Back in early November, Paul DiBenedetto was cleaning Lawrence Cemetery in preparation for a biannual tour he was scheduled to give later that day, when he noticed a backpack sitting next to one of the gravestones.
It immediately caught the attention of the president of the Bayside Historical Society, as the cemetery is locked at all times and surrounded by a tall cast-iron fence.
Inside, DiBenedetto found the items a traveler might carry with them: extra clothes, flashlight, a wallet and passport.
He also found a small book filled with domestic and international phone numbers, so DiBenedetto picked one at random and dialed. On the other end was the brother of the backpack’s owner, who DiBenedetto calls “George” to protect the privacy of the family.
“I could have picked anyone of the numbers in that book, and the first one I call turns out to be his brother,” he said.
What his brother told DiBenedetto, though, was tragic. George suffered from depression his entire life, and had spent the last year trying to find inner peace.
He spent a year in an ashram in India, four months at a retreat in Portugal, and prior to making his way to Bayside, four days in the mountains out west with a Native American tribe.
Approximately one month before DiBenedetto found his backpack, George had committed suicide.
The brother told DiBenedetto that George was planning on returning home to his family, and thinks maybe he was making his way from JFK to LaGuardia for a flight home.
He was staying at the nearby Anchor Inn on Northern Boulevard, and may have visited a Buddhist temple in Flushing during his time in Queens.
“His brother said that he seemed happy when he spoke to him and that he was looking forward to coming home,” DiBenedetto said.
Interestingly, the backpack was left next to the grave of Lawrence Moccasin, a member of the local Matinecock tribe and the only non-white person buried in the cemetery.
Lawrence Moccasin, who died in 1851, was a servant of Judge Effingham Lawrence. Whether the bag was left there intentionally by George as some sort of spiritual connection or by chance will likely never be known.
“It will probably always be a mystery,” said DiBenedetto.
After speaking with George’s brother, DiBenedetto mailed the backpack to his family, but that wouldn’t be the end of the story. In early February, George’s younger brother and mother visited Bayside and stopped by Lawrence Cemetery to retrace the final days of their loved one.
“I don’t think you ever get over losing someone like that,” DiBenedetto said, “but I think there was a little bit of closure to come and see where he spent the last days of his life.”
Lawrence Cemetery is on 216th Street, nestled between the Long Island Railroad and 42nd Avenue. It is the final resting place of 42 members of the Lawrence family and their heirs.
It is part of an estate that was originally granted by Governor Willem Keift of New Amsterdam to John Lawrence in 1645.
Some of the notable people buried there include Cornelius Van Wyck Lawrence, who in 1834 become the first popularly elected mayor of New York City; Colonel Frederick Newbold Lawrence, who served in the Civil War and was later president of the New York Stock Exchange; and Mary Nicolls Lawrence, the second wife of Mayor Andrew H. Mickle.
The cemetery was granted landmark status by the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1967, the same year the historical society began caring for it.
“I like to remind people that this is the last piece of Colonial Bayside that still exists,” DiBenedetto said.