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.
The first Shearith Israel cemetery at St. James Place near Chatham Square in Chinatown dates back to the 17th century.
The oldest extant tombstone is from 1683, belonging to Benjamin Bueno de Mesquita.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The adjoining graveyard quietly blends into the surrounding neighborhood.
The engraved text on many of the tombstones has been rendered illegible by exposure to the elements.
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.
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.
Also called the Second Avenue Cemetery, it was incorporated in 1831. Most of its 2,080 burials took place between 1830 and 1870.
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.
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.
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