Conservationists work to restore oldest tombstones in NYC

They put the grave in Gravesend: Conservationists teamed up on Wednesday to restore graves in the Old Gravesend Cemetery, which was founded in 1643.
Photo by Trey Pentecost

Preservationists labored to restore fallen graves in the city’s oldest surviving burial ground on Wednesday.

The Old Gravesend Cemetery — located on Village Road South and Van Sicklen Street — was founded in 1643 by Lady Deborah Moody, a Quaker who obtained a land grant from the Dutch to establish Gravesend, which she named after her English hometown. The first woman to found a colonial village in North America, Moody built a modern utopia. She designed her town using a revolutionary, orthogonal street grid, and hoped the village would become the capital of an English providence, according to a JSTOR Daily report.

But all that remains of the early settlement is the Old Gravesend Cemetery. Under its stately trees lie early settlers, Revolutionary War veterans, as well as hundreds of residents who lived in the area up until the 1940s. Many of the cemetery’s earliest graves are gone — probably because they were wooden — and the remaining 350 stones are in desperate need of repair, according to preservationists.

“Many of the stones had been toppled,” said John Saunders, a monument conservation manager for the Parks Department.

Saunders, interns from the Parks Department, Greenwood Cemetery staff, and several high school students worked together on Wednesday to install new foundations for the graves, hoisting the stones up, cleaning them, and planting greenery to restore the graveyard to its former glory.

“All those people there at one time brought a lot of energy to the project,” Saunders added.

The workers were able to reinstall 60 toppled graves over the course of the day.

From June until mid-August, two full-time Parks Department employees are working daily to restore the cemetery — which is currently closed to the public. The graveyard is too fragile to be open full time, but after its maintenance, the city hopes to open the space to special groups.

“It is the goal of the Parks Department to make it more available to school groups,” said Jonathan Kuhn, the Director of Arts and Antiquities at the Parks Department. With a restored, historic graveyard, conservationists hope more New Yorkers will visit the otherworldly site.

“It’s very bucolic,” said Kuhn of the area. “There are auto body shops and then lush trees. It’s a rural landscape, but you’re still in Brooklyn,” he said.

Reach reporter Rose Adams at radams@schnepsmedia.com or by calling (718) 260–8306.
Historic: The Old Gravesend Cemetery’s oldest remaining gravestones date back to 1768.
Photo by Trey Pentecost

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