April 30th, 2009 -
Machpelah Cemetery, in Glendale, Queens, is the final resting place of magician Harry Houdini. In 1926, Houdini - the son of a Hungarian rabbi - died unexpectedly and was buried in this Jewish cemetery. His grave draws visitors from around the world, but otherwise Machpelah has fallen on hard times. "The cemetery always seemed utterly deserted and forgotten," writes the NY Times. Many gravesites remain untended and weed covered. Names and dates have washed away on some tombstones, leaving blank slates. And looming over Houdini's well-kept memorial is a 1928 cemetery office, abandoned and filled with discarded burial records. This once beautiful building is now home to a large family of pigeons.
According to the American Jewish Yearbook of 1899-1900, the Machpelah Cemetery Association was founded in 1860 and included "83 component [burial] societies." This undoubtedly played some role in the cemetery's demise. The damaging collapse of Jewish burial societies was recently exposed by the Village Voice: "The first societies were founded by Jewish immigrants well over a century ago... so that members could pool their money to buy grave sites and pay for funerals... burial societies have, over the past century, faded from the public consciousness - many of them eventually losing all of their members and existing only on paper." The result is "century-old burial societies... taken over by black-market speculators" who "even sell active graves out from under their owners."