Droning with Tom: The Old Departed

Tom texted, “you want to see the strangest cemetery in Brooklyn?” And, of course, I picked him right up.

My first writing lessons were given in cemeteries. My dad always pulled off to the side of the road every time he saw an old graveyard then we’d all fall out of the car to wander about reading all the inscriptions that hadn’t been blasted away by time. His belief was that, if you want to really learn about a place and the people who fashioned it, visit its cemetery. Read every tombstone and suss out the framework of intimate stories. Feel the weight of lives lived stored for generations in these quiet open grounds.

It’s rare to find someone who also thinks of cemeteries as a repository of great stories. But then that’s Tom. Name a neighborhood, and he knows where a cemetery is. In fact, name a country where he’s been–and he’s traveled all over the world–and he has a bunch of graveyard photos.

Tom’s strange cemetery is a good one. The graveyard for Most Holy Trinity church is found under a section of the elevated L train on a rutted cobblestone street lined with low slung, heavily graffiti covered brick warehouses. It would have been paradise in 1851 when the first funeral passed through it’s gates.

It doesn’t look very strange at all with its neatly kept rows and substantial tombstone until you begin to notice the dents and deep rust.

And then there were some very wonderful DYI markers.

Most Holy Trinity is known as the iron cemetery because almost all the memorials are made of sheet metal and those lead pipes. There’s a couple of disintegrating wooden crosses. Flat granite stones mark more recent burials. None of the markers tell much more than names and dates. Many don’t even have that. It’s the simple material of metal and wood that convey the thinking and values of the German immigrant congregation who decided that no one in their parish would be judged rich or poor–we are all the same when lying side by side.

Tom had another cemetery in mind. Bayside Cemetery in Ozone Park, founded in 1865, is the oldest still active Jewish cemetery in the city. One side of it is completely wooded, a dense forest ten yards from the traffic along Pitkin Avenue. The tombstones stretch forever, tightly packed together. Bayside was left to rot and vandals have raked through it for years until recently when efforts began to at least clear brush away. A landscaper stood at the gate and told us politely we could only go into the newer side. Stones toppled, gates stolen, precious stained glass in mausoleums shattered or pried off mar this part as well but at least there was a crew trying their best to harness the chaos.

Bayside Cemetery

My favorite churchyards in Brooklyn are two Dutch Reform parishes–New Utrecht at 84th Street and Flatland Reform bordered by Kings Highway. They’re both nestled smack among busy streets and packed neighborhoods where they provide a singular grace of open landscape. They’re quiet, even from outside their gates, and it’s just about possible to feel how rural Brooklyn once was. Their plain spirals still dominate the countryside around them. The tombstones read like a map of Brooklyn: Ditmas, Bath, Nostrand, Van Brunt, Cropsey.

A beat-up cyclone fence kept us out of New Utrech churchyard so Tom sent in the drone. A Revolutionary War general is buried here and soldiers who fell during the Battle of Brooklyn lie in a common grave. They share the ground with good Dutch farmers and their slaves, as well as the old city’s free black residents.

Twilight was coming on but I wanted Tom to see Flatlands Reformed Church, founded in 1652 and still filled with worshipers. The church is the third rendition but the bell in the tower remains the one that rang out to announce George Washington’s death and the end of all our country’s wars after the Revolutionary War. 1,600 souls reside in the tiny graveyard, although there are few stones to mark where they are. Names and dates have faded on most but of those still legible there are a handful of children, all of whom appeared to have died at the age of twelve. Women died in their twenties and early thirties (childbearing years). Most of the men lived longer, into their seventies and eighties. We couldn’t find the resting place of Reverand Ulpianus Van Sinderen who guided the congregation through the Revolution. By all accounts he was a real pain in the neck to many of the other Dutch ministers who remained loyal to the crown. He even once gave a rousing sermon about our right to break from George III while British soldiers sat in the pews.

Tom photographed the fading light and captured the world outside the perimeter of the little churchyard. Gone are the farms that once surrounded it, the dirt road that used to be the King’s Highway. In the far far distance, the spire kept watch over the city of New York.

Be sure to keep up with Tom on Instagram at grinder348 to follow all his photographic adventures.