Category Archives: public cemeteries

Public Burial Ground, Brooklyn

An 1857 newspaper clipping reports the discovery of human remains at the site of Brooklyn’s early- 19th-century public burial ground

In the years 1811-1812, there was a German physician known as the “Rain-Water Doctor” who practiced in the village of Brooklyn before moving on to Providence, Rhode Island. He was quite famous, and during his time in Brooklyn thousands of people from Manhattan and Long Island came to seek his remedies. The medicines he prescribed were mostly herbs and other natural substances, including rainwater, which he encouraged all of his patients to drink. Among the many who came to Brooklyn to consult the Rain-Water Doctor was Apollos Nicholls of Smithtown, Long Island, who died soon after placing himself under the doctor’s care. The circumstances of Nicholls’ case deeply affected the physician, who erected over his deceased patient’s grave a handsome marble tombstone with the following, unusually long, inscription: 

In the mournful instances of human frailty, concording to demonstrate the destiny; also, as a baneful occurrence of both, and of an unshaken resolution and usual disappointment, here lies the no more animated and wasting remains of APOLOS NICOLL, born in Smithtown Ap. 11, 1776 : 14th of the same month 1811, departed and delivered up to the elementary menstrum of dissolution, nought, Resurrection, and Ascension; Conspicuous example of an unavoidable fate, who after his having been tired of experiencing eight months of various diseases, in expection to find alleviation to his painful existence, started in quest of relief, and firm in his resolution notwithstanding an inconsiderable distance contended three weeks in battling against the progressive obstacles of his perilous situation, opposing his design, to reach a dwelling which his delusive confidence had flattered himself to find alleviance, the end of his distress and complicated misery, but unfortunately found the one of his days accelerated by his bold attempt, and both his stranguary dropsical state and the strenuous motion of the last vehicle which conveyed him to the one by whom he eagerly expected to be alleviated and receive his existence prolongation : but vain hope! soon aborted! subject likewise to asthmatical affection by a sudden violent paroxism, effect of the combusted system stimulating the accumulated mass out of its recess, and which completed by obstructing the airy passage speedily produced suffocation, and that fatally; this incident terminated the earthly career, in putting a period to the suffering venturing afflicated; sorrowful consequence which inseparably has condemned the one he so considerately instrusted with his corporeal repair, to become of his disaster passive spectator, instead of a desirous benefactor : predetermined in the witness, which intitially and peremptorily was to sustain the view of such sinister catastrophe the inexorable po..t..ces manifested to only have afforded to their destined victim enough of vital faculty, for reaching the spot whereupon the minutes residue of the last hour was to be exhausted, and for implacably having after the fatal final thread cut off; To memorize such a dismal event, the concern it has caused to the unaccustomed beholder, may this cold stone relating the particular be of  consolatory nature, for the surviving consort and relatives of the deceased, and help them to be in their privation resigned to the unalterable Supreme Will, and with fortitutde submit to the execution of its irrevocable decree.

Apollos Nicholls’ grave was in the old public burial ground of Brooklyn, where his tombstone was still standing in 1839 when the above inscription was copied and published by the Long Island Star. This public burial ground, or potter’s field, was located on the northwest corner of Livingston Street and Boerum Place in what is now downtown Brooklyn. When exactly this cemetery was established is not known; it was likely used from the early 1800s until about 1827 when the City of Brooklyn created a new public burial ground at Wallabout Bay.

An 1849 map of Brooklyn shows the Military Garden situated at the junction of Fulton and Joralemon streets; the public burial ground was adjacent to the Military Garden, at the corner of Boerum Place and Livingston Street

The public burial ground at Livingston Street and Boerum Place was a place of interment for the poor, the unknown, and, like Apollos Nicholl, those who died while away from home. Sailors and marines from the Brooklyn Navy Yard were buried here before a naval cemetery was established adjacent to the Yard in the early 1830s. In an 1852 letter to the Daily Eagle, a Brooklynite recalled seeing military burials at the cemetery on Livingston Street and Boerum Place during his schoolboy days. “During the war of 1812,” he writes, “when a large body of Militia was collected in and about Brooklyn, taken from the comforts and endearments of home and suddenly subjected to all the hardships of the camp, sickness prevailed among them, and many died and were here buried. I have often followed the funerals of the soldiers to this burial place.”

The public burial ground was located next to Du Flon’s Military Garden, a pleasure ground that was situated at the junction of Fulton and Joralemon streets from 1810 to 1861. Punch Du Flon describes the Military Garden, and the cemetery that abutted it, in an 1891 letter published in the Daily Eagle. “My father, as you know, was the proprietor of the Military Garden, and it was really the only place of amusement in town in those days. . .We had concerts there and a little theater. At that time there was a burying ground at the corner of Boerum Place and Livingston Street, and that little cemetery bordered my father’s property. It didn’t bother us at all to have a cemetery so close at hand, but there was on one side of the fence a good deal that was grim and on the other a good deal that was merry.” 

What happened to Brooklyn’s old public burial ground is unclear. Evidently, the City of Brooklyn sold the property in the 1850s, but no record has been found indicating that authorities arranged for the removal of remains from the site before it was redeveloped. When workmen excavated the property in 1857, they found human remains and portions of coffins and headstones. These were reportedly carried off with rubbish from the site. Another relic from the cemetery was found in 1861 when workmen redeveloping the Military Garden property found a gravestone with the name “Peter Taylor.” By the late 1860s, a county courthouse stood on the former Military Garden and the public burial ground was covered by stables and a gymnasium. Today office buildings are at the site of Brooklyn’s early-19th-century public burial ground, where a monument with the Rain-Water Doctor’s 400-word epitaph to a lost patient once stood.

The redeveloped Military Garden and public burial ground sites are depicted on this 1867 map
A 2018 aerial view of the former site of the Brooklyn public burial ground at Livingston Street and Boerum Place

Sources: Map of the City of Brooklyn (Colton 1849); Plan of New York City, from the Battery to Spuyten Duyvil Creek, Sheet 1 (Dripps 1867); A History of the City of Brooklyn including the Old Town and Village of Brooklyn, the Town of Bushwick, and the Village and City of Williamsburgh, Vol 1 (Stiles 1867) & Vol 2 (Stiles 1869); “Report of the Overseers of the Poor in the Town of Brooklyn,” Long Island Star, Mar 29, 1820; “Report of the Overseers of the Poor in the Town of Brooklyn,” Long Island Star, Mar 28, 1821; “Common Council,” Long Island Star, May 16, 1839; “Rain-Water Doctor,” Long Island Star, Jun 6, 1839; “For the Brooklyn Daily Eagle” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jan 10, 1852; “Old Potter’s Field,” New-York Daily Tribune, Mar 26, 1857; “Rattle His Bones. . .” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Mar 25, 1857; “While Excavating. . .” Brooklyn Evening Star, Mar 25, 1857; “A Mortuary Relic,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Dec 7, 1861; “The Dead. . . Brooklyn Graves that Have Been Opened” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Oct 2, 1875; [Letter to the Editor], Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 15, 1881; “Shattered Napoleon’s Head,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Feb 1, 1891

Fordham Manor Church Cemeteries

This detail from an 1868 map shows the two burial places connected with the Fordham Manor Reformed Church—the old public burial ground on Highbridge Road (today’s Fordham Road) and the Church property on the north side of Kingsbridge Road. Red star denotes approximate location of the original church site on Fordham Road, across from the old cemetery.

The modern Fordham Manor Church on Reservoir Avenue near West Kingsbridge Road is the successor to one of the earliest congregations in the Bronx. In 1696, the Dutch Reformed Church organized a society in the area then known as the Manor of Fordham. In 1706 they built their first church on the north side of Fordham Road, in present-day Devoe Park. After this building was destroyed in the Revolutionary War, a new church was built in 1801 on property about a mile north, at Kingsbridge Road. This was the first of three edifices to stand on that site; the second church was built in 1849, and the present building was erected in 1940. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the Dutch Reformed Church of Fordham Manor used two local cemeteries to bury their dead—a public burial ground near their original house of worship on Fordham Road and a small cemetery next to their church on Kingsbridge Road.

Public Burial Ground, Fordham Road

Until 1909, an “ancient Dutch burying ground” stood at the southeast corner of today’s Sedgwick Avenue and West Fordham Road, where an apartment building is located today. Exactly when this cemetery was established is not known; it may have been used as far back as the 1600s when Dutch families began to settle in the area. Deeds dated before the Revolution refer to the one-and-a-half-acre cemetery as a public burial ground and it was known to have been used as a free burial ground by local authorities into the 19th century. During its early history, this public cemetery was linked with the Dutch Reformed church that originally stood 200 yards from it, on the opposite side of Fordham Road. After the congregation moved up to Kingsbridge Road in the early 1800s, their ties with the village burial ground were eventually broken. By the late 1800s, the public burial ground at the intersection of Sedgwick Ave and Fordham Road was known to many locals as the “Berrian Cemetery,” for one of the families who owned land surrounding the cemetery and who had interred a number of their kinfolk in the graveyard.

A 1901 map depicts the old burial ground at the intersection of Fordham Road and Sedgwick Avenue

One 19th-century historian estimated that perhaps 1,000 people were interred in the cemetery on Fordham Road and Sedgwick Avenue. Genealogists who visited the site in the 1870s and 1880s recorded tombstones with family names including Berrian, Valentine, Cromwell, Laurence, DeVoe, Hart, and Rowland. The earliest date found was 1810 and the latest was 1863. Less than two dozen graves had headstones with identifiable inscriptions; many more graves were designated by rough, flat stones with no markings. Guarding the graveyard was a magnificent willow tree, over 20 feet in circumference, which stood at the edge of the property.

1906 view of the burial ground at Fordham Road and Sedgwick Avenue, showing toppled tombstones and the huge willow tree that sheltered the site (Comfort)

By the turn of the century, the cemetery was neglected and partially destroyed by street construction. The western portion of the graveyard was taken by the city in 1874 for the opening of Sedgwick Avenue and a section on the north part of the property was cut off in the 1890s when Fordham Road was widened. Many families had arranged to have their family members’ remains moved to other cemeteries, the numerous disinterments causing further disturbance to the burial ground. Newspaper articles describe it as a place of “sad havoc,” a mass of broken tombstones, brush, and rubbish. Ownership and responsibility of the property was a tangle of uncertainty until the early 1900s when a court-appointed referee ruled that the Camman family, who had acquired the Berrian farm in 1852, could sell the cemetery property once they arranged for removal of the remains. Workmen excavated the cemetery in the winter of 1908-1909 and packed up any bones they found. The exhumed remains were reburied in a plot at Ferncliff Cemetery in Westchester. In 1927 a six-floor apartment building, still present, was erected on the site of the old Dutch burial ground of Fordham Manor. 

Fordham Manor Church Cemetery, Kingsbridge Road

In 1801, Dennis Valentine, Sr., donated land for construction of a new Dutch Reformed Church at the Manor of Fordham. The plot, 90 feet deep and 74 feet across, was located near the northwest corner of what is now Kingsbridge Road and Reservoir Avenue. In 1836, the church appointed a committee to look for land for a burial place. The congregation apparently continued to use the old burial ground at Fordham Road and Sedgwick Avenue for some time after they moved to their new location, the donation having included only enough property to accommodate the building. In 1849, Dennis Valentine, Jr., donated additional lands adjacent to the 1801 church property to provide sufficient ground for erection of a new house of worship and for a burial ground. The new building was erected on the property immediately adjoining the 1801 structure and facing Kingsbridge Road. Land to the rear of the church was used for a cemetery. The last known interment here was in 1884.

1901 map depicting the Fordham Manor Reformed Church building on Kingsbridge Road, with the cemetery behind it

Several families had vaults in the church cemetery, including members of the Valentine, Briggs, and Archer clans. After Woodlawn Cemetery was established in 1863, each of these families acquired plots there and had the remains of their family members relocated to Woodlawn from the church cemetery. Notable among the removals from the Valentine family vaults were the remains of Virginia Clemm, wife of Edgar Allan Poe. In 1847, Virginia Clemm died while she and her husband were living in a rented cottage (preserved as Poe Cottage) on the Valentine farm. She was laid to rest in the private vault of Dennis Valentine, Sr., which he built in the 1830s on his land adjacent to the 1801 Fordham Manor Church building. Although officially separate from the church burial ground, it was generally considered part of the cemetery. When the Valentine family removed the remains from their vaults in the late 1870s, Virginia Clemm’s remains were taken to Baltimore for reburial alongside her husband, who died in 1849.

A 1912 view of the Fordham Manor Reformed Church building on Kingsbridge Road, erected in 1849. The church cemetery, located to the rear of the building, is not visible (Jenkins)

In August of 1912, the journal Genealogy published inscriptions from the Fordham Manor Reformed Church Cemetery. The burial ground behind the church was described as “a neglected corner plot, overgrown with weeds, where a few tombstones, some badly broken, still remain.”  Inscriptions from the 20 tombstones found at the site included members of the Poole, Webb, Archer, Horton, Corsa, and Webb families. The earliest dated to 1843 and the latest to 1870.

In the early 1920s, the Fordham Manor Reformed Church authorities made plans to purchase a nearby house and have it moved to the church property for use as a parsonage. Before this could be done, it was necessary to clear the cemetery of bodies. After receiving the necessary permissions, in 1925 the remains of 32 people were exhumed from the cemetery behind the church and reburied in a plot at Kensico Cemetery in Westchester. In 1940, the Fordham Manor Reformed Church demolished their 1849 church building and the parsonage, sold the southern portion of their property along Kingsbridge Road, and built a new edifice on the northern part of their land, where their cemetery once stood. The 1940 building, which faces Reservoir Road, is the home of the present Fordham Manor Church, now a nondenominational congregation.

A modern map with arrows denoting the former site of the cemetery at Fordham Rd and Sedgwick Ave and the present Fordham Manor Church at Reservoir Ave near Kingsbridge Rd, on the site of the former church cemetery. Red star denotes the approximate location of the original church site on Fordham Road (OpenStreetMap)
2018 aerial view of the apartment building on the former cemetery site at Fordham Rd and Sedgwick Ave (NYCThen&Now)
2018 aerial view of the present Fordham Manor Church property on Reservoir Avenue, formerly the site of the church cemetery (NYCThen&Now)

Sources: Beers’ 1868 Atlas of New York and Vicinity, Pl 8; Hyde’s 1901 Atlas of the Borough of the Bronx, Pl 25 & 32; Genealogy of the DeVeaux Family (De Voe 1885); History of Bronx Borough (Comfort 1906); The Story of The Bronx (Jenkins 1912); History of Fordham Manor Reformed Church, 1696-1946 (Attwood 1946); “Old Burial Grounds in Westchester Co, NY,”  NYG&B Record 20 (2) 1889; “Notes & Queries,” NYG&B Record 22 (4), 1891; “Neglected Graves at Fordham Heights,” Evening Telegram, May 7, 1892; “A Neglected Cemetery,” New York Times, Dec 22, 1901; “Facts About the Berrian Cemetery,” New York Times, Dec 30, 1901; “Old Historic Cemeteries,” Daily Argus (Mount Vernon, NY) Jan 9, 1905; “Historical Cemetery Despoiled,” Magazine of American History, 36 (11), Nov 1908; “Poole Family Burials,” Genealogy 2(6), Aug 10, 1912; “From a New York Cemetery,” Genealogy 2(7), Aug 17, 1912; “Church in Bronx to Have New Home,” New York Times, Feb 17, 1940; Cemeteries of the Bronx (Raftery 2016)

New Utrecht Cemetery

A view of New Utrecht Cemetery, ca 1915. Metropolitan Baptist Church is in the background. The Dubois-Crane obelisk, toppled by Hurricane Floyd in 1999, can be seen rising above the other tombstones at the northeast corner of the cemetery (MCNY)

Located on a quiet residential block in the Bensonhurst section of southwestern Brooklyn, the old New Utrecht Cemetery is a relic of a time when this locale was the heart of one of the six original towns of Brooklyn. The one-acre burial ground, at the corner of 16th Avenue and 84th Street, was established in 1654 when the Dutch settled the village of New Utrecht. The cemetery was centrally located on the village’s main thoroughfare (now 84th Street) and the town’s first house of worship, the New Utrecht Reformed Dutch Church, was constructed at its northeast corner in 1700. Although owned by the church, the cemetery was traditionally a community burial place where any inhabitant of New Utrecht could be buried regardless of religious affiliation.

A finely-carved, early tombstone at New Utrecht Cemetery, photographed ca. 1910 (BHS)

In 1828 the Reformed Dutch congregation tore down their building adjacent to the cemetery and built a new church two blocks away, at 84th Street and 18th Avenue, where it is today. In 1899, St. John’s German Lutheran Church (later Metropolitan Baptist Church) was erected where the Dutch church formerly stood; this building still stands at the northeast corner of the cemetery. Clustered closest to the church are the family plots of the earliest New Utrecht families, including the Van Brunts, Cortelyous, Cowenhovens, Cropseys, and Bennetts. Further from the building are plots for families who settled in the area in the 19th century a later—many with Scotch-Irish and Italian surnames. Behind the church is an unmarked area of the cemetery where American Revolutionary War soldiers are said to be buried. 

1896 newspaper clipping reporting John Hicks’ burial at New Utrecht Cemetery

In the northwest corner of the cemetery, near the intersection of 16th Avenue and 84th Street, is another section unmarked by gravestones. This is the old “slave burying ground,”  once fenced off the rest of the grounds, where members of the local African American community were buried into the 20th century. Though the names of most of those interred here are unknown, historical obituaries provide information for a few. Among them is John Hicks, a former slave of the Cortelyou family, buried “in that section set apart for colored people in the New Utrecht Cemetery” when he died in 1896. Also here is Anthony Thompson, who died in the Brooklyn Home for Aged Colored People in 1911 at age 98. Born enslaved at Paterson, New Jersey, Thompson escaped by running away at age 16, eventually settling in New Utrecht and fathering 13 children.

This photo from a 1900 newspaper article depicts the “slave burying ground” at the northwest corner of New Utrecht Cemetery

At the northeast corner of the cemetery is a large granite obelisk memorializing physicians James E. Dubois and John L. Crane, who died of yellow fever  while treating local victims of the disease during an 1856 epidemic. The seven-ton monument, which previously stood 18 feet high, broke off during Hurricane Floyd in 1999 and has lain on the ground since then. The townsmen of New Utrecht resolved to erect the monument at a meeting in December of 1856, where they made the following declaration:

That by the heroic courage and benevolence displayed by them in visiting all having the yellow fever, both rich and poor, until they were taken down themselves with that awful disease, thus sacrificing their own lives for their fellow suffers; resolved, therefore, that as they have endeared their memory to us, their neighbors and friends, we will erect a suitable monument to their many virtues.

Approximately 1,300 people have been interred in New Utrecht Cemetery during the past three centuries. Although the cemetery is still active, burials there are now rare.

View of New Utrecht Cemetery, May 2016 (Mary French)
A 2018 aerial view of New Utrecht Cemetery at 84th St and 16th Ave in Bensonhurst (NYCThen&Now)

View more photos of New Utrecht Cemetery

Sources: Reminiscences of Old New Utrecht and Gowanus (Bangs 1912); New Utrecht Reformed Dutch Church Cemetery Designation Report (Landmarks Preservation Commission 1998); “Respect to the Martyrs,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Dec 2, 1856;  “Burial of a Former Slave,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jun 17, 1896; “The Story of New Utrecht,”  Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Apr 1, 1900; “New Utrecht Village’s Old Dutch Burying Ground,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Sep 23, 1900; “Old Church Graveyard in Sad State of Neglect,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Dec 24, 1905; “Obituary—Anthony Thompson,”  Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jun 1, 1911; “Stones in New Utrecht Cemetery Crumbling, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Mar 23, 1931; “A Burial Ground for the Mighty, Laid Low by Weeds,” New York Times, Dec 2, 2007

Flatlands Reformed Dutch Church Cemetery

This 1922 photo of Flatlands Reformed Dutch Cemetery features the tombstones of Anne Wyckoff Schenck (d. 1766) and her husband, Steven Schenck (d. 1767) (NYPL)

On the same day in 1654 that Dutch Governor Peter Stuyvesant ordered a church be built at Flatbush, he authorized the same for the neighboring settlement at Flatlands (then known as New Amersfort), another of the six original towns of Brooklyn. The first church edifice at Flatlands, erected in 1663, stood on a gently elevated spot at the head of a little stream that ran into Jamaica Bay. This site is occupied by the present Flatlands Reformed Dutch Church, at East 40th Street and Kings Highway. Constructed in 1848, it is the third church building on the site.

1873 map of Flatlands depicting the church and cemetery at what is now East 40th Street, Flatbush Ave, and Kings Highway. A public school, since demolished, is shown at the northwest corner of the grounds; the Sunday school/lecture building at the southern boundary of the grounds was rebuilt at the same location in 1904

West and southwest of the church building is the roughly two-acre cemetery where generations of Flatlanders are laid to rest; names include Lott, Voorhees, Wyckoff, Stothoff, Schenck, Kouwenhoven, and Funck, among others. Though only a few hundred gravestones remain today, over 2,000 people are believed to have been interred in the cemetery between the late 17th century and the mid-20th century. The oldest surviving tombstones date to the 1760s; the most poignant of these marks a grave shared by three young brothers—children of Peter and Willempie Amirman—who died on consecutive days in September 1767.

Tombstone of William Paupau at Flatlands Reformed Dutch Church Cemetery, May 2016 (Mary French)

Members of Flatlands’ historic African American community are also interred here. An 1882 inventory of tombstones in the cemetery identifies eight graves of “colored people,” including several members of the Paupau family that died between the 1830s and 1850s. According to research by the Friends of the Lott House in Marine Park (part of the historic town of Flatlands), the Paupaus were of African and Native American ancestry and resided in Flatlands as early as 1830. Descendants of this family were interred in the cemetery into the 20th century.

Flatlands was established in 1636 when a group of Dutch settlers bought 15,000 acres of land from local Canarsee tribal chiefs, and there was a tradition among the old families of Flatlands that the site of the church and cemetery was a former Native American burial ground. This story ostensibly was confirmed in 1904, when construction of a new Sunday school/lecture building at the southern end of the cemetery grounds uncovered what were believed to be Native American human remains. While excavating for the foundation of the new building, workers dug up 12 skeletons “of massive proportions,” according to newspaper reports, with nothing indicating they had ever been in coffins. “There is little doubt that the dozen skeletons exhumed are the remains of Indians,” the Brooklyn Daily Eagle proclaimed, and residents of the neighborhood concluded this was proof of their “Indian burial ground” folklore. The bones were placed in a box and reinterred in another section of the cemetery.

A view of the Flatlands Reformed Dutch church and cemetery, ca. 1910 (MCNY)

In the early 1900s, several distinct sections made up what is now the Flatlands Reformed Dutch Church Cemetery. These included the churchyard proper, immediately west of the church building and owned by the congregation, the “Indian burial plot” at the north end of the property, where the Native American remains uncovered in 1904 were reburied; the privately-owned DeBaun and Terhune family burial plots, forming a narrow strip below the churchyard; and the public burial ground along the southern boundary of the property, owned by the town of Flatlands. All of these sections are now owned and managed by the church. In the 1920s, the cemetery grounds were graded to street level, beautified with plantings, and enclosed by a fine wrought-iron fence. The present Flatlands Reformed Dutch Church continues to serve the ever-changing population of the local community, and the pretty, spacious grounds of the church cemetery offer a quiet place to recall the site’s long history.

This undated survey of Flatbush Avenue between Alton Place and Overbaugh Place shows parts of the various sections that historically comprised Flatlands Reformed Dutch Church Cemetery
A view of Flatlands Reformed Dutch Church Cemetery in May 2016 (Mary French)
2018 aerial view of Flatlands Reformed Dutch Church complex (NYCThen&Now)

View more photos of Flatlands Reformed Dutch Cemetery

Sources: Beers 1873 Atlas of Long Island, Pl 32; [Map of Flatbush Ave. at Alton Pl. and Overbaugh Pl.], undated; The Leonard Manual of the Cemeteries of New York and Vicinity (1901); The Ferry Road on Long Island (Armbruster 1919); Tercentenary Anniversary, 1654-1954 (Protestant Dutch Reformed Church of Flatlands 1954); “Inscriptions on the Tombstones in and around the Churchyard in the Village of Flatlands, Kings County, N.Y.” Kings County Genealogical Club Collections, 1(2), Jul 1882; Cemetery Inscriptions from Flatlands, Brooklyn, New York (Frost 1914); “Flatlands’ Church-Yard,” Kings County Rural Gazette, Apr 25, 1874; “Flatlands—The Duty of Sexton,” Kings County Rural Gazette, Apr 22, 1876; “Gravestones,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jul 21, 1882; “Old Burial Grounds,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Aug 29, 1886; “Find Dead Men’s Bones in Excavation” Brooklyn Standard Union, Aug 12, 1904; “Bones of Aborigines in Flatlands Churchyard,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Aug 12, 1904; “Urge City to Purchase Flatlands Property,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jun 2, 1911; Prepare for Death and Follow Me:”An Archaeological Survey of the Historic Period Cemeteries of New York City (Meade 2020); “Meet Julia Paupau Teare,” Hendrick I. Lott House Facebook post, May 6, 2020

Flatbush Reformed Dutch Church Cemetery

A view of the Flatbush Reformed Dutch Church in about 1890. Part of the cemetery can be seen on the south side of the building (BHS)

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.

This detail from an 1873 map of Flatbush depicts the church and cemetery at the southwest corner of what is now Flatbush and Church Avenues. The parsonage, shown south of the church grounds on Flatbush Ave, was relocated to its current location at the southwest corner of the church grounds in 1920

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.

This 1923 photo, taken from East 21st Street, shows part of the cemetery to the rear of the church building (NYPL)

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.

A view of the Flatbush Reformed Dutch Church Cemetery in April 2016. In the background is the church house erected in 1923-24 (Mary French)
2018 aerial view of the Flatbush Reformed Dutch Church complex (NYCThen&Now)

View more photos of Flatbush Reformed Dutch Church Cemetery

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)