Category Archives: public cemeteries

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

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The New Burial Place Without the Gate of the City

Miller Plan of New York, 1695, showing the New Burial Place
Miller Plan of New York, 1695, showing the New Burial Place (Stokes 1915)

In 1656, officials of New Amsterdam considered the necessity to establish a new cemetery to replace The Old Graveyard that was located on the west side of Broadway around present-day Morris Street.  Exactly when the new graveyard was created is uncertain, but the 1686 Charter of the City of New York identified “the new burial place without the gate of the city” among a list of public accommodations belonging to the municipality.

This burial ground is shown on the 1695 Miller Plan of New York (above), situated on the west side of Broadway just beyond the city gates that were located on Wall Street.  In 1703 the city conveyed this parcel of land to Trinity Church, which had, in 1696, purchased land adjacent to the burial ground to establish their church.  The city transferred the graveyard to Trinity on the condition that it be used as the “publick Church yard and burial place of this Citty for Ever.” It is contained in what is today the northern portion of Trinity churchyard, between Wall Street and Pine Street.  When there was a proposal to extend Albany Street through the northern portion of Trinity churchyard in 1847, a report opposing the extension described the burial ground.

It is nearly a century older than the other sections of the yard. It was originally a valley, about thirty feet lower at its extreme depth than the present surface, and has undergone successive fillings, as the density of interments rendered it necessary, to raise the land until it reached the present surface, so that the earth now, to a depth of several feet below the original and thence to the present time of interment, is in truth filled with human remains . . . The bodies buried there were those of many thousand persons of several generations, and of all ages, sects and conditions, including a large number of the officers and soldiers of the Revolutionary War, who died whilst in British captivity; and almost every old family that is or ever was in this city, has friends, relatives or connections lying there.

Diagram of the New Burial Place at the time it was transferred to Trinity Cemetery (Hoffman 1862)
The northern section of present-day Trinity Churchyard contains the New Burial Place.
The northern section of present-day Trinity Churchyard contains the New Burial Place (NYCityMap)
The gravestone of five-year-old Richard Churcher, who died in 1681, is likely a remnant of the old burial ground. (Mary French)

Sources: The Iconography of Manhattan Island 1498-1909 (Stokes 1915) 1:Pl23); Records of New Amsterdam from 1653 to 1674 (City of New York 1897) 2:24-25; Charter of the City of New York, 1686, reprinted in The Memorial History of the City of New-York (Wilson 1892), 437-446; Ecclesiastical Records, State of New York 2:1134, 1180Minutes of the Common Council of the City of New York, 1675-1776 (City of New York 1905) 2:221Treatise Upon The Estate and Rights of the Corporation of the City of New York (Hoffman 1862) 2:176-177, Diag. 2; NYCityMap.

The Old Graveyard of New Amsterdam

The Old Graveyard shown on the Castello Plan of New Amsterdam in 1660
The Old Graveyard shown on the Castello Plan of New Amsterdam in 1660 (Stokes 1915)

The earliest known cemetery of colonial Manhattan was located on the west side of Broadway, around present-day Morris Street.  It is unclear when it was first established as a burial ground, but by 1656 it apparently had been in use for many years as it was referred to in Dutch records at that time as “The Old Graveyard, which is wholly in ruins.”  The Castello Plan of New Amsterdam in 1660 (above) shows the cemetery’s location along the west side of the main highway that later became known as Broadway.  The dilapidated condition of the Old Graveyard was cause for concern again in 1665, when city officials described it as “open and unfenced, so that hogs root in the same.”  In 1676, the city ordered that the cemetery be broken into lots and sold at auction.

What happened to the burials in the Old Graveyard after it was disposed of by the city is unknown.  It is possible that the graves were moved to the new burial place that had been established further north along Broadway at what is now the northern end of Trinity churchyard.  A more likely scenario (and one that is seen repeatedly for the city’s later public cemeteries) is that the graves were left in place and the area filled in before the land was reused.  Evidence of the Old Graveyard was discovered in the mid-1800s when workmen uncovered human remains while excavating cellars in the area.  Today, the high-rise office buildings that cover the site have obliterated all signs of this early colonial graveyard.

The Old Graveyard (here called “The Old Churchyard”) shown in relation to present-day Morris street on Stokes’ Map of Dutch Grants (Stokes 1916)
Approximate location of The Old Graveyard site in present day lower Manhattan.
Approximate location of former site of The Old Graveyard in present-day lower Manhattan (NYCityMap)

Sources: Records of New Amsterdam from 1653 to 1674 (City of New York 1897) 2:24-25, 5:253Minutes of the Common Council of the city of New York, 1675-1776 (City of New York 1905) 1:47Manual for Corporation of the City of New York for 1856 (Valentine 1856) 444-447; The Iconography of Manhattan Island, 1498-1909 (Stokes 1915-1916)1:Pl.10A2:221-222, Pl. 87; NYCityMap.