Although the City's oldest extant carved gravestone (for Richard Churcher, who died in 1681) is in Manhattan's Trinity Churchyard, its oldest surviving cemetery is in Brooklyn. The Old Gravesend Cemetery, on the south side of Gravesend Neck Road between McDonald Avenue and Van Sicklen Street, was established by 1650.
The town of Gravesend, one of six originally comprising Kings County (Brooklyn), was settled in 1643 by religious dissenters who fled intolerant Massachusetts for the more hospitable climate of New Netherlands. They were led by an Englishwoman, Lady Deborah Moody (1586-1659?), who planned the community around a square bisected into quadrants by the crossroads of present-day Gravesend Neck Road and McDonald Avenue. Houses surrounded the central space of each quadrant, and the farmers herded their livestock into these common pastures come nightfall. The central portion of the southwestern quadrant, however, was reserved for use as a burial ground.
Through early bequests and later appropriations of land, the cemetery grew to its ultimate size of 1.6 acres. It remained active over the next 250 years, but fell into gradual disuse by the 20th century as Gravesenders turned to fashionable Green-Wood to bury their dead. Neglect set in, and despite a WPA sponsored fencing and restoration in 1935, continued unchecked until the early 1970s. Many gravestones were lost to severe vandalism in 1972, and today, none survive that predate the 18th century. The Gravesend Historical Society initiated an extensive clean-up, and through its persistence secured landmark status for the cemetery in 1976. A new iron fence enclosing the grounds was dedicated on 18 July 2002.
Gravestone carvers represented include the prolific John Zuricher (fl. 1740-84), and the elusive Thomas Brown (fl. 1764-94), called "the pencil sketch man" because of his delicately sculpted winged soul effigies. The two stones by Brown are inscribed in Dutch, a language that early found its way to English Gravesend. At least four Revolutionary War veterans are buried in the cemetery; theirs and other surviving markers offer a catalog of names familiar from the street signs they grace throughout Brooklyn: Lake, Stryker, Hubbard, Ryder, Gerritsen, Wyckoff, Bergen, Stillwell, Voorhies and Van Sicklen. The Van Sicklens maintained a separately fenced plot in the northwest corner of the cemetery. Sadly, the location of Lady Moody's grave is lost.
Incidentally, the morbid-sounding name "Gravesend" has nothing to do with burials: either Lady Moody named the place after Gravesend, England (which derives its name from words meaning "at the end of the grove"), or Willem Kieft, Director-General of New Netherlands at the time the town was founded, suggested it be called s'Gravensande, which translates from the Dutch as "count's beach."
Cooper, Victor H. A Dangerous Woman: New York's First Lady Liberty: The Life and Times of Lady Deborah Moody (1586-1659?). Bowie, MD: Heritage Books, Inc., 1995.
Ierardi, Eric J. Gravesend: The Home of Coney Island. Second edition. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2001.
Welch, Richard F. Memento Mori: The Gravestones of Early Long Island, 1680-1810. Syosset, NY: Friends for Long Island's Heritage, 1983.