre into which DuBois has welcomed me on this sunny Sunday afternoon. Two vaults—the McJimseys’ (#43) and Sheldons’ (#134)—having sat empty for the requisite 75-year waiting period, were reclaimed by the cemetery's board and are now up for sale.

At $350,000 apiece, these two are the only in-ground burial plots for sale on the island of Manhattan. While Trinity Church has reserved a handful of plots in its cemetery at 155th Street and Riverside Drive, their policy of selling only in “extraordinary circumstances” means non-dignitaries need not inquire. The two other routes to Manhattan burial are becoming pastor at Trinity Church on Wall Street in return for a spot in the attached churchyard, or becoming a Cardinal in the Archdiocese of New York and getting buried below the high altar at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue.

Of the hundred or so cemeteries that once operated in Manhattan, only 11 remain today, and all but New York Marble Cemetery have stopped selling graves to the public.

George Amato, president of the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel on the Upper East Side, “the funeral home to the stars,” estimates that “much, much less than one percent” of his clientele remains in Manhattan “in any form.”

“Mostly everybody who’s in Manhattan who we serve knows it’s not an option,” Amato says.

New York City Marble Cemetery (John Stillman / Gothamist)

When I arrive at Marble Cemetery for Open Gate Day, DuBois, the cemetery’s president, extends a handshake and warns me that her hands are greasy with WD-40 from polishing, primping, and repairing “our urban oasis.”

DuBois will be just the third person she’s ever known to be buried in this borough. The first was William Kingsland, the genealogist who helped locate the descendants of original vault buyers in DuBois’s cemetery as well as in the cemetery on the other side of 2nd Avenue, confusingly named the New York City Marble Cemetery. To reward Kingsland’s important work, the Boerum family, who owns a vault in the latter graveyard, offered him a place among their ancestors, and he was buried there in 2006.

The other is Ed Koch, former mayor of this city, the only known qualifier under Trinity’s “extraordinary circumstances” clause, who was buried there in 2013.

DuBois is anxious to finish several groundskeeping projects on the season's agenda. So with the gardener and two fellow trustees (heirs to vaults number 28 and 38 respectively) congregated on the benches around her, she calls a quorum to authorize the summer mulch purchase and discuss raising a net around the peach tree to keep out birds and squirrels.

An 1851 ordinance prohibited burials in Manhattan below 86th Street, but DuBois’s right to interment was grandfathered in. More precisely, it was great-great-great-great-grandfathered in, by Cornelius DuBois, a tobacco merchant who purchased the vault when it and 155 others went up for sale in 1830. He paid $250 for the plot—an amount that in that year could have bought him four acres on Long Island—enough space for 4,000 individual graves.

But the wealthy merchants and business owners who sprung for the tombs in 1830 did not want their remains exiled on Long Island, nor did they want to disperse their family members into separate one-person graves. (If Cornelius had done the math, he’d have realized that 170+ years of DuBois descendants would require a staggering 136,000 individual plots.)

What they wanted was to remain in the heart of things, in Manhattan, in the very soil on which they’d found their footing and then their fortunes. These were "the movers and shakers of the day,” DuBois says: the Auchinclosses, Scribners, Hoyts and Beekmans; the fathers of American fly fishing, of American civil engineering, of New York’s Whig Party. They were patres familias. They wanted a family reunion that would last an eternity.

New York Marble Cemetery was “the resting place of gentlemen,” or so it was billed by the entrepreneurs who built its accommodations and stipulated that burial materials be biodegradable—typically caskets of wood or willow—so vaults could accept descendants in perpetuity without ever reaching capacity.

“You would just keep pushing them in,” DuBois explains.

Caroline DuBois sitting above her vault at New York Marble Cemetery (John Stillman / Gothamist)

The buyers were friends, business partners, all Protestants, save for a couple Catholic out-of-towners. In some cases, their family lines would eventually intertwine, like those of the vault-owning Brown and Wright families, which, generations later, have a common ancestor in Anne Brown, who lives in the Chesapeake Bay region.

Upon learning of her claim to two tombs, Brown took up the effort of resurrecting what was by the 1980s a long-forgotten family tradition. One of her great-great-great-grandfathers, Francis Markoe, lies in vault 110. Markoe appears to have been more successful as a Presbyterian parishioner than as a merchant from the Danish West Indies. The other, Benjamin Wright, is in vault 83, and was the chief engineer of the Erie Canal.

She pored over the surviving cemetery records and volumes of genealogical leads to track down the living descendants of the original owners. By this time, they numbered in the hundreds of thousands, and almost none had ever heard of the cemetery. She sent out letters that postulated these people’s lines of descent, invited them to visit the cemetery and encouraged them to add their names to the nascent mailing list. 

The diaspora of vault heirs was scattered across the globe, but they flew back from California, Hawaii, and Australia. In reuniting the group, Brown was said to have memorized the names associated with all 156 vaults so she could identify the living descendants by their vault number. She traced the Huguenot-descended DuBois clan, in Manhattan since its days under Dutch colonial rule, down to Caroline, whom she named as her successor in 2012 before returning to Maryland, where she plans to be buried beside her husband.

For all living heirs besides DuBois, the news of this rare privilege was not enough to change their plans. “By now,” DuBois says, the descendants “have many other cemeteries in their family line that they could be buried in. It just depends on their level of interest.”

At 70, DuBois lives and works in Port Washington, Long Island, but she finds comfort in having arranged her ultimate commute into the city. “It just seems natural to me,” she says. “My family was in Manhattan at the time of the Dutch, and because I feel connected to the history of the city--I was born in New York City and I lived in New York City--I appreciate the energy and significance of the greatest city in the world, and so it just seems like an easy decision.”

DuBois’s mother is buried in Sleepy Hollow, a cemetery in Westchester. “She wanted to be with her ancestors,” she tells me. Her father is buried in Staten Island's Moravian Cemetery, with his ancestors. "And I will be buried in the Marble Cemetery, with my older ancestors.”

When her time comes, a gravedigger will dig through a foot and a half of topsoil to the capstone and lift it off using a block-and-tackle (since no machinery is allowed on the grounds). Then he'll climb down a ladder into a pit and open the door to #54, where DuBois will join its 18 residents, the most recent of whom was Pamela Wigton, a dressmaker. She died of influenza, unmarried, in April of 1845 at the age of 71.

Your name here: The names of New York Marble Cemetery's vault owners are inscribed on tablets in its walls. The cemetery has no headstones. (John Stillman / Gothamist)

The cemetery hasn’t had a burial since 1937, which makes DuBois’ pending interment especially monumental. She hopes it will inspire confidence among potential buyers of the two vaults, which she insists have “nothing creeping in them.” She does, however, “suspect that a prospective owner would want to do due diligence and pay to have gravedigger open it.”

Besides numbers 43 and 134, there’s one more empty vault—#70 belongs to the Monson family, and although they haven’t used it yet, they’re holding onto it just in case. DuBois concedes she’d have an easier time selling #70 because unlike the two that were used, emptied and put up for sale in 2012, this one is "without ghost ashes" from a previous tenant.

In the three years since the two vaults were listed on the market, DuBois has not received an inquiry from any serious buyers, but she remains patient and vows that the asking price will not budge.

“We have an important, rare resource,” she says. “We wouldn’t bargain.”

Asked how she arrived at $350,000, DuBois hesitates: "Ummm, we had careful negotiations.”

The other trustees sitting on the bench chuckle at her caginess and tell me it’s based on the price their neighbor, New York City Marble Cemetery, got for its last available vault. It was sold six years ago to Wilbert Tatum, the publisher of The New York Amsterdam News, who lived on the block. The two marble cemeteries were built one year apart by the same founder, and while they are formally unaffiliated, they both have 8-by-10 marble vaults; the only difference is that New York City Marble Cemetery’s vaults are marked by above-ground monuments, while those at its predecessor are unmarked.

The director of New York City Marble Cemetery, Colleen Iverson, won’t say how much Tatum’s vault went for. “You can’t get in here, basically,” Iverson says. “So that, I suppose, effectively makes it priceless, technically speaking.” With help from the rumor mill, the other cemetery’s trustees surmise it fetched about $450,000.

“So we’re a discount!” says Breck Denny, a trustee at New York Marble Cemetery and heir to a spot in #38. Denny’s great-great-great-grandfather, a shipping merchant named Thomas Tileston, split the plot with his business partner, Paul Spofford, whose family never used it. Though he’s lived in Manhattan for four decades, he has yet to decide whether this will be his final destination. “It’s pretty expensive,” Denny says of the $5,000 fee for the manual gravedigger. “I told my wife, 'I’m pretty sure I’ll go before you. You figure it out.’"

Sitting between Denny and DuBois, Trustee Lynn Rollins, heir to #28, hasn’t decided whether she wants to be kept in her family vault, either. She says she plans to will her body to science. She’s heard they harvest what they need and return the rest to your family in a tidily cremated package.

“With some parts missing, I’m sure,” Denny jokes.

“Well,” Rollins replies, “Peter Stuyvesant had a wooden leg.”

“It’s true, he lost it down in the Caribbean,” DuBois says. “Yeah, he’s actually a cousin. You have to jump a lot of hoops, hopscotch around, but through the Jays—because Daphne Jay, another trustee, and I are cousins.” She turns to me. “We’re all cousins, sort of. Because everybody in those days married everybody.”

Trinity's Cemetery at 155th Street and Riverside Drive (John Stillman / Gothamist)

Across 2nd Avenue, many of the 258 vaults at New York City Marble Cemetery have had the terms of their titles edited and earmarked since the original purchases. The cemetery still accepts one or two burials most years, some from families that have never lost touch with the cemetery, others who haven’t had an ancestor interred in their vault for over a century.

On the occasion of a new burial in an old family line, Iverson vets the family tree as outlined in the affidavit of heirship, looks for any riders the family may have tacked on, and investigates the condition of the vault.

One woman recently turned up with the results of her research and told Iverson, “I’ve done my genealogy and I have 500 cousins!” So the vault had 500 co-owners. (Iverson speculates that genealogy is the second most popular Internet activity.)

"Until you open a vault, you don’t know what you’re going to find," Iverson says. For example: either of two former mayors of the city, one also a former governor of New York; six Roosevelts; a Revolutionary War hero; a pioneering archeologist of Maya civilization; the Dutch dominies, whose bones are the oldest white men’s bones in Manhattan; or what’s left of a once-prominent merchant named Preserved Fish III.

The coffins are typically arranged in the order undertaken, but identifying them is guesswork at best. “If you’re in wood, after some time it's not easy to tell who’s who,” Iverson says. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust...That is just the way of the world. You’re biodegradable.”

The state of certain vaults, though, evinces some people's anxiety about decomposing into anonymity. They recently opened one to reveal the remains of a family that had been scooped out of another vault in the cemetery and re-boxed in cast-iron caskets to delay the inevitable. Iverson remembers one owner’s surprise at finding his father had sealed himself and his ancestors behind an enclosure that left a meager three-foot section at the front, which fit urns but not coffins. “Maybe it was just somebody with an organized mind!” Iverson suggests. 

Opening a vault in New York Marble Cemetery (courtesy New York Marble Cemetery)

Some families have gone as far as to exclude black sheep from the title deed. Other owners, yoked with debts they were unable to repay in life, have consigned their families’ vaults to the pitiless collectors of their debt. Conversely, says Iverson, “You come across names in vaults where the family doesn’t recognize the name, and it turns out to be a business partner who fell on hard times."

Such was the case of our fifth president, James Monroe, who was welcomed by his son-in-law into vault #147 when his health and finances dwindled during his post-presidency. On the occasion of his funeral, some 100,000 mourning citizens flooded the streets for the procession. The fanfare and prestige were a boon to the cemetery’s image, Iverson says, but they didn’t last: “As far as the cemetery is concerned, it’s been downhill ever since."

In 1858, with the Civil War looming, Virginia’s legislature successfully petitioned for Monroe's re-interment in Richmond. Church bells tolled, the harbor’s ships flew flags at half-mast, and the Seventh Regiment escorted a casket-bearing steamship down to Monroe’s home state.

Monroe’s departure from the chic lower-Manhattan digs came seven years after an 1851 city ordinance prohibited new cemetery construction, compounding the 1823 ordinance that outlawed burials in downtown Manhattan.

As the city expanded, developers pressured existing cemeteries to sell their grounds. Facing a choice between violating the law and turning to plots in outer-borough obscurity, some anxious Manhattanites, like the congregants of the North Dutch Church downtown, accepted the city’s $250 fine and entered the ground they lovingly tread while living. Manhattan's cemeteries shortly reached capacity, and without revenue from new plot sales, most fell into a state of disrepair.

Trinity's Cemetery at 155th Street and Riverside Drive (John Stillman / Gothamist)

“Of all American cities, New York—where about a hundred graveyards have been destroyed or partially abandoned since it became a city—offers the most striking examples of the changeableness of ‘resting places,’” civic philanthropist Louis Windmuller bemoaned in his 1898 article, “Graveyards as a Menace to the Commonweal.” 

“It takes more time for the flesh of a body to decompose than its memory is apt to live.”

Windmuller’s grievances came several decades after the peak era of Manhattan burials, when the generations who'd enjoyed that privilege were too distant to compel the stewardship of those who trod above them. 

Beginning in the 1840s, New Yorkers’ fixation with the prime location of their resting places gave way to a general preference for the more pastoral alternatives hawked by cemetery developers in the city’s outer boroughs.

Around this time, a pair of developers seeking to attract the Manhattan elite to their sprawling Brooklyn graveyard, considered what to name it. One proposed “The Necropolis,” but his partner objected to the “glare, set form, fixed rule and fashion of the city” that name conjured, in contrast to “feeling, which is our objective.” The pair settled on Green-Wood, a name with bucolic overtones to match its whimsically winding paths—a marked departure from the conventional grid system. When the country’s first professional landscape gardener, Andrew Jackson Downing, visited Green-Wood, he was inspired by its potential to “largely civilize and refine the national character.” 

In short order, Woodlawn Cemetery went up in the Bronx, enticing Manhattanites with convenience: the 30-minute train to the Bronx was faster than taking the ferry to Brooklyn. Woodlawn's celebrated “rural” setting offered ample room for memorials commensurate with the egos of prominent Manhattan families. The Woolworths bedazzled their monuments with Egyptian-Revival sphinxes. Others commissioned stonework by Tiffany Studios Ecclesiastical Department or landscape design by the Olmsted brothers. A slew of other rural cemeteries sprouted outside the contemporary city limits with names like Calvary, Cedar Grove and The Evergreens that appealed to Transcendentalist sentiment that Manhattan’s urban setting could not satisfy.

The sylvan character of outer-borough cemeteries resonated so deeply with Manhattan’s high society that families uprooted their dead from the city blocks and headed for greener pastures. When Brooklyn’s Cypress Hills Cemetery opened in 1849, it welcomed 35,000 transplanted corpses. This was hardly a new phenomenon, as New Yorkers had always coveted upward mobility. Now their quest extended into the afterlife. 

In the upheaval, full and/or forgotten graveyards became strata above which daily life proceeded indifferently, their dead either moved or further entombed. The present-day locations of Washington Square, Madison Square, the New York City Public Library and Bellevue Hospital were once potter’s fields, the public burial grounds for the indigent, unidentified or estranged. In 1852, the bodies under what’s now Bryant Park—many of whom died of cholera, pneumonia, smallpox, tuberculosis and typhoid fever—were whisked away to make room for a gargantuan, cross-shaped structure called the Crystal Palace, where a global expo on industry was held the following year. Six years later, the 100,000 corpses interred at 50th Street were ferried off to Ward’s Island, relieving neighbors of the much-bemoaned “effluvia” that rose from the ground. The Waldorf Astoria rose in their place.   

When trustee Breck Denny first saw New York Marble Cemetery fifteen years ago, its walls were crumbling or had already fallen, “But you could tell this place had potential,” he says. It had come a long way since Windmuller’s dire observation at the turn of the century: “Mounds of the dead are covered with what is filthy and worthless,” he wrote, attributing the disgrace to “inhabitants of adjacent tenements, who use it as a dumping ground for offal.” The only reason the cemetery did survive, he posited, was that the owners could fetch “better prices for dead tenants than they could have obtained from the living.”

The other marble cemetery endured similar indignities during its nadir. The Hells Angels used to congregate on the block and during cookouts would toss their beer bottles into the cemetery lot, until one day a trustee bravely approached to ask them not to and they politely complied. When it finally re-opened in 2002, neighbors streamed in with confessions. “‘When we were teenagers, we used to hop the fence,’” Iverson remembers people telling her. “‘Well, my cat died, and... You see that corner?’”

New York City Marble Cemetery (John Stillman / Gothamist)

A private, above-ground, 756-square-foot mausoleum in Green-Wood retails at $320,000—considerably cheaper, and ten times roomier, than the marble cemeteries’ underground vaults.

Similar factors affect the fee schedule within Woodlawn’s community mausoleums: Niches are most expensive at the lowest level and get increasingly affordable as patrons concede to less-reachable perches at Heart Level, Eye Level, and so on at Levels Four, Five, and Six. As its graveyard approaches capacity, Woodlawn is maximizing its dwindling earth supply by offering only double-depth graves, which bring in greater profits.

The operators of Trinity’s uptown cemetery have done them one better. Their “extraordinary circumstances” clause allows them to maximize the star power of the burial rolls. Dignitaries high-profile enough to be granted plots consent, posthumously, to the coordinates of their graves being published in the map-of-the-stars brochure handed out to visitors. (Though Trinity markets itself as “the only active cemetery in Manhattan,” its offices refused to answer a single question for this article, including how many graves remain, who gets them, who decides who gets them, and how they decide.)

The last person deemed worthy was former mayor Ed Koch, who purchased his grave for $20,000 in 2008 and entered it in 2013. “I don’t want to leave Manhattan, even when I’m gone,” Koch said at the time of his purchase. “The thought of having to go to New Jersey was so distressing to me.”

To live in New York is to be constantly reminded of one's station in life in light of the station that looms one rung above. For the most part, the city’s sprawl conforms to a discernible hierarchy; rent is highest where the buildings are tallest and most centrally located. Wealth affords the luxury of altitude in this city: the premium on penthouses reflects our collective skyward aspiration. 

In death, this pricing scheme gets inverted. By and large, Americans still prefer traditional burial to above-ground alternatives, and we pay for the privilege. Lacking subterranean options, we write bigger checks for resting places the closer they are to ground level.

Asked to picture New York City, an outsider will invariably conjure an image of Manhattan’s skyline. Manhattan is a city of former outsiders, of “strangers who have pulled up stakes somewhere and come to town,” as E. B. White wrote in 1949, “seeking sanctuary or fulfillment or some greater or lesser grail.” New York, in White’s words, is “the city of final destination, the city that is a goal.” While Manhattan endures in the national imagination as a destination, it can no longer be the final one.

John Stillman is a freelance journalist living in New York. His essays and reporting on sports, social movements and American characters have appeared in a variety of publications, including VICE and Slate.