24 June 1906
Brooklyn Standard Union


A familiar landmark is the First Reformed Church, of Flatbush, Venerable, 
and with an aspect of dignified comfort, the church stands at the corner of 
Church and Flatbush avenues, where two hundred and fifty years ago, by an 
order of Gov. STUYVESANT, the original edifice was erected.

   STUYVESANT, who seems to have exercised a controlling power in 
ecclesiastical as well as in civil and military affairs, directed that 
the church be sixty or sixty-two feet long and twenty-eight feet wide 
and should be built in the form of a cross, and that the rear should be 
reserved for the minister's dwelling. When the building was finished, 
about 1660, those who had charge reported that the cost had been 
4,637 guilders, or about $1,800. Among the names of those who assisted 
in the liquidation of this debt we find those of Gov. STUYVESANT and the 
East India Company.

   Forty years later this church proved too small for the congregation which 
assembled for worship, so a larger church was built on the same spot. It was 
a stone edifice, this second one, with a large double arched door in the 
centre, and was still standing at the time of the Revolution. After the 
battle of Long Island the wounded soldiers were carried into this church, 
and it was used as a temporary hospital. Afterward, when other provision 
was made for the sick and wounded, it was taken possession of by the British 
troops, who thoroughly ransacked it; some artillery men even stabled their 
horses in the pews and fed them there. It outlasted this desecration, 
however, and was used as a place of worship until the present edifice was 
erected in 1796 on the site of the former churches.

   This last church was three years in building, and was most substantially 
made, as one can see for himself. Most of the stones for the walls were 
quarried at Hurigate, N.Y., and the brownstone used in the construction 
was broken from the rocky ridge of hills dividing Flatbush from Brooklyn. 
The cost of the building was $12,000, and it was consecrated early in 
1797 by Dominie SCHOONMAKER.

   All the ministers who died after 1701 were interred in the church, and 
such members as could afford it were also allowed this privilege. This accounts 
for the fact that there are not more old tombstones in the churchyard. In that 
portion of the burying ground which apparently has no graves in it, rest the 
bodies of those who died in the battle of Flatbush. They were gathered from the 
woods and hills in the route of the invading army, and as they were hastily 
interred, without coffin or tombstone, that part of this old graveyard where 
they lie was never used afterwards.

   Close to this spot where the patriots are buried, the visitor comes upon a 
grave covered by a huge flat stone. The storms of a century have well-nigh 
washed away the inscription, but with a good deal of labor one can make out that 
the grave is that of John VANDERBILT, who died in 1796. This is the testimony 
that the old stone bears to his worth: "He was a merchant of distinguished 
probity, a real patriot, an affectionate relative, a sincere friend and a worthy 
man. Blessed with affluence, he displayed a spirit of munificence in 
promoting the welfare of his country, of religion and virtue. The moderation and 
conciliatory disposition which accompanied and conducted his virtues, secured him 
through life an esteem almost unrivalled, and rendered his death a great loss 
to the public and to his family irreparable."

   It was John VANDERBILT who gave the bell which still sounds forth the 
hours from the steeple. VANDERBILT had the bell imported from Holland, and the 
vessel upon which it was shipped was captured by the British and taken to 
Halifax, and from the fact that the bell had on it this inscription, "Presented to 
the Reformed Dutch Church of Flatbush, by John VANDERBILT," it was presumed that 
both vessel and cargo belonged to a Dutch merchant, and everything was on the 
point of being confiscated, when a relative of VANDERBILT went to Halifax and 
testified that he was a citizen of the United States. It is a remarkable fact 
that almost the first time this bell was used was on the occasion of the 
funeral of its donor.

   There are no monuments in this graveyard expressive of a desire for 
ostentatious display, and no inflated epitaphs exaggerating the virtues of the 
deceased. There is a solemnity about the old Dutch words which the visitor sees 
carved on the venerable brown headstones, a dignity that is impressive, it may be 
the reflection of the graves which they overshadow, or it may be that the 
silence of the long years since they were the written or spoken language invests 
them with the sombre grace and tenderness which characterizes that which has 
forever passed away.

   On many of the tombstones are the words "Hier leyt begraven" ("Here lies 
buried"), followed by the name, age and date of death; "Hier leyt het 
stoffelyk____" (Here lies the earthly remains of ___") is sometimes the wording, 
and very often it is this: "In den Heere ontslapen" (Sleeping in the Lord"). 
"Gedachtnis," in remembrance, is also a word which frequently appears on the 

   The birth and death of a young girl are thus expressed, in Dutch: "She 
came into the world (date)"; she removed to another home (date)"; while over the 
grave of an infant are the lines:
"Happy the babe who, pivileged by fate
To shorter labors and a lighter weight,
Received but yesterday the gift of breath
Ordered to-morrow to return to death."

   The ugly skeletons and crossbones which are found in some old graveyards 
are not found here but, instead, upon nearly every stone is carved a head and 
wings, supposed to represent a cherub; more crude and grotesque representations 
it would be hard to find.

   One of the graves attracts the visitor's notice. It is that of Henry 
SUYDAM, who died in 1805. SUYDAM was very active in the military operations of the 
Continental Army around New York, and his house, still standing on Evergreen 
avenue, was the quarters of several Hessian troops, whose filthy habits have 
ever rendered an unsavory memory of those days in 1776 when the British wintered 
in New York and its vicinity.

   Nearby is the grave of Abraham LOTT, who died in 1754. LOTT was a member 
of the Assembly from 1737 to 1750, and his son, who lies not far away, was 
clerk of the Assembly from 1751 to 1767.

The crumbling tombstones bear the names of many families of old Dutch stock, 
whose members played leading parts in city, State and National affairs; 

   Marking the grave of Philip NAGLE, one time a member of the Provincial 
Congress, is a stone which thus admonishes the reader:
"Behold and see as you pass by,
As you are now, so once was I;
As I am now you soon will be,
Prepare for death and follow me."

   Along the western fence of the cemetery is the grave of one Richard ALSOP, 
a resident of Middletown, Conn. The noticeable thing about the grave is that 
the epitaph, neatly carved on the headstone, is repeated word for word upon a 
ghastly coffin-shaped slab which completely covers the grave.

   Just beyond the western boundary of the graveyard, and separated by a high 
fence, is a small enclosure, not much larger than the grave itself, where 
lies buried a colored woman by the name of Flora, who lived to a great age in a 
Flatbush family. There are two other domestics, fellow servants of Flora, who 
are buried in this same plot.

   In the southern extension of the graveyard is a rubbish pile, upon which 
are several forgotten memorial stones. Poking the weeds away from one of them 
the visitor reads that:
"Little Tommy was our darling,
Pride of all our hearts at home;
But the angels floating lightly
Came and whispered Tommy home."
There is no clue as to who is responsible for this verse, nor can any trace 
of "Tommy's" grave be found.

   Near the rubbish heap is the well-kept grave of Charity HART, whose 
epitaph states:
"A soul prepared needs no delay,
The summons comes, the saints obey.
Swift was her flight, short was the road,
She closed her eyes and saw her God;
The dust rests here till Jesus comes
To claim the treasure from the tomb."

   Near the close of the eighteenth century some of the graves had been 
disturbed in this and neighboring villages, and in consequence great excitement had 
prevailed; and an act of the Legislature was passed in 1796, authorizing the 
inhabitants of Flatbush to establish a night watch. For this reason a building 
was erected on the northern boundary of the graveyard, in which watch was 
kept for a time over newly-made graves. After a time all causes for alarm in this 
direction abated; the guardhouse was then diverted from the purpose for which 
it was originally constructed, and used to store the bier on which the 
coffins were carried.

   Some aged, colored people who were supported by the town, were at one time 
allowed to live in this building there being no almshouse in Flatbush until 
1830. It would seem a melancholy fate, indeed, to live in a churchyard with a 
bier in the house. Subsequently, however, the building was constructed into an 
engine house for the protection of the first Flatbush fire engine, long before 
the present house of the company was built.

   While the old Dutchmen of Flatbush did not indulge in wakes, yet they 
nevertheless had a custom which formed a part of the funeral preparations, and 
which was closely akin to the Irish custom. This was the feast provided by the 
family of the deceased at the time of a funeral, when a great amount of liquor 
was consumed. In those early days, when the country was thinly settled, and 
friends and relatives came from a distance to pay the last tribute of affection 
to the dead, some refreshment was necessary for them, and thence arose the 
custom of setting a table and preparing a bountiful supply of provision for such 
as lived at a long distance. Here is an exact copy of a bill of certain funeral 
expenses of a wealthy and highly respected resident of Flatbush, whose death 
occurred in 1789.

"An account of the funeral expenses of P.L. esq. twenty gallons of good wine, 
two gallons spirits, one large loaf of lump sugar, one-half dozen nutmegs, 
one-half gross long pipes, four pounds tobacco, one and one-half of black silk 
handkerchiefs, six loaves of bread."

   A hundred years ago there was no undertaker prepared to furnish all the 
requisites for the funeral. The cabinet maker was called on to make a coffin, 
and he came to measure the dead for that purpose. Some woman in the neighborhood 
was expected to make the shroud; if it was not in the house, ready made years 
before; and most people were far-sighted enough to have their shrouds ready. 
Funerals were seldom held in the church, the general custom being to hold the 
services in the house of the deceased, and then the body was carried to the 
grave upon a bier when the funeral was not too far from the village churchyard.

   It is within the memory of those now living that all the looking glasses 
were carefully covered at the time of a death in the family, a custom which has 
survived in its practice among the negroes in this neighborhood at the 
present day. It has been said also that a coffin was never placed before a mirror, 
but this may have been an individual rather than a general superstition.
   There has been only one interment in the old cemetery since the Civil War, 
and that was of an aged, maiden lady, a member of one of the old Flatbush 
families, who died some twenty years since; indeed, with this exception and that 
of a soldier who fell on a Southern field of battle, there has not been a 
grave made later than fifty years ago.

   The records graven on the stones are fast disappearing. Time has set his 
strongest workmen here; the rain drops lodge in the crevices, and the hammer of 
the frost enters after them. These monuments will not much longer withstand 
the defacement; they are yielding to time, the conqueror, more slowly, but none 
the less surely, than those whose names they vainly strive to commemorate.

Transcribed for the Brooklyn Information Pages by Mary Musco
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