Lady Moody’s graveyard: Preserving the city’s oldest burial ground

July 25, 2019 Meaghan McGoldrick
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A historic Gravesend graveyard is getting the Green-Wood treatment.

The Old Gravesend Cemetery, located near the corner of Gravesend Neck Road and McDonald Avenue since the mid-17th century, is getting a makeover. The southern Brooklyn burial ground is just one of many public spaces being spruced up this summer as part of the New York City Parks Department’s Citywide Monuments Conservation Program.

Established by Lady Deborah Moody in 1643, the landmarked cemetery is home to more than 350 gravestones, ranging in dates from the mid-18th century to the mid-1900s. Those buried there include early settlers of Brooklyn, Revolutionary War veterans and maybe even Lady Moody herself.

Lady Moody is known for setting one of the earliest examples of urban planning — and for founding Gravesend, the first New World settlement established by a woman. She is believed by many to be buried in the cemetery she brought to life.

“This is the last surviving element [of that settlement],” Jonathan Kuhn, director for art and antiquities at the Parks Department, told the Brooklyn Eagle. “She may very well be buried here, but there’s no marker.”

But there 379 stones, he said — ranging in make from sandstone and limestone to marble and granite. Volunteers could be seen on Wednesday afternoon resetting markers that had fallen over, power-washing stones and tidying the landscape.

Work being done on a fallen headstone.

For this particular project, the Parks program — founded in 1997 — paired up with Green-Wood Cemetery’s summer interns to tackle the rehabilitation.

“We’ve got restoration stuff at Green-Wood that could last us another 181 years,” Green-Wood Cemetery President Richard Moylan said, “but we really like helping wherever we can.”

“We love working with Parks — it’s just a good neighborhood thing,” Moylan told the Eagle. He credited Neela Kusum Wickremesinghe, manager of restoration and preservation at the cemetery, with changing the way other people look at Green-Wood’s preservation team.

“Neela has just been an amazing addition to our staff. We had a preservation team before that was sort of self-trained, but Neela’s just brought us to a whole other level,” Moylan said. “Two or three years ago, Parks wouldn’t have looked to us for expertise.”

Founded in 1838, Green-Wood Cemetery covers 480 acres and two centuries of city history. Each summer, Wickremesinghe gets a team of high-school interns looking to get their hands dirty.

“We’ve had an internship program for maybe 15 years,” she told the Eagle, “but for the last couple of years it’s been a little more structured through the Department of Education.”

Wickremesinghe said her program is a CTE — or career in technical education — host site, “which means that we’re able to give a summer internship experience that’s maybe a little different than an office job.”

Since becoming a CTE three years ago, she said her group has done a lot of work within Green-Wood’s public lots. “The city of New York became the stewards of a ton of closed cemeteries, and they reached out to us for help,” she said.

“We came out months ago to start planning,” Wickremesinghe said — and just days into the first phase of work, she stressed that progress could already be seen.

“It was a mess,” she said. And she’s already seen a difference. “It’s a phase kind of thing, but as my high school band teacher said about instruments, you can’t fall farther than the floor.”

This is just the first phase of the restoration, officials said. 

Moylan, Wickremesinghe and Kuhn also all gave credit to Parks Conservator John Saunders, who was hard at work getting a gravestone back upright.

Gravesend Cemetery was landmarked in 1976, alongside the parallel Van Sicklen Family Cemetery. It was transferred to the Parks Department 16 years ago.

The last known burial in the graveyard dates back to the 1940s, and it is the oldest surviving burial ground in New York City.

While it is often closed for restoration purposes, there have been tours of the cemetery in the past. Among them, Halloween-themed excursions and, most recently, one centered around Women’s History Month.

“There is an ongoing investment to making this an accessible place,” Kuhn said.

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