Hidden in Plain Sight

New York is home to many humble cemeteries right on the beaten path, their presence unannounced by towering monuments. Many of the city’s parks, such as Madison Square and Bryant Park, originated as potter’s fields. Other cemeteries have somehow weathered the test of time and withstood ever-encroaching development. If you’re not paying attention, you might walk right past them and not even notice.

George Miller, Jr. Jewish cemetery at Bowery near Chatham Square. ca. 1930. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.12.34

The first Shearith Israel cemetery at St. James Place near Chatham Square in Chinatown dates back to the 17th century.

Beecher Ogden. Jewish Burial Ground. 1950. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.2658

The oldest extant tombstone is from 1683, belonging to Benjamin Bueno de Mesquita.

Beecher Ogden. Graves in the Jewish cemetery. 1950. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.2667

It is often referred to as the first Shearith Israel cemetery, because it is the oldest surviving burial ground of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue. But the synagogue’s oldest cemetery can be traced back to 1656, when authorities granted to Congregation Shearith Israel “a little hook of land situate outside of this city for a burial place.” Unfortunately, its precise location is now unknown.

Robert L. Bracklow. Jewish Cemetery, Chatham Square. 1880-1910. Museum of the City of New York. 93.91.359

Shearith Israel was founded in 1654 by 23 Jewish refugees from Recife, Brazil. It was New York City’s only Jewish congregation until 1825. The cemetery is the final resting place for a number of notable people. The image below shows the tombstone of Jonas Phillips, a merchant, Freemason, and ardent supporter of the American cause during the Revolutionary War.

Beecher Ogden. Jewish Cemetery on New Bowery Street. 1950. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.2666

Phillips is not the only patriot buried in the cemetery. Below you can see the headstone of Gershom Mendes Seixas, Shearith Israel’s cantor, who also advocated for the United States during the revolution. Seixas was a participant in the 1789 inauguration of George Washington.

Beecher Ogden. Graves in the Jewish Cemetery. 1950. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.2680

At the bustling intersection of Church and Flatbush Avenues in Brooklyn stands the Flatbush Dutch Reformed Church. The landmarked structure was built from 1793-1798 and designed by Thomas Fardon.

Dutch Reformed Church, Built 1796, Flatbush Ave., Brooklyn, N.Y. ca. 1915. Museum of the City of New York Postcard Collection. F2011.33.1976

The adjoining graveyard quietly blends into the surrounding neighborhood.

Flatbush Avenue Dutch Reformed Church. ca. 1915. Museum of the City of New York Photo Archives. X2010.11.7417

The engraved text on many of the tombstones has been rendered illegible by exposure to the elements.

Cemetery of the Flatbush Avenue Dutch Reformed Church. ca. 1910. Museum of the City of New York Photo Archives. X2010.11.7510

The surnames of some of the people buried in the churchyard are reflected in the names of Brooklyn neighborhoods and streets: Peter Lefferts, Catherine Wyckoff, and Philipus Ditmas.

George P. Hall and Son. Cemetery of the Dutch Reformed Church. ca. 1900. Museum of the City of New York. 92.53.35

The New York Marble Cemetery, bounded by Bowery, 2nd Avenue, and 2nd and 3rd Streets in the East Village, is New York City’s oldest public non-sectarian cemetery.

First Marble Cemetery. ca. 1910. Museum of the City of New York Photo Archives. X2010.11.243

Also called the Second Avenue Cemetery, it was incorporated in 1831. Most of its 2,080 burials took place between 1830 and 1870.

Chicago Albumen Works. Jacob A. Riis. Old Marble Cemetery. 1895. Museum of the City of New York. 90.13.1.283

Public concern over yellow fever outbreaks caused legislators to outlaw earth burials, so 156 marble vaults were built 10 feet underground. There are no gravestones in the cemetery, although you can see names of the deceased on plaques in the surrounding walls.

Jacob A. Riis. The Old Marble Cemetery — proposed for a play ground, taken in summer 1895. Museum of the City of New York. 90.13.1.281

The marble used for the cemetery’s vaults, plaques, and lintels is soft and susceptible to the elements. The Dead House, used for the temporary storage of remains, was particularly vulnerable and had to be demolished in 1955.

Jacob A. Riis. The Dead-house in Old Marble Cemetery. 1895. Museum of the City of New York. 90.13.1.285

For more information about these sites, please visit:

http://www.1654society.org/

http://www.facebook.com/FlatbushReformedChurch

http://www.marblecemetery.org/

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