The burial ground originally known as the Union Cemetery of Rye dates back to 1837. In that year, James Parker and David Brooks of Rye gave three acres of land to the authorities of Christ Church, Rye, with the stipulations that certain plots should be reserved as burial places for the ministers of the three churches of Rye and their families, and that two strips on the eastern and western sides of the ground be appropriated as a public cemetery. In January 1855, the trustees of the Methodist Episcopal Church of Rye bought eight acres contiguous to this tract, and, between 1864 and 1868, they added more than six acres, making fourteen and a quarter acres in all.
These burial grounds became known as the Greenwood Union Cemetery and were under the management of the Methodist Episcopal Church from 1855 until the beginning of the 20th century. By then, the church had found the operation, maintenance, and development of the cemetery grounds an increasing financial burden, and, in 1902, management was transferred to a Rural Cemetery Corporation organized by Stuart W. Cowan, an attorney from Mount Vernon, NY. Under the new management, additional acreage was purchased and a major land development plan was instituted which included removing old buildings, draining swamp land, filling and grading, planning and surveying sectional layouts, building roads, planting trees and shrubs, and installing drainage and water systems.
From 1902 until 1984, cemetery operations were supervised by three successive generations of the Cowan family. However, when Stuart D. Cowan, a grandson of Stuart W. Cowan, retired as president in 1984, an independent, elected Board of Trustees was formed to take responsibility for the continued operation of the cemetery. This board consists of lot owners and community leaders, all of whom serve without compensation.
The cemetery operates under Section 1501 et seq. of the Not-for-Profit Corporation Law of the State of New York. It is under the jurisdiction of a state Cemetery Board consisting of the Secretary of State, the Attorney General, and the Commissioner of Health. The New York Division of Cemeteries, which was created by law in 1949, administers the law and the rules and regulations promulgated by the Cemetery Board. The Cemetery issues its own rules and regulations subject to approval by the state Cemetery Board.