Friends Cemetery, Prospect Park

A view of the modest tombstones in the Friends Cemetery in Prospect Park, ca 1935 (BHS)

The first Quakers arrived in New Amsterdam in 1657, where they were swiftly driven out by Governor Peter Stuyvesant’s religious intolerance. Some found refuge in English settlements in the countryside of Long Island and held meetings in a number of villages there. In the city, however, Quakers were not welcome until after British conquest in 1664. The earliest Quaker group to worship in Manhattan built their meetinghouse in 1696 on Green Street (now Liberty Place).

By the early 19th century the New York City Friends were a powerful minority among the state’s Quakers. They were generally wealthier than their country counterparts, and urban influences caused a shift in doctrinal beliefs that put them at odds with the traditional Quaker principles practiced by the rural Friends on Long Island. In 1828, a split arose out of these ideological and socioeconomic tensions. Elias Hicks led the traditionalists of Long Island and elsewhere, who became known as Hicksites. The more urban, wealthier Friends became known as Orthodox Quakers. Members of both branches established meetinghouses in Manhattan and in the city of Brooklyn.

An 1852 map depicts the Friends Cemetery situated on the Coney Island Plank Road, on the Brooklyn-Flatbush border, before Prospect Park was built around it in 1866

Manhattan’s pioneer Quakers buried their deceased members in a graveyard attached to their meetinghouse on Green Street; in 1796 the Society of Friends established a new Quaker burial ground on Houston Street where they transferred remains from their original graveyard. In the city of Brooklyn, where Friends held meetings beginning in the 1830s, the Quaker dead were interred at Wallabout, a public cemetery near Fort Greene that had allotments for the different religious denominations. The Friends Cemetery located in today’s Prospect Park, Brooklyn, is a continuation of these earlier Quaker burial grounds.

Around 1840, the Friends of New York and Brooklyn purchased nine acres of undeveloped farmland on the Coney Island Plank Road in Brooklyn for a new Quaker cemetery. Remains from the Friends cemeteries on Houston Street and at Wallabout were transferred here and by 1846 it was open for new interments. The burial ground was divided into two unequal sections—a smaller area for Orthodox Friends and the larger remaining section for the Hicksites—and free plots were assigned to member families.

Hyde 1903 Atlas of the Borough of Brooklyn Vol 1 Pl 19 Quaker
The Quaker Cemetery is shown within the boundaries of Prospect Park on this 1906 map

In the early 1860s, Brooklyn’s civic leaders moved to create an urban park comparable to the newly-created Central Park in Manhattan. Commissioners acquired 585 acres of forest and farmland that were transformed into Prospect Park, which opened in 1867. The preexisting Friends Cemetery was located within the boundaries of the land laid out for Prospect Park and was retained as a private property of the Society of Friends to be used as their burial ground in perpetuity. In the 1950s the two branches of Quakers—Orthodox and Hicksite—reunited and today the New York Quarterly Meeting (NYQM) is the organizational body of the Friends of Manhattan and Brooklyn. The NYQM owns the  Friends Cemetery in Prospect Park, the only active Quaker burial ground in New York City. Rarely open to the public, the cemetery is enclosed by a fence and protected by a locked gate just off the park’s Center Drive. 

The Friends Cemetery in Prospect Park on a recent fall day (Getty)

Though some 3,500 individuals may be buried here, there are far fewer tombstones marking the site—early Quakers didn’t allow tombstones, their unmarked graves in keeping with the faith’s principle of humility. When markers began to be used, they were simple and modest. The earliest gravestones in the  Prospect Park cemetery date to the 1820s, and likely represent individuals transferred from earlier burial grounds. Among those buried in the cemetery are Brooklyn Borough President Raymond Ingersoll, who died in 1940, and Mary McDowell, a Brooklyn public school teacher who was fired by the Board of Education when she refused to sign a loyalty oath in support of World War I because it conflicted with her Quaker principles. The most well-known grave in the Friends Cemetery is that of Hollywood actor Montgomery Clift, who died in New York City in 1966 at age 45; he was interred here because his mother was a Quaker.

Montgomery Clift’s grave at the Friends Cemetery in Prospect Park (FindaGrave)
Entrance to the Friends Cemetery, May 2016 (Mary French)
A 2012 aerial view showing the boundaries of the Friends Cemetery within Prospect Park (NYCityMap)

Sources: Dripps 1852 Map of Kings and Part of Queens Counties, Long Island N.Y.; Hyde 1903 Atlas of the Borough of Brooklyn, Vol 1, Pl 19; Copy of the Original Register of Interments in the Friends’ Cemetery in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, New York, to May 1906 (NYHS 1906); Inscriptions in the Friends’ Cemetery Prospect Park, Brooklyn, New York, Hicksite & Orthodox Branches (Haviland 1906); Fairchild Cemetery Manual (1910), 57; Encyclopedia of New York City, 2nd ed. (Jackson et al 2010), 1062; “Here They Rest in Peace,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jun 3 17, 1894; “The Cemetery in the Park,” New York Tribune, Sep 6, 1896; “Secluded Field in Park Is Friends’ Burial Plot,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Dec 25, 1910; “Simple Rites Held in Park for Ingersoll,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Feb 26, 1940; “Neighborhood Report: Prospect Park/Park Slope. He’s Here for Eternity, but Don’t Ask Where,” New York Times, Sep 27, 1998; “Brooklyn Quakers to Perform Play in Prospect Park Cemetery,” New York Daily News, Jun 26, 2008; NYQM Cemetery (New York Quarterly Meeting); History of Brooklyn Monthly Meeting (Brooklyn Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends)