In 1654, Governor Peter Stuyvesant ordered that a church be built in the new settlement at Flatbush (then known as Midwout), one of the six original towns of Brooklyn. The site selected for this church was that now occupied by the present Flatbush Reformed Dutch Church, at the southwest corner of Flatbush and Church avenues. This structure, completed in 1798, is the third church on the site.
To the south and west of the church building is the cemetery that contains the graves of members of the early families of Flatbush; names include Lott, Vanderbilt, Martense, Lefferts, Vanderveer, Stryker, Cortelyou, Bergen, Van Sicklen, and Suydam, among others. Nearly 500 tombstones stand in the graveyard, the oldest dating to 1754, but there are many more unmarked graves throughout the property. During the 17th and 18th century the church grounds served as the public burial place for Flatbush, and every inhabitant was entitled to be buried there irrespective of their religious background. Since no burial records were kept, the names and dates of many of those interred in the cemetery are unknown.
One of the oldest legible monuments in the cemetery is the headstone of Abraham Lott (1684-1754). Abraham was a grandson of Peter Lott, a French Huguenot who emigrated from the Netherlands and was among the original Dutch settlers of Flatbush. Abraham’s brownstone gravemarker, inscribed in Dutch, has the typical arched shape used in the 18th century and displays a carving of a winged cherub at the top.
Although Flatbush had an African burial ground located on Reformed Dutch property one block east of the church, there is evidence suggesting some local slave owners may have paid to have their servants buried within the main church cemetery. In her 1881 social history of Flatbush, Gertrude Vanderbilt describes a small fenced enclosure beyond the western boundary of the church cemetery “where lies buried a colored woman by the name of Flora,” who died in 1826 at age 104. Also in the enclosure were two other “colored persons,” who, along with Flora, were domestics in the family of Mrs. A.L. Lloyd. A 1914 inventory of tombstones in the cemetery does not mention these graves, and they are not found at the site today.
Around 1870, the church prohibited new graves in the cemetery because, as pastor Dr. John E. Lloyd later explained, the church grounds “were almost sown with graves and buried bodies and it would be almost impossible to dig in any part without unearthing some of the skeletons.” Burials ceased except for occasional interments in family plots. When 97-year-old Catharine Hart Wyckoff was buried here in 1889, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported it was the first interment in the old church graveyard in more than 20 years.
As Flatbush transformed from a rural village to a suburban neighborhood at the turn of the 20th century, so too was the old Dutch cemetery changed. After grading and paving of Flatbush Avenue was completed in 1892, the level of the cemetery was considerably below that of the street so 400 loads of soil were spread over the graveyard, and the tombstones raised so that they stood in regular order according to the grade. During excavations for installation of cesspools around the church in 1911, graves were disturbed and reportedly plundered by the workmen doing the digging, who were accused of stealing jewelry and other personal ornaments from the graves. In 1920, about 30 graves were relocated when the parsonage—built in 1853 next to the church along Flatbush Avenue—was moved to its current location at the southwest corner of the church grounds, facing Kenmore Terrace. More graves may have been relocated when the church house was erected on the south side of the cemetery in 1923-1924.
Today the landmarked Flatbush Reformed Dutch Church complex remains at the heart of Flatbush, standing at what is now one of the busiest commercial intersections in Brooklyn. Hallowed ground for over three centuries, this historic site is protected from the frenetic activity that surrounds it by a handsome wrought-iron fence.
Sources: Beers 1873 Atlas of Long Island, Pl 25; The History of the Town of Flatbush in Kings County, Long-Island (Strong 1842); The Social History of Flatbush (Vanderbilt 1881); Inscriptions from Reformed Dutch Churchyard at Flatbush, Brooklyn, N.Y. (Frost 1914); Between Heaven and Earth: Church and Society in Pre-Revolutionary Flatbush, Long Island (Nooter 1995); “She Lived Long,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Nov 27, 1889; “In the Religious World,” Brooklyn Times Union, Aug 6, 1892; “Ghouls Plunder Graves of Old Dutch Families,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Oct 29, 1911; “Ancient Parsonage Starts on Journey,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jun 20, 1920; “Brooklyn Scenes. Church Graveyard,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Dec 18, 1938; Flatbush Dutch Reformed Church, Expanded Landmark Site Designation Report (Landmarks Preservation Commision 1979); Stage IB Archaeological Investigation P.S.325-K, Church and Bedford Avenues, Brooklyn (Historical Perspectives, Inc., 2001); Guide to the Lott Family Papers ARC.186 (Brooklyn Historical Society 2021)