The cemetery, which spans 400 acres, is currently the final resting site for over 300,000 people. It was the burial ground of choice for many historically prominent, wealthy New York families due its proximity to the railroad connecting Manhattan and the Bronx, now the Metro-North. Famous individuals include James Cash Penny, better known as J.C. Penney, and his family as well as the Woolworths. The cemetery also fostered a connection between Harlem and Woodlawn, with many greats from the Harlem Renaissance laid to rest at the Bronx site. After renowned jazz musician Duke Ellington was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, other greats in the jazz movement followed suit, leading to the creation of a section of the cemetery where Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Lionel Hampton and Jean-Baptise Illinois Jacquet, among others, are buried. On either side of Mr. Ellington’s plot, two stone crosses stand with “The Lord is my Shepherd” emblazoned on both.
Mr. Jacquet’s tombstone serves as an example of the way in which technology has modernized burial; on his stone, there is a lasered image of the musician playing the saxophone. For Miles Davis, a trumpet and musical staff frame the bottom of the stone.
Along with jazz musicians, the cemetery is the final home for beloved Cuban salsa singer Celia Cruz, who succumbed to brain cancer in 2003. Last July, the cemetery celebrated the tenth anniversary of her passing, opening the doors of the mausoleum so Ms. Cruz’s fans could pay their respect. While Ms. Cruz hoped her final resting ground would be in Cuba, Cuban leader Fidel Castro would not allow it, and her husband Pedro Knight, who passed away in 2007, chose Woodlawn so those who loved her music would be able to visit her.
Ms. Peña said that people came from all over the world to visit Ms. Cruz’s mausoleum last year, sharing photo albums, anecdotes, and dancing on the walkway. One man, she recalled, even had a tattoo depicting Ms. Cruz.
“It’s a somber thing when it needs to be, but we really think of it more as paying tribute to people’s lives,” said Ms. Peña of the cemetery.