Historic crematory in Middle Village honors generations of lives: Our Neighborhood, The Way it Was

The entrance to the Fresh Pond Crematory in Middle Village, as seen in 2018.
File photo/TimesLedger

During these challenging times, the Fresh Pond Crematory in Middle Village is, regrettably, busier than it’s ever been.

Many of the thousands of New Yorkers who have died from complications of coronavirus during the pandemic have been brought here for their remains to be cremated and given to loved ones. As the number of deaths surged in late March and early April, according to published reports, the crematorium — and others in the New York City area — was said to be operating nearly 24 hours a day just to accommodate the remains being brought there.

The Fresh Pond Crematory, also known as the U.S. Columbarium Co., has quite a storied history in our city and community. 

Located on Mount Olivet Crescent between Eliot and Metropolitan Avenues, the crematory first opened on Dec. 5, 1885, more than a year after the cornerstone of the massive brick-and-stone building was laid. The crematorium was developed on 13 former farmland lots. At the time, it was the first facility of its kind in New York state.

An early 20th-century photo of the Fresh Pond Crematory atop “Crematory Hill” in Middle Village. (Ridgewood Times archives)

Fresh Pond Crematory is located across the street from Lutheran/All Faiths Cemetery and just down the block from Mount Olivet Cemetery. It was developed at a time when large portions of Queens were purchased and redeveloped as burial grounds for much of the city.

The crematory sits at the crest of a giant hill overlooking a part of Middle Village that was once appropriately known as “Crematory Hill.” It’s generally considered to be the westward sloping area generally bounded by Eliot Avenue, Fresh Pond Road, Metropolitan Avenue and Mount Olivet Crescent. 

Over the decades, the crematory has become a final resting place for thousands of urns containing the cremains (ashes) of those who have died through the years. Wings of the building were added between 1904 and 1929 just to contain the niches where the urns are kept, as well as a chapel for prayer services for the dearly departed.

Walk through the crematory, and you’ll find memorial spaces featuring terrazzo flooring, stained-glass windows, grand columns and other ornate features from a time long ago. 

More than 16,000 niches containing the remains of over 40,000 souls are within the columbarium — people of all faiths and backgrounds from across New York City. 

Some of the niches inside Fresh Pond Crematory. (File photo/TimesLedger)

Among the more famous individuals who were cremated at Fresh Pond Crematory were financier J.P. Morgan and New York Yankees legend Lou Gehrig. 

As time went on, the crematory was renovated to include special niches such as the Hall of Serenity and the Hall of Flowers. A particular niche serves as a memorial place for families who have lost an infant.

Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the crematorium created a 9/11 World Trade Center Memorial with a statue depicting a firefighter; approximately 343 members of the New York City Fire Department were lost in the attacks on the World Trade Center. 

The memorial includes flag pins for each person who died in the attacks.

The crematory also hosts an array of memorial events for holidays such as Christmas, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. In recent years, it also expanded to include musical and artistic performances to promote the site’s history and preservation.

A beautiful stained-glass window in the chapel of Fresh Pond Crematory. (File photo/TimesLedger)

The crematory has been there through difficult moments for the family and the city over more than 125 years. Today, as the city battles the coronavirus pandemic, the staff and management are still doing what they do best: providing families with comfort for their losses and a dignified sendoff for the departed. 

Sources: The May 15, 2018 Ridgewood Times, the May 8, 2018 TimesLedger, Fresh Pond Crematory and the Juniper Park Civic Association.

* * *

If you have any remembrances or old photographs of “Our Neighborhood: The Way It Was” that you would like to share with our readers, please write to the Old Timer, c/o Ridgewood Times, 38-15 Bell Blvd., Bayside, NY 11361, or send an email to [email protected]. Any print photographs mailed to us will be carefully returned to you upon request.