Tag Archives: Brooklyn cemeteries

Most Holy Trinity Cemetery

A landscape dotted with rusted metal markers and wooden crosses, Most Holy Trinity Cemetery in Brooklyn is one of the city’s most unique and visually arresting graveyards.  Nestled at the end of Central Avenue in Bushwick and bounded by Evergreen Cemetery and the tracks of the NYC Subway’s L train, the 23-acre cemetery was established in 1851 as a new cemetery for Most Holy Trinity Church, the first German Catholic church in Williamsburg.  The parish cemetery was originally located behind the church at Montrose Avenue in East Williamsburg; when a new church building and schools were planned for that site, a four-acre parcel of land was purchased from Evergreen Cemetery to serve as a church cemetery.  The remains from the Montrose Avenue site were transferred to the new Most Holy Trinity Cemetery and, as the need for burial space grew over the years to accommodate an estimated 25,000 graves, the church purchased additional parcels from Evergreen until the parish cemetery reached its present size.

Location of Most Holy Trinity Cemetery.
Location of Most Holy Trinity Cemetery.
Holy Trinity Cemetery in 1880.
Holy Trinity Cemetery in 1880.

When Most Holy Trinity Cemetery was created, the church resolved that no distinctions were permitted to be made between the rich and the poor, and the rule was established that no stone monuments could be erected. Until very recent times, when flat gravestones have been permitted, only simple wooden and metal markers indicated the resting places of the dead.  This “democratic equality of the grave” set the graveyard apart from others in the area and the markers created a remarkable visual spectacle.  An 1890 article in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle described it:

The monuments that surmount [the graves] present a curious picture and one that has not a parallel in any other cemetery in the neighborhood of these two cities . . . the monuments are now all of wood, or, especially the later ones, of galvanized iron, dressed in imitation of gray granite.  Nearly all of them have crosses rising above them, but the peculiar feature of nearly every one of them is that it is decorated with highly gilded figures of the crucifix, the winged head of a cherub and lamb.  Some stones contain all of these three figures, some only one.  They sparkle everywhere among the thickly strewn white and gray monuments and give the peculiar aspect to the cemetery that distinguishes it decidedly from all others.

Today, few of the numerous wooden crosses that once filled the cemetery are still present and the weatherworn crucifixes have lost their gilding.  Large grassy areas, probably once filled with wooden crosses, now have only a few markers scattered here and there.  The rusted metal markers, many strangely crumpled and peeling with paint, add to the peculiar atmosphere of this most interesting site.

A profusion of wooden crosses mark the gravesites in Holy Trinity Cemetery, 1929.
A profusion of crosses mark the gravesites in Holy Trinity Cemetery, 1929 (NYPL).
Metal grave markers in Holy Trinity Cemetery, December 2011.
Metal grave markers in Holy Trinity Cemetery, December 2011.
Wooden grave marker in Holy Trinity Cemetery, December 2011.
Wooden grave marker in Holy Trinity Cemetery, December 2011.

View more photos of Most Holy Trinity Cemetery.

Sources: OpenStreetMap; Hopkins’ 1880 Detailed Estate and Old Farm Line Atlas of the City of Brooklyn, Vol. 2, Pl. R; The History of Most Holy Trinity Cemetery; “Crosses Gone from Hundreds of Graves in the Trinity Cemetery,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 24 1890, p.6; “Holy Trinity Cemetery. A Unique Burial Ground Which Is a Multiplied Golgotha,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Nov 26 1899, p.18; “A Village Churchyard,” Thomas F. Meehan, Historical Records and Studies 7, 1914, p.183-194.

St. James Churchyard

The graveyard surrounding the Cathedral Basilica of St. James in downtown Brooklyn is believed to be the oldest Catholic cemetery on Long Island.  St. James was founded in 1822 when a group of about 70 Brooklyn Catholics purchased property on the corner of Chapel and Jay Streets to establish a church and a place of interment. It was the first Catholic church built in Brooklyn and the first on Long Island.  Shortly after the church was erected, the yard around it began to be used as a burial ground for clergy and laity. When the original ground was filled, more property was procured until the cemetery extended in a tongue back to about 100 feet of Bridge Street.  Some 7,000 adults and children are said to have been interred in the graveyard between 1823 and 1849, when burials there were prohibited by law. In 1900, about 200 tombstones were still standing in the graveyard at St. James, including a number of old wooden crosses and boards among the marble and red sandstone slabs; by 1914, all the wooden markers had disappeared and only about 100 tombstones were left.  Many graves reportedly are beneath the rear of the church, covered over when the church was rebuilt and enlarged in 1902.  Most of the markers that are still present in the churchyard today lie flat in the ground, preserved but hidden from passersby by the wall that surrounds the parish grounds.

St. James Church and graveyard in 1880. When the Brooklyn Diocese was created in 1853, St. James was selected as the cathedral church; it was designated a basilica in 1982.
A view of St. James and the burial grounds on the north and south sides of the church, 1948.
St. James Church and graveyard, 2010.
Tombstones in St. James Churchyard, Aug. 2011.

Sources:  “The Cathedral Ground,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Dec. 9, 1888; “The Catholic Church in the United States of America (Catholic Editing Co. 1914), 532-535; “A Village Churchyard,” Historical Records and Studies 7 (June 1914), 183-194; The Cathedral Basilica of St. James; Hopkins’ 1880 Detailed Estate and Old Farm Line Atlas of the City of Brooklyn, Vol. 2, Pl. H; NYCityMap

Schenck Family Burial Ground

Beneath an industrial complex just northwest of Flushing Avenue in Bushwick lies a former burial ground of the Schencks, one of Brooklyn’s prominent Dutch colonial families.  The Bushwick Schencks descended from Johannes Schenck (1656-1748), who emigrated to America in 1683 and, in 1712, settled in Bushwick where he acquired a large plantation.  The family burial ground is believed to have been established around 1724 on a parcel of land purchased by Johannes’ son Peter “at ye head of ye kill adjoining land of said Peter Schenk” near the Queens-Brooklyn dividing line.  A 1770 conveyance of the property included the clause: “excepting and always reserving unto . . . Abraham Schenk, his heirs and assigns, the burying-ground . . . and also full and free liberty, privilege and license for the friends and relations of Johannes Schenk, deceased, to pass and repass to and from the said burying-ground at all times forever after.”

Location of the Schenck Family Burial Ground in 1880.

When local historians visited the site in the 1860s and 1870s, the burial ground was still in existence, a 40 x 100 foot plot located behind two barns on the farm of Nicholas Wyckoff. Tombstone inscriptions for 18 members of the Schenck family who died between 1740 and 1858 were recorded, including that of family progenitor Johannes Schenck, “ye First of the Family Depd this Life, Febry ye 5th, 1748, Agd 92.” The remains from the Schenck graveyard were removed during the late 19th century, some to Greenwood and some to Evergreens Cemetery.  The Museum of the City of New York has among its collections three tombstones from the Schenck family burial ground—that of Johannes Schenck, mentioned above, as well as the gravestone of his daughter-in-law Maria Schenck (d. 1740), and a marker from the double grave of Maria Schenck (d. 1776) and Maria Magdelena McPhern (d. 1782), a daughter and granddaughter of Abraham Schenck, respectively.

A view of the Schenck family burial ground, 1876 (P.L. Schenck)

Sources: A History of the City of Brooklyn, Vol. 2 (H.R. Stiles 1869), 377-378; Memoir of Johannes Schenk, the Progenitor of the Bushwick, L.I., Family of Schenck (P.L. Schenck 1876), 23-27; “Old Homes and Cemeteries,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle Sept 29, 1879; “Human Remains—Removing Bodies from the Old Schenck Cemetery at Bushwick,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle Nov. 29, 1880; Hopkins’ 1880 Detailed Estate and Old Farm Line Atlas of the City of Brooklyn, Vol. 2, Pl. H; MCNY Cat. Nos. 39.327.1-39.327.3

Union Cemetery

The Union Cemetery of the Methodist Protestant churches of Manhattan and Brooklyn was founded in 1851 on 10 acres of land near the Queens county line in Bushwick, Brooklyn. The cemetery’s name was derived from the union of the Grand Street Methodist Protestant Church of Williamsburg and the Attorney Street Methodist Protestant Church of Manhattan in ownership and administration of the burial ground. The Union Cemetery in Bushwick was the second cemetery jointly held by the two congregations. The first Union Cemetery, which was used from about 1844 to 1851, was a two-acre graveyard situated a few blocks from the Grand Street church in Williamsburg; the remains from that site where relocated to the new cemetery in 1852.  The Union Cemetery in Bushwick was used as a burial ground for the two small churches but family plots and single graves where also sold to the general public.  By the 1860s, Union Cemetery was interring about 1,500 individuals annually.

Union Cemetery in 1869.
An 1897 view of Union Cemetery (NYPL)

In 1893, claiming that the cemetery was full and that the City of Brooklyn was threatening to cut streets through the property, the trustees of Trinity Methodist Protestant Church of Williamsburg (which formed from the merger of the Attorney Street and Grand Street congregations in the 1880s) announced plans to sell Union Cemetery and remove the remains from the site.  A number of lot owners protested the action and obtained a temporary injunction against the sale.  After four years of litigation, the state Supreme Court upheld the trustees’ right to dispose of the property and it was sold to merchant Henry Batterman, who proposed to subdivide it into building lots.  Grounds at Cedar Grove Cemetery in Queens were acquired for reinterrment of the remains from Union Cemetery.  Between December 1897 and January 1898, remains of an estimated 30,000 individuals were transferred to the new Union burial grounds at Cedar Grove.  The transfer was reportedly undertaken with great care—a single box was used for the contents of each grave, with the intention that each be reinterred in a plot or lot of the same size from which it was removed and in corresponding order along with any associated monuments.

Part of the Union Cemetery reburial grounds at Cedar Grove Cemetery, Queens.

At the end of the removal of the graves from Union Cemetery, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that the site had “the appearance of a battlefield, where a terrible struggle has taken place.”  Despite the lengthy fight to sell the property, the Union Cemetery site remained undeveloped and the ground was left with open, empty gravesites for a decade after the remains were removed.  In 1907, the city purchased much of the property and subsequently erected Bushwick High School and Bushwick Playground there.  The rest of the site was built over with residences.

A present-day view of the former Union Cemetery site.

Sources: Methodist Protestants and the Union Cemeteries of Brooklyn (1844-1894) (Biebel 2007); “The Homes of the Dead,” New York Times March 30,1866; “Old Burying Ground Sold,” New York Times May 4, 1893; “Trouble of the Cemetery,” New York Times June 6, 1893; “Old Union Cemetery Sold,” New York Times Dec 5, 1897; “Old Graves Laid Open,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle Dec 13, 1897; “Removing the Bodies,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle Dec 27, 1897; “Twenty Thousand Bodies,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle Jan 18, 1898; “Graves with Many Bodies,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle Jan 27, 1898;“Want Old Burial Ground for Park,” Brooklyn Standard Union, Nov 6, 1906; “Playground and School on Old Union Cemetery Site,” Brooklyn Standard Union, May 12, 1907; Dripps’ 1869 Map of the City of Brooklyn; Bromley’s 1907-08 Atlas of the Borough of Brooklyn; NYCityMap.

Salem Fields Cemetery

Mausoleums line the winding paths at Salem Fields Cemetery.
Mausoleums line the winding paths at Salem Fields Cemetery.

Salem Fields cemetery was founded in 1851 by Manhattan’s Congregation Emanu-El and became the preeminent Jewish burial ground of late 19th-early 20th century New York. Emanu-El, New York’s City’s first Reform congregation, was established in 1845 by assimilated, wealthy German Jews and their prosperity is displayed in their burial grounds. Covering 45 acres in the Cypress Hills area at the Brooklyn-Queens border, the cemetery’s undulating landscape features winding paths lined with the grand mausoleums and monuments of upper-class families such as the Warburgs, Seligmans, Guggenheims, Lewisohns, and Loebs.

Salem Fields contains about 80,000 interments.  In addition to the family plots and individual graves for Emanu-El’s members, several smaller congregations and benevolent societies also have burial grounds at Salem Fields.  The cemetery’s massive stone entryway at the corner of Cypress Hills Street and Jamaica Avenue, which includes offices and a small chapel, was added in 1915.

The richness of Salem Fields’ family crypts has tempted graveyard bandits to its grounds on a number of occasions.  In 1976, thieves stole nine bronze doors from mausoleums in the cemetery, cut them into sections, and sold them to junk dealers for $250 per foot.  At least half a dozen Tiffany windows have also been stolen from Salem Fields, the most notorious case occurring in the 1990s, when Alastair Duncan, an art dealer and one of the world’s leading experts on Tiffany stained glass, was convicted of conspiring in the theft of a window from the Glaser-Bernheim mausoleum.  Duncan sold the nine-foot-tall, 500-pound window to a Japanese collector for $220,000.

The Guggenheim mausoleum at Salem Fields Cemetery. Designed by architect Henry Beaumont Herts, it is shaped like the Tower of Winds in Athens.
Location of Salem Fields Cemetery in East New York, Brooklyn. A small portion of the property crosses over into Queens.
The main entrance to Salem Fields Cemetery, at the corner of Jamaica Ave and Cypress Hills St (Wikipedia).
The main entrance to Salem Fields Cemetery, at the corner of Jamaica Ave and Cypress Hills St (Wikipedia).

View more photos of Salem Fields Cemetery.

Sources: “Salem Fields Cemetery,” New York Times, Sept 3, 1877; “$70,000 Gateway and Chapel Planned by Temple Emanu-El,” New York Times, Sept 5, 1915; The Rise and Progress of Reform Judaism . . . 201-205 (Myer Stern, 1895); “Third Man Seized in Cemetery Theft,” Long Island Press, Sept 2, 1976; “A Passion for Graveyard Art That Took a Criminal Turn,” New York Times, Sept 5, 1999; “A Tiffany Window Is Stolen at Cemetery,” New York Times March 19, 1997; “E. New York Cemetery Vandal Hunted,” New York Daily News, July 10, 2002; The Jewish Contribution to Modern Architecture, 1830-1930 426-427 (Bedoire 2006); Riker’s 1852 Map of Newtown; NYC GIS; OpenStreetMap

Fourth Shearith Israel Cemetery / Beth Olom Cemetery

The Calvert Vaux chapel at Beth Olom.
The Calvert Vaux chapel at Beth Olom.

Following the closure of its First, Second and Third cemeteries in Manhattan during the first half of the 19th century, in 1851 Congregation Shearith Israel established a seven-acre cemetery in the Cypress Hills area that straddles the Brooklyn-Queens border.  The Fourth Shearith Israel Cemetery is one of three burial grounds that form Beth Olom Cemetery, which is co-owned by Shearith Israel along with two other Manhattan synagogues.  B’nai Jeshurun, NYC’s second-oldest Jewish congregation, founded in 1825 by a faction that seceded from Shearith Israel, has a four-acre burial ground within Beth Olom; Shaaray Tefila, an offspring of B’nai Jeshurun that formed in 1845, has two acres.  Beth Olom is located on the west side of Cypress Hills Street, just south of Jackie Robinson Parkway, in the Ridgewood-East New York neighborhoods. About half the property lies in Queens and the other half in Brooklyn.

Several thousand members of Shearith Israel, B’nai Jeshurun, and Shaaray Tefila are interred at Beth Olom, including a number of the congregations’ spiritual leaders. Benjamin Nathan Cardozo, U.S. Supreme Court Justice from 1932-1938, is buried in the Shearith Israel cemetery at Beth Olom, as is his uncle and namesake, Benjamin Nathan, a vice president of the New York Stock Exchange whose 1870 murder remains one of the city’s famous unsolved crimes.  Poet Emma Lazarus, whose sonnet “The New Colossus” is inscribed at the base of The Statue of Liberty, is also interred at Beth Olom. The chapel near the entrance to the Shearith Israel section at Beth Olom is the work of Calvert Vaux, the co-designer of Central Park. Commissioned in 1882, the small, red brick chapel is the only religious building that Vaux is known to have built.

Location of Beth Olom Cemetery, which includes the Fourth Shearith Israel cemetery and burial grounds of B’nai Jeshurun and Shaaray Tefila.
The divisions of Beth Olom Cemetery in Queens (top) and Brooklyn (bottom), 1905
Entrance to the Fourth Shearith Israel Cemetery at Beth Olom.

Sources: Ullitz’s 1898-99 Atlas of the Brooklyn Borough…Vol. 1, Pl. 44; Hyde’s 1903 Atlas of the Borough of Queens Vol. 2, Pl. 29; Hyde’s 1905 Atlas of the Borough of Brooklyn Vol. 4, Pl. 10; Portraits Etched in Stone 141-142 (de Sola Pool, 1952); “Benjamin Nathan Cardozo (1870-1938),” Judicial Notice 6, Jan 2009, 3-18; “The Criminal Record: The Nathan Murder,” New York Herald Tribune, Aug. 2, 1870; Country, Park & City: The Architecture and Life of Calvert Vaux 285 (Francis R. Kowsky 2003); AIA Guide to New York City 779 (White et al 2010); NYCityMap; OpenStreetMap