West of the Sixth Avenue is a large open space which testifies silently yet strongly to the time when all this part of the island was quiet country side and the city still was very far away. It is the Jewish graveyard—the Beth Haim, or Place of Rest . . . the Beth Haim was established here—on a lot which possessed the advantages of lying within one of the blocks of the new City Plan and therefore was safe against the opening of new streets, and which also could be reached by an already opened country road. Although long since superseded by the Beth Haim on Long Island, this graveyard still is cared for zealously—as may be seen by looking from the back windows of the big dry-goods shop on the Sixth Avenue upon its rows of seemly monuments, whereon legends in Hebrew characters tell of “Rest” and “Peace.” And, truly, looking out from the bustle and clamor of the shop upon the grassy quiet place, with its ivy-clad deadhouse and its long lines of marble gravestones whereof the whiteness has become gray as the years have gone on and on, there is a most pleasant sense of rest and peacefulness amidst this calm serenity of ancient death. (Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, June 1893).
When Congregation Shearith Israel was forced to close its graveyard in Greenwich Village in 1829, it established a new cemetery in an area even further away from the city center. The new burial ground had a frontage of 80.5 feet on the south side of 21st Street, about 75 feet west of 6th Avenue. It was dedicated as Beth Hayim Shelishi (the Third Cemetery) in August 1829 and the first interment took place in November of that year. A Matar house, or chapel, (the “ivy-clad deadhouse” mentioned above) was built near the cemetery’s entrance in 1830, but has long since disappeared.
The 21st Street cemetery served as the congregation’s burial ground until 1851, when the city banned burials below 86th Street. An exception to this prohibition was made in 1855, when remains removed from Congregation Shearith Israel’s graveyard at Chatham Square were reinterred at the 21st Street cemetery. Today hemmed in by buildings, the cemetery has survived relatively intact and remains the largest of the three Shearith Israel burial grounds in Manhattan. The congregation is currently in the process of renovating and preserving the cemetery.
Sources: Colton’s 1836
Map Of The City and County Of New-York; Dripps’ 1852 Map of the City of New-York extending northward to Fiftieth St; Portraits Etched in Stone 133-141 (David de Sola Pool 1952); “Down Love Lane,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, June 1893, p. 586; “Debris Falls on Historic Jewish Cemetery,” New York Times, June 9, 2006; “Continent’s Oldest Congregation Unveils Plan to Preserve Flatiron Cemetery,” DNAinfo
, June 14, 2010 (includes video of cemetery); NYCityMap