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.
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.”
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.
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
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.
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 reinterment 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.
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.
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 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.
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 Olam 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 Olam; Shaaray Tefila, an offspring of B’nai Jeshurun that formed in 1845, has two acres. Beth Olam 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 Olam, 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 Olam, 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 Olam. The chapel near the entrance to the Shearith Israel section at Beth Olam 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.