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A Brief History of New York City's Early Cemeteries

Posted by A69143a5 tiny Jen Messier on nov 28, 2011 under Class Recap

Allison taught a wonderful class on the history of New York City cemeteries this fall, and on top of it all, she wrote an excellent summary for us to post here. You can find part one, on forgotten cemeteries like potters' fields, right here, and keep an eye out for part three very soon. 

Okay, onto the knowledge: 

New York City’s cemeteries are more than burial grounds for its citizens; they are a reflection of the city’s history. The cemeteries have evolved and transformed along with the sprawl of the city where, even in death, nothing is permanent. Below is a brief history of how the cemeteries in New York City have developed:

Pre-European Burial Grounds

Of course, people were buried in New York before European settlement. The largest Lenape burial ground was found on Staten Island. The Burial Ridge is on an unmarked hill within Conference House Park, where many skeletons are buried with their knees drawn to their chests. Smaller burial grounds have also been found on Staten Island.

Europeans Arrive-Church Cemeteries

With European settlement starting in 1609, most burials would take place in churchyards or church cemeteries. These cemeteries were at the heart of daily life and constant reminders of mortality. (A popular epitaph was: “Where you are now, so once was I. Where I am now, so you will be.”)

They were also, unfortunately, festering eyesores, and in the mid-19th century became a public health concern. Internments in lower Manhattan were banned in the first half of the 19th century and it was necessary to find another approach to burial.

There are still a few church cemeteries in NYC that you can visit without risk of yellow fever. Trinity Church has three burial grounds associated with it: Trinity Churchyard at Wall Street and Broadway (eternal home of Alexander Hamilton), Trinity Church Cemetery and Mausoleum in Washington Heights (established in 1842, eternal home of John James Audubon and John Jacob Astor, as well as the only active cemetery remaining in Manhattan), and the Churchyard of St. Paul’s Chapel (built in 1766, now located across from the World Trade Center site).

New Lots Cemetery in Brooklyn, established in 1824 across from the Dutch Reformed Church, has burials dating to the 17th century, and St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery in the East Village, where the original chapel was built in 1660 by Peter Stuyvesant, still holds his crypt and the graves of other wealthy New Yorkers under the church and in the surrounding yard. 

Next time: 19th Century cemeteries, like Green-wood and the ever-interesting marble cemeteries in the East Village. 

Tagged with new york city history cemeteries green-wood cemetery

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