Category Archives: Brooklyn

King’s County Cemetery

In October 1888, a Brooklyn Daily Eagle reporter visited an apartment on the fourth floor of a tenement building near the Brooklyn riverfront. “In a corner sat a young woman with an old face,” writes the reporter, “not an unusual sight to be seen in the more thickly-settled or poorer parts of Brooklyn.” The woman’s daughter, a girl a little over a year old, had died the night before and was lying on a bed nearby, where her body was tended by a group of neighbor women. The mother’s “grief was not of the distressing kind, yet she stared into vacancy and was apparently oblivious of what was passing around her.” Her husband was in prison serving a sentence for assaulting a man while drunk; she had been supporting herself and her daughter by taking in washing. When her child died she was destitute, so she applied to the Commissioner of Charities for a permit to have her daughter buried by Kings County. Soon the county undertaker came with a little pine box and the mother was asked to take leave of her child, which she did in an undemonstrative way. The neighbors went home and the mother was left alone in her apartment as the coffin was carried off for burial at the Kings County potter’s field in Flatbush. “It was nothing new, this scene,” our witness remarks. “Such episodes are of daily occurrence in a great city like Brooklyn.”

A listing for the Kings Co potter’s field from a 1910 directory of NYC cemeteries

The Kings County cemetery, originally a few acres at the far eastern end of the 67-acre tract, expanded over time, progressing westward so that the cemetery eventually took up the entire eastern section of the County Farm from about East 45th Street to the property boundary near Utica Avenue. In the 1860s there were over 500 annual interments and the original three-acre burial ground was so overcrowded that the Board of Health was called in to investigate complaints that it posed a danger to the health of the community. Their examination “revealed a condition of things which is disgraceful to Kings County and should not and would not have been tolerated up to this time, had it been generally known.” The manner of burial within the cemetery was “of itself sufficiently revolting to necessitate a reform.” Large pits were dug, each about 12 feet square and 12 feet deep, in which coffins were stacked one on top of another, averaging 250 bodies to each pit. Gravediggers—inmates from the almshouse that were assigned to this duty—sprinkled a thin layer of dirt over the coffins as they stacked them, leaving the pit open until it was full—usually taking four to five months—when it was finally covered with about four feet of earth. The only record kept of those buried in each pit was a numbered ticket corresponding with a number on each coffin for all persons 13 years of age and older. No record was kept of children, whose coffins were unnumbered and their remains unidentified.

An 1890 map shows the potter’s field located in the eastern section of the Kings Co. Farm. Originally confined to the area between 48th St and Utica Ave, the cemetery later extended to E 45th St

Conditions at the potter’s field was no better in 1874, when a committee of the Kings County Board of Supervisors testified, “Nothing occurred in the course of our investigation which more surprised and disgusted us than to learn of the manner in which, for many years past, the dead have been buried at the public burial ground. It is hard to conceive how the minds of public officials could have become so deadened to all sense of decency as to permit the bodies of human being to be disposed of in the manner which the evidence taken by your Committee proves to have been the case at Flatbush … To say that they are buried like dogs would fall far short of a correct use of language; for, with however little respect these animals are usually buried, they are but rarely consigned in large numbers to the same common pit.”

A view of the Kings Co. cemetery in 1912, from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle

By October 1888, when the above-mentioned Daily Eagle correspondent accompanied the young girl’s body to the King’s County potter’s field to witness the interment, the situation had improved. Pits were no longer used; bodies were buried in graves, each containing three or four bodies, with the top body five feet below the surface. Pine boards were placed above each grave, marked with the numbers of the coffins beneath; each body, including children, had a number to correspond to the burial books kept in the almshouse. In some areas of the graveyard plain white crosses identified the names of those beneath. A single marble headstone stood in the cemetery, marking the grave of a child.

This photo of the Kings Co. potters field, from 1913, shows the numbered boards used to identify the graves, as well as the only marble tombstone that stood in the cemetery

The Kings County cemetery was used until about 1914 when the state acquired the County Farm and its buildings from the city and the complex became known as Long Island State Hospital. In 1917, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that the remains of the estimated 50,000 individuals interred in the potter’s field were disinterred and removed to a burial ground on North Brother Island; hospital buildings and other structures were built over the site, which is now the Kingsboro Psychiatric Center. In August 2017, construction workers repairing sewers near the grounds of the psychiatric center found human remains about 13 feet underground. The skull, arm and leg bones, unearthed at Clarkson Avenue by East 48th Street, are believed to be from the long-forgotten potter’s field.

A 2012 aerial view of the former potter’s field, now the site of the Kingsboro Psychiatric Center. Star denotes the area where bones were unearthed in 2017.

Sources: Robinson’s 1890 Atlas of Kings County Pl 29; Fairchild Cemetery Manual (1910), 77; “Kings County Board of Supervisors,” New York Times, Aug 6, 1862; “Our County Institutions,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Mar 12, 1868; “How Our Paupers are Buried,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jun 11, 1869; “Sick Paupers,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Sep 19, 1874; “Our Poor,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Dec 16, 1874; “Paupers,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Sept 16, 1880; “The Burial of a Pauper,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Oct 21, 1888; “Metz Wants Pauper Bodies Cremated,” Brooklyn Standard Union, May 13, 1906; “Potters Field Burials In a Growing Section,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jun 9, 1912; “New Street Invades Paupers’ Graveyard,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Aug 22, 1913; “State Owns Hospital Now,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Aug 14, 1914; “Keeper of God’s Acre Soon to Lose Place, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jul 1, 1917; “Human Remains Found During Sewer Repairs Near Brooklyn Psychiatric Hospital,” Brooklyn Daily Aug 21 2017; “Human Bones Found by Construction Workers in Brooklyn,” amNewYork Aug 23 2017; Phase IA Archaeological Documentary Study, CAMBA Gardens, 560 Winthrop Street, Brooklyn, New York (Historical Perspectives, Inc., 2013)

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Canarsie Cemetery

An 1890 map showing the current Canarsie Cemetery, and the original town cemetery indicated as “GRAVE YARD” adjacent to the church on East 92nd St

In 1843 the Town of Flatlands, located in today’s southeastern Brooklyn, acquired an acre of land in the township’s village of Canarsie that served as the community’s cemetery during the 19th century. The burial ground—on land purchased from John Remsen for $75—was situated next to the Methodist Protestant Church of Canarsie on what is now East 92nd Street. At the time the town established the burial ground in 1843 the area was a farming and fishing community of about 700 people, but it grew rapidly in the late 19th century, and new suburban houses attracted a more diverse population. In 1888 the town purchased another tract of land, nearby the original burial ground, to be used as a new cemetery for the growing community. Some 6,500 people have been interred in Canarsie Cemetery, which has retained its local ambiance, serving the people of Canarsie as well as the wider community.

The Methodist Protestant Church of Canarsie—then named Grace Church—and a portion of original town cemetery in 1928, overgrown with dense vegetation (NYPL)

Both of the Canarsie cemeteries have been imperiled at various times since the City of New York inherited these municipal properties when the five boroughs merged in 1898. The original burial ground, which was rarely used after the new cemetery opened in the 1890s, was essentially abandoned and forgotten by the early 20th century. William A. Eardeley visited the graveyard in 1915 and recorded inscriptions from the 89 gravestones he found at the site. “This cemetery is not kept up at all,” Eardeley writes in his description of the cemetery. “Fence is almost all gone; about one-third of the stones are fallen down,” he continues. “The yard is full of ill-kept shrubbery. Grass is high. Tins and paper rubbish are all about the yard. People use it as a thoroughfare and children play about the yard.” In 1932 skeletons and coffins in the neglected cemetery were destroyed when a sewer was run through the site in anticipation of the opening of East 91st Street. Soon after, East 91st Street was graded right through the graveyard, cutting the original property into two parts. In 1977, the city sold the segment of the property that was west of 91st Street to a developer and residential buildings now stand on that part of the site. The half-acre that remains on the eastern side of 91st Street has been preserved and is owned by the city’s Department of Citywide Administrative Services. Many remains were moved to the new cemetery over the years, but approximately 80 burials may still be interred at the original cemetery site. No headstones are visible today in this vestige of the old town burial ground.

A chain-link fence surrounds the remnant of the original town cemetery, located on the east side of 91st St, adjacent to what is now the Church at the Rock (Google)
A view of Canarsie Cemetery, May 2016 (Mary French)

For many years, things were equally uncertain for the town’s successor cemetery. When ownership of the 12-acre Canarsie Cemetery, bounded by Remsen Avenue, Avenue K, Church Lane, and East 86th Street, was first transferred to the city, its operation was handed over to a board of trustees designated by the mayor. However, by 1924 there was only one trustee, George A. Schriefer, managing the cemetery—all the others had passed away and requests to appoint new trustees had repeatedly been ignored by the mayor’s office. The cemetery was unable to sell plots for three years because legally they could be conveyed only by direction of a majority of the board of trustees. The Brooklyn Standard Union reported that while Mr. Schriefer “does not desire to appear to be in any way disgruntled, he states that he is rather disturbed by the existing situation. However, he has retained the job from a sense of public duty and of loyalty to the community of which has been a resident for over forty years.”

Canarsie Cemetery was subsequently managed by a series of public agencies, including the Brooklyn borough president’s office and the city’s Department of General Services. By the 1970s, the city was determined to sell the cemetery to a private operator with the stipulation that it “continue as a burial ground for people of all races, faiths, and ethnic origins.” It took over 30 years for the city to find a buyer for the cemetery, which cost the city of $350,000 a year to maintain, and during which time there were long periods when no grave sites were sold because of its uncertain future. Finally, in 2010 Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn acquired Canarsie Cemetery for $50,000, with another $1 million dedicated to a trust fund to maintain the graves once the cemetery fills and can no longer generate money.

When it was sold in 2010, there was space for 6,000 more graves in Canarsie Cemetery, which, except for a few small family mausoleums, is modest, like the residential neighborhood that surrounds it. Entire families have bought plots here for future generations who will share the space with the community’s early Dutch and German settlers, the Italian and Jewish immigrants who came in the 1920s, and, more recently, those from Caribbean nations who have been attracted to the neighborhood. For over 100 years, the cemetery has been the end point of the annual Canarsie Memorial Day parade, where contingents of the Knights of Columbus, American Legion, and Boy Scouts march in full regalia for ceremonies in front of a plot where more than a dozen Civil War veterans are buried. The cemetery continues as a symbol of community pride and cultural heritage for the people of Canarsie, an ever-present reminder of what they were, who they are, and where they are going.

The family plot of William Warner, who was awarded the title “Father of Canarsie” at a community celebration of his 75th birthday in 1910 (Mary French)
A 2016 aerial view of Canarsie Cemetery and the remnant of the original town cemetery (arrow) (nyc.gov)

View more photos of Canarsie Cemetery

Sources: Robinson’s 1890 Atlas of Kings County, Pl 30; Cemeteries in Kings and Queens Counties, Vol 2 (Eardeley 1916), 3-14; “W. Warner, 85 Dies, Father of Canarsie, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Dec 28, 1920; “Finds Human Skull,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 2 1932; Documentation of Block 8218, Lot 26, Brooklyn, NY (Geismar 1987); “Correcting A Grace Church Misconception,” Canarsie Courier, July 1, 2010; “Craig Discovers that City Owns Canarsie Cemetery,”Brooklyn Standard Union, Sept 2, 1924; “Fight Canarsie Cemetery Vandals,”Brooklyn World-Telegram, Jan 8, 1965; “City to Undertake Sale Of Canarsie Cemetery, New York Times, Dec 13, 1975; “For Sale in Canarsie: A Beloved Century-Old Cemetery,” New York Times, Dec 2, 1988; “On Going Private: Mayor Wants to Sell Canarsie Cemetery, New York Times, Mar 8, 1995; “For Sale by Owner: 13 Acres. All 6,500 Tenants to Remain, New York Times, May 20, 2009; “A Place of Final Rest in Canarsie Is Changing Hands, New York Times, Aug 4, 2010; Encyclopedia of New York City, 2nd ed. (Jackson et al 2010), 178, 417; Canarsie Cemetery

Holy Cross Cemetery

Officers salute during the burial of slain Poughkeepsie police officer and Brooklyn native John Falcone at Holy Cross Cemetery in Feb 2011 (Associated Press)

By the 1840s, the enormous increase in New York’s Catholic population had exhausted all available space in existing Catholic cemeteries in Manhattan and Brooklyn. To meet the necessity, the Archdiocese of New York opened Calvary Cemetery in Queens in 1848 as a new burial ground for Manhattan’s Catholics and, a year later, established Holy Cross Cemetery to serve the Catholic community of the city of Brooklyn. Since 1822, when the first Catholic church in Brooklyn was founded, Brooklyn’s Catholics had been buried in parish churchyards or in the Catholic section of Wallabout Cemetery, a public cemetery near Fort Greene that had allotments for the different religious denominations. Holy Cross Cemetery began with the purchase of 17 acres in the town of Flatbush in Kings County and had 6,000 interments in its first year of operation. After years of expansion, it now entails 96 acres of land and is the final resting place of over 500,000 people.

An 1873 map of the town of Flatbush showing Holy Cross Cemetery, then about 40 acres in size

Unlike Calvary Cemetery, which is set among the rolling hills along the Brooklyn-Queens border, the landscape of Holy Cross Cemetery is “a surface as level from one end to another as an Illinois prairie,” as it was aptly described by Brooklyn historian Henry Stiles in 1870. Situated today in the East Flatbush section of Brooklyn, the cemetery is a roughly rectangular expanse bordered by Brooklyn and Schenectady Avenues and Snyder Avenue and Cortelyou Road. The grounds are plainly spread out and divided into broad fields of tombstones and greenery. There are many fine, statuseque monuments, but more modest markers are the rule. The main entrance at Brooklyn and Tilden Avenues leads to a small chapel that was built in 1855 and is still used today. The chapel was part of the improvements made when Holy Cross came under the control of Bishop John Loughlin after the Brooklyn Diocese was created in 1853. Some of the pioneer priests of the diocese are interred in catacombs beneath the chapel, and nearby are the graves of some of Brooklyn’s oldest Catholic families.

Deathbed motif on an 1856 marker in the early Irish section of Holy Cross Cemetery (Jackson & Vergara)

Well-known figures can be found at Holy Cross—businessman James (Diamond Jim) Brady, Dodgers great Gil Hodges, and bank robber Willie Sutton among them—but the graves of the lesser known are what give this cemetery its character. The earliest section of the cemetery is rich in mid-19th-century Irish-Catholic markers. Hundreds of tombstones here display traditional Hibernian motifs and record the history of immigrants who fled famine in Ireland and made Brooklyn their home. Later sections are dominated by gravestones of the Italian and Hispanic families who followed.

A listing for Holy Cross Cemetery in a 1910 directory of NYC cemeteries
A 2012 aerial view of Holy Cross Cemetery’s current 96 acres in East Flatbush, Brooklyn

View more photos of Holy Cross Cemetery

Sources: Beers 1873 Atlas of Long Island, Pl 20; Holy Cross Cemetery (Catholic Cemeteries, Diocese of Brooklyn); Tombstones of the Irish Born: Cemetery of the Holy Cross, Flatbush, Brooklyn (Silinonte 1992); Silent Cities: The Evolution of the American Cemetery (Jackson & Vergara 1989), 54; Fairchild Cemetery Manual (1910), 72; The Eagle & Brooklyn: The Record of the Progress of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle… (Howard & Jervis 1893), Vol 1, 360; A History of the City of Brooklyn (Stiles 1870), Vol 3, 633-634, “Our Public Cemeteries,” New York Herald, Jun 2, 1867; “Vandal Topples 63 Headstones and Statues at Historic Brooklyn Cemetery,” New York Daily News, Feb 13, 2018; NYCityMap

Maimonides Cemetery & Mount Hope Cemetery

Mausoleums in Mount Hope Cemetery, April 2018 (Mary French)

“This Is Not Cypress Hills Cemetery” reads a sign immediately inside the gate at Maimonides Cemetery in Brooklyn. It’s easy to understand why disoriented visitors stumble into Maimonides by accident—it’s gate is located a short distance eastward of the entrance to the large, nondenominational Cypress Hills Cemetery on Jamaica Avenue and it, along with the adjacent Mount Hope Cemetery, is nestled into a notch of land cut along Cypress Hills’ southeast border. These two small cemeteries are timeworn today—especially their grand entrance buildings, which are targets of graffiti and vandalism— but in the late 19th-early 20th century, Maimonides and Mount Hope were among the fashionable burial grounds of New York’s Jewish community.

A 1905 map showing Maimionides and Mount Hope cemeteries, situated along Jamaica Ave and the border of Cypress Hills Cemetery

Maimonides Benevolent Society was formed in 1853 by a group of “wealthy Hebrews of New York City” to assist one another in times of illness and difficulty and to look after the needs of their community. Soon after this mutual aid society was organized, a plot in Cypress Hills Cemetery was purchased as a burial ground for its members. When this plot became full, they purchased, in 1879, 8 acres of land adjoining Cypress Hills to establish a new cemetery for the association as well as for other Jewish societies and families. The red-brick gatehouse on Jamaica Avenue was built in 1892 and by 1900 about 1,700 bodies had been interred in Maimonides’ grounds. To meet the need for more burial space, Maimonides Benevolent Society eventually purchased more land in Elmont on Long Island and continues to operate both cemeteries today. Maimonides Cemetery in Brooklyn is notable as the burial place of two pioneering motion picture executives—Marcus Loew, founder of the Loew’s theatre chain and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) studios; and Joseph Schenck, an early president of United Artists and co-founder of Twentieth Century Pictures, which later became 20th Century Fox.

An 1880 advertisement for Maimonides Cemetery from one of the city’s Jewish newspapers.

In 1881, members of several other Jewish fraternities and societies—including the Free Sons of Israel and Phoenix Widows’ and Orphans’ Aid Society—that had also outgrown their earlier burial grounds at Cypress Hills and elsewhere, formed Mount Hope Cemetery Association and purchased 12 acres of land immediately east of Maimonides Cemetery to establish a new cemetery. Like Maimonides, they sold plots to Jewish societies and families, and by 1900 3,000 individuals were interred here. The cemetery’s administration building, which replaced an earlier gatehouse constructed when the cemetery was established in 1881, was recognized by the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce’s building awards competition when it was built in 1931. Although tattered and covered with graffiti now, this elegant Art Deco structure, and Mount Hope’s beautifully intricate ironwork entrance gates, are gems hidden in the chaotic surroundings of Jamaica Avenue.

The gatehouse at Maimonides Cemetery, April 2018 (Mary French)
A view of Maimonides Cemetery, Jan 2016 (Mary French)
The entrance building at Mount Hope Cemetery, April 2018 (Mary French)
A view of Mount Hope Cemetery, Jan 2016 (Mary French)
An aerial view of Maimonides and Mount Hope cemeteries, 2012

View more photos of Maimonides and Mount Hope cemeteries.

Sources: Hyde’s 1905 Atlas of the Borough of Queens Vol. 4 Pl. 10; “Maimonides Cemetery—A New Hebrew Burying Ground,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle Oct 6 1879; [Classified Ad], The Jewish Messenger July 30 1880; “Local News—Maimonides Benevolent Society,” The Jewish Messenger Sep 16 1892; The Leonard Manual of the Cemeteries of New York and Vicinity (1901), 52, 55-56; Maimonides Cemeteries; “The City—Mount Hope Cemetery,” The American Hebrew Sept 2 1881; “Local News—A New Cemetery,” The Jewish Messenger Sept 16 1881; “Chamber Cites Boro Buildings Erected in 1931,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle Feb 21 1932; NYCityMap

Citizens’ Union/Mount Pleasant Cemetery

The Citizens’ Union Cemetery located on Buffalo Ave, just west of the Hunterfly Road in Weeksville, Brooklyn, in 1869 (Dripps 1869)

Founded in the mid-1830s by African American entrepreneurs, the historic village of Weeksville, in what is now the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, became one of the largest free black settlements in the United States. This independent African American community established all that was needed to support its citizens, including a school, churches, an orphanage, a home for the elderly and, in 1851, a cemetery. On September 1, 1851, Alexander Duncan, Robert Williams and Charles Lewis (described as “respectable colored men”) purchased 29.5 acres of land at the eastern edge of Weeksville; 12 acres of this became the Citizens’ Union Cemetery, and the rest was set aside for building lots. Situated on high ground on Buffalo Avenue between today’s Sterling Place and Eastern Parkway, the cemetery was enclosed with a wooden fence, had an entry gate at the northwest corner of Sterling Place and Buffalo Ave and had an underground vault for the temporary reception of the dead.

The village of Weeksville in 1849, situated just south of the Long Island Railroad and east of Bedford (Sidney 1849)

Although intended as “a burial place for the colored,” the founders of Citizen’s Union Cemetery advertised that it had no “rule which excludes any person from sepulture within its border, on account of complexion.” The cemetery offered free burials to the poor, charging only to open and close the grave, a policy that contributed to the financial hardships the cemetery experienced throughout its history. Investors received a poor return, which caused many stockholders to sell their shares. The cemetery reorganized in 1854 under the Mount Pleasant Cemetery Association but continued to struggle. By 1870, Mount Pleasant owed the city of Brooklyn $4,000 dollars in back taxes and the city intended to construct new streets through the cemetery lands. With permission from New York State, Mount Pleasant sold the cemetery in 1872 for $25,000 with the condition that they remove their dead from the site.

With some of the proceeds of the sale, Mount Pleasant’s trustees bought an acre of land at Cypress Hills Cemetery to receive the exhumed bodies from Mount Pleasant Cemetery. How many individuals were buried in Citizens’ Union/Mount Pleasant Cemetery during its twenty-year history is unknown. Ninety-four bodies are known to have been reburied in the Mount Pleasant grounds at Cypress Hills Cemetery, and many in unmarked graves were reportedly placed in a common trench there. A Brooklyn Daily Eagle reporter who witnessed the exhumations at Mount Pleasant described the chaos that occurred during the process, because many people had been buried in unmarked graves that weren’t recorded in the cemetery’s books. As a result, the contractors removing the remains had no idea where to look for them and bodies were often caught by the steam shovel and “carried off to the dump before anything can be done.”

Approximate boundaries of the former Citizen’s Union/Mount Pleasant Cemetery site (dotted lines) south of the Weeksville Heritage Center (arrow) in Bedford-Stuyvesant.
A view of the Mount Pleasant grounds at Cypress Hills Cemetery, Feb 2018 (Mary French)

Sources: Sidney’s Map of Twelve Miles around New-York, 1849; Dripps’ 1869 Map of the City of Brooklyn Sheet 3; Bedford-Stuyvesant (Kelly 2007), 66; Brooklyn’s Promised Land: The Free Black Community of Weeksville, New York (Wellman 2014), 70-72; A History of the City of Brooklyn (Stiles 1870), Vol 3, 633; “Citizens Union Cemetery Association,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Sept 10, 1851, 3; “Our Public Cemeteries,” New-York Herald Jun 2 1867, 8; “Notice—The Mount Pleasant Cemetery Association,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle May 25 1870, 4; “Mount Pleasant Cemetery,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 22, 1871, 2; “Desecration of the Dead,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Aug 26, 1872, 3; NYCityMap

Cypress Hills Cemetery

A hillside Chinese section at Cypress Hills Cemetery, 2011 (Mary French)

The passage of the Rural Cemetery Act by the New York legislature in 1847 spurred the creation of new large-scale cemeteries throughout the state, including over a dozen developed from farmland situated along the Brooklyn-Queens border. The first of these was Cypress Hills Cemetery, organized in 1848 as a non-sectarian cemetery that “might furnish extraordinary facilities for the vast and rapidly increasing population of this region.” Dubbed “the people’s graveyard” in a late 19th century guidebook for its inclusiveness and egalitarian principles, Cypress Hills offered a place “where every church and society may consecrate its own grounds according to its ideas of duty or feeling, and embellish them as its own means or taste may dictate.” Today Cypress Hills Cemetery is remarkable for the number of ethnic, religious, and social groups represented within its borders, and the resonance of their unique histories and cultural values.

Cypress Hills Cemetery straddles the Brooklyn-Queens border and is bisected by the Jackie Robinson Parkway (OpenStreetMap)

The cemetery’s 225 acres of rolling terrain extend from Jamaica Avenue in Brooklyn to Cooper Avenue in Queens. Its open policies and affordable lots attracted many religious, fraternal, and benevolent associations, and by the 1880s some 50 organizations owned ground within its boundaries. Groups such as the Metropolitan Police Benevolent Burial Association, New York Press Club, and Society of Mechanics & Tradesmen acquired extensive plots of ground, as did churches and religious societies of many denominations, and numerous immigrant mutual aid societies. The U.S. Government owns a three-acre parcel in the cemetery that was set aside for burial of Civil War dead, and in 1879 Mount Sinai Hospital acquired a sizeable plot to provide free burial for patients who died in the institution and were not claimed by relatives or friends.

A view of monuments in the Greek section at Cypress Hills Cemetery, 2011 (Mary French)

Cypress Hills has interred approximately 380,000 individuals since its inception, including an estimated 35,000 bodies transferred from church cemeteries in Brooklyn and Manhattan and reinterred here. It is the final resting place of a number of celebrated individuals, including iconic sex symbol Mae West, artist Piet Mondrian, and Jackie Robinson, the Brooklyn Dodger who integrated baseball. But what is most striking about Cypress Hills is the large clusterings of stones according to ethnic affiliation that seem to form “neighborhoods of the dead.” Significant among these are Chinese, Greek, Albanian, Japanese, Jewish, and Hispanic sections, each with memorial designs, grave adornments, offerings, and rituals tied to cultural values.

Food offerings are made at a grave in Cypress Hills Cemetery during the 2012 Qing Ming festival, a Chinese spring ritual that honors dead family members (NY Daily News)

The city’s Chinese community has been burying their dead at Cypress Hills since the 1890s, when an acre of ground at the north end of the cemetery was established as a Chinese section. This was the burial ground used by the Hip Sing and On Leong tongs (secret brotherhoods) that battled one another in the streets of Chinatown during the gang wars that raged for the first three decades of the 20th century. These and other early Chinese graves at Cypress Hills are gone now due to the practice of Jup Gum, by which dead Chinese were disinterred, cleaned and sent back to China for reburial every five to seven years. This custom, which kept a dead person’s ghost from sorrowing in an alien land, faded with the onset of World War II and the rise of communism in China.

Chinese monuments now dominate much of the landscape at Cypress Hills, especially on hillsides where burial is considered auspicious. The Chinese plots are made more distinctive by the elaborate offerings at gravesites, where food is left for the dead and fake money, incense and other items are burned. When purchasing a grave, Chinese frequently bring along a feng shui practitioner for advice on the best placement, and Cypress Hills recently built a trapezoid-shaped section similar to ones in Hong Kong’s cemeteries to appeal to new immigrants.

Jackie Robinson’s gravesite at Cypress Hills Cemetery, 2018 (Mary French)

Cypress Hills Cemetery has also long been an important burial ground for the city’s African American community. Two of New York’s earliest African American churches—African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (Mother AME Zion) and St. Philip’s Episcopal Church—purchased large sections at Cypress Hills in the mid-1800s to serve as burial grounds for their congregations and for reinterment of remains transferred from their graveyards in Manhattan, which had been major burial places for the city’s black community following the 1794 closure of the African Burial Ground near City Hall. Also reinterred in a plot at Cypress Hills are remains from the Citizens’ Union/Mount Pleasant Cemetery, the burial ground of the historic free black community of Weeksville in Brooklyn.

Al Sharpton with the family of Gavin Cato at a memorial service at Cypress Hills Cemetery in 1997 (Getty)

More than a dozen prominent African Americans are among those buried at Cypress Hills—besides baseball legend Jackie Robinson, there is ragtime-and-jazz great Eubie Blake and Arturo Schomburg, the pioneering historian and scholar who helped lay the foundation for the field of African American studies, as well as lesser-known 19th century trailblazers such as James McCune Smith, the first African American to hold a medical degree in the United States, and Charlotte Ray, the nation’s first black female lawyer. Cypress Hills is the final resting place of Wallace Turnage, an escaped slave who wrote a rare, recently discovered manuscript detailing his experiences, and Gavin Cato, the seven-year-old accident victim whose death ignited the Crown Heights race riots in 1991.

View more photos of Cypress Hills Cemetery

Sources: The Cypress Hills Cemetery, 1858 & 1880 [catalog & list of lot holders]; The Cemeteries of New York (Judson 1881); Cypress Hills Cemetery (Duer & Smith 2010); Beyond the Grave: Cultures of Queens Cemeteries (I. Harlow 1997); “In Mourning, Traditions Mingle,” New York Times Oct 28, 1997; “Mount Sinai Hospital,” The American Hebrew Feb 2, 1900; Chinatown: A Portrait of a Closed Society (G. Kinkead 1992); “Chinese-Americans Honor Loved Ones..,” NY Daily News Apr 6, 2012; “Immigration of the Dead,” Open City, Sept 8, 2017; “Where the Color Line Exists,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Dec 7, 1890; “Cypress Hills Cemetery Now for Tourists,” NY Daily News Jan 30, 2011; “History Lesson at Cemetery,” NY Daily News Mar 1, 2011; OpenStreetMap

Cypress Hills National Cemetery

Decoration of soldiers graves at Cypress Hills National Cemetery, May 1929 (Getty Images)

National cemeteries evoke a particular emotional response in visitors; the orderly appearance and regimented lines of uniform headstones are a tangible and powerful memorial to our veterans’ devotion to duty, honor, service, and sacrifice. Only one national cemetery is located in New York City, and this historic site was among the first group of national cemeteries created by Congress during the Civil War. In 1862, Cypress Hills National Cemetery began as military cemetery located within the boundaries of the large, private Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn. Three acres at Cypress Hills were set aside for the burial of Civil War dead; over 3,000 Union soldiers and several hundred Confederate POWs were buried in this parcel, which became known as the Union Grounds.

In 1884 the federal government purchased a separate, 15-acre tract on Jamaica Ave near the private Cypress Hills Cemetery and dedicated it the Cypress Hills National Cemetery. In addition, in 1941, a small tract within the old Cypress Hills Cemetery, known as the Mount of Victory Plot, became part of the national cemetery. This 0.6-acre plot, the smallest parcel of federally owned land in the country, is a burial ground for veterans who served in the War of 1812. Today Cypress Hills National Cemetery consists of three parcels totaling a little over 18 acres—the national cemetery on Jamaica Avenue, and the Union Grounds and Mount of Victory plot at the private Cypress Hills Cemetery. Cypress Hills National Cemetery was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1997.

Sgt Wilbur Colyer (First Division Museum)

Cypress Hills National Cemetery is the final resting place for 21,000 veterans and dependents, including 24 recipients of the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest and most prestigious military decoration. Among these is Sergeant Wilbur Colyer, a 20-year-old posthumous Medal of Honor recipient who served as a member of Company A of the 1st Engineers, 1st Division, in France during World War I. Born in Brooklyn in 1898, Colyer grew up in South Ozone Park, Queens, and enlisted in 1917. His Medal of Honor was awarded in January 1919 for his actions on October 9, 1918. Volunteering with two other soldiers to locate machine gun nests, Colyer advanced on the enemy positions to a point where he was half surrounded by the nests in ambush. He killed the gunner of one nest with a grenade he had captured from a German soldier and then turned the German machine gun on the other nests, disabling them before he returned to his platoon. He was later killed in action. Originally buried in Argonne, France, in 1921 his remains were returned to the U.S. and interred at the national cemetery. Sergeant Colyer Square in South Ozone Park was dedicated to him in 1931.

Gravesite of Sgt Wilbur Colyer at Cypress Hills National Cemetery (Mary French)

 

Sgt Mgr Daniel Daly (USMC Archives)

The Medal of Honor has been awarded to 3,500 people since it was created in 1861 and just 19 of those individuals have received it twice. One man was considered for it a third time, although ultimately received other awards in his place. That man was Marine Corps legend Sergeant Major Daniel Daly (1873-1937), and this fierce warrior is interred at Cypress Hills National Cemetery. Born in Glen Cove, NY, Daly had an early career as a boxer despite being 5’6” and 132lbs. He enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1899 and soon earned his first Medal of Honor, for actions during the Boxer Rebellion, the anti-foreign, anti-Christian peasant uprising that took place in China 1899-1901. On Aug 14, 1900, during a siege on the district where foreign diplomats resided, Daly was left alone to keep rebels from storming across the wall protecting the consulate while the rest of his unit went to get supplies and reinforcements. Daly spent the night fending off attackers and legend has it that when reinforcements arrived in the morning, the bodies of 200 dead rebels littered the ground where he had held his position.

Daly earned his second medal of honor 15 years later during the U.S. Occupation of Haiti. He and his 35-man platoon were sent on a reconnaissance mission in the Haitian countryside; when crossing a river, 400 Haitian rebels ambushed them. The platoon found a position to spend the night, but the situation was grim as they were badly outnumbered and had lost their only machine gun in the river during the ambush. In the night, Daly went out to retrieve the weapon and after securing the machine gun, returned to the Marine position and then led an attack to scatter the rebels the next morning.

Gravesite of Daniel Daly at Cypress Hills National Cemetery (Mary French)

Next came World War I, and Daly, now 44 years old, was recognized with a Distinguished Service Cross, Navy Cross, and other honors for repeated acts of heroism during the Battle of Belleau Wood in June 1918, including rescuing six wounded Marines who were pinned down by heavy enemy fire, capturing 13 German soldiers entirely on his own, and capturing a machine gun nest by himself armed with just his Colt .45 and a few hand grenades. It was during the Battle of Belleau Wood that Daly said the words for which he is famous. Pinned down by the Germans at one point during the battle with his men who were beginning to lose hope, Daly rose up and rallied them by bellowing, “Come on you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?” and led them into a successful charge. Daly’s battle cry is considered one of the finest expressions of Marine esprit de corps ever uttered.

Custer’s last message, delivered by John Martin (United States Military Academy at West Point)

Among the other notable figures buried at Cypress Hills National Cemetery is John Martin, the trumpeter who delivered General George Custer’s last message before the massacre of the 7th Cavalry at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876. Born Giovanni Martini in Italy in 1852, Martin came to the U.S. in 1873 and enlisted in the Army. Trained as a cavalry trooper and bugler, Martin was assigned as Custer’s orderly the day of the battle. As Custer and his company were heading into battle, he gave Martin a verbal message for Captain Benteen to bring his battalion forward with the pack train as quickly as possible. Because of Martin’s thick Italian accent, Custer’s assistant, Lieutenant William Cooke, stopped Martin and wrote the message on a piece of paper: “Benteen Come on. Big Village. Be quick. Bring packs. P.S. Bring Packs.” Carrying the message saved Martin’s life, as Custer and his troopers were annihilated during the battle. The note is now in the library at the United States Military Academy at West Point. John Martin retired from the Army in 1906 and became a ticket agent for the NYC subway.

Gravesite of John Martin at Cypress Hills National Cemetery (Mary French)
Aerial view of Cypress Hills National Cemetery, 1961 (LOC)

View more photos of Cypress Hills National Cemetery.

Sources: Cypress Hills National Cemetery; American Military Cemeteries (D. Holt 2009), 68-70; World War I New York (K. Fitzpatrick 2017), 143; Sergeant Colyer Square (NYC Parks); First Division Museum; “American Heroes: Sgt. Mgr Dan Daly, USMC,” US Patriot Tactical Blog, Jan 12, 2015; Custer’s Last Message (Little Bighorn National Monument); “Tunnel Vision: He Was Custer’s Bugler. Then, the Subway Called,” New York Times, Jan 29, 2003.