Friday, October 07, 2005

Ghost World

From "Wake the Echoes," Kingston Times, October 6, 2005:
Fifty years ago my parents, looking to move from our apartment in the Bronx, brought me along for a realtor’s tour of an attractively priced row house in Maspeth, Queens. Everything seemed neat and agreeable until, walking into the kitchen at the back of the house, my mother gasped at the view out the back window: a massive cemetery. She rushed my brother and me out of the house as my father lingered to offer a hurried apology to the home’s owner.

Today I would guess that sea of headstones to have been Calvary Cemetery, but it might have been another of the seventeen necropoli that shot up in western Queens after the latest cholera epidemic put an end to Manhattan burials in 1852. No matter; the point was that my mother had witnessed her fill of death in Europe and had no wish to flash back while standing over the dishes.

For the past four years I, however, have looked down quite happily from the north window of my second-floor office in Kingston onto the Old Dutch graveyard, which fronts on Main Street between Fair and Wall. Its weathered markers of past lives, some commenced in the seventeenth century, seem to me not the least bit chilling or morbid, but calming and serene. Although no ancestor of mine rests here, I know these old Dutch names — Hardenbergh, Dubois, Hasbrouck, Tappen, Bruyn, and more — by custom and tradition; my familiar walk among them might as well be familial.

Actually, my office location compounds my distant-relation feelings, as it is in the one-time parsonage, constructed in 1836, of the Dutch Reformed Church, dedicated in 1852. That seeming discrepancy (why build a parish house first?) points to an odd chain of events into which St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church, in view as I swivel my desk chair to the west, also figures. It was built by the congregation of the Old Dutch Church in 1832 as a sturdy brick successor to the log construction of 1661 as well as the stone structure of 1679 that was rebuilt in 1752, burned by the British in 1777, and rebuilt again. My odd perspective on St. Joseph’s eastern roofline reveals its 1830s Greek Revival origins, utterly camouflaged to Main Street strollers by the 1898 Beaux Arts refacing of its frontage.

In 1850 the Old Dutch congregation commissioned celebrated architect Minard Lafever to design a new house of worship at its old location on the south side of the street. (The slate roof was not Lafever’s idea; this locally inspired brainstorm caused the eastern wall to begin to bow almost immediately, and the predictable long-term effect is visible today — inside the church, with its tilted columns, and outside, with its ungainly buttresses.) This bluestone church, the noble edifice that has come to define Stockade Kingston today, was inspired in part by Sir Christopher Wren's St. Paul's Cathedral in London. The first to be buried from the new church was the painter John Vanderlyn, who reposes in Wiltwyck Cemetery and was the subject of my first “Wake the Echoes” column last year.

So what happened to the Old Dutch congregation’s 1832 brick church? It was leased to several commercial interests, served as an armory in the Civil War, and ultimately was sold to St. Joseph’s.

Returning to the storied stones of the Old Dutch churchyard, let’s start with the tablets embedded on each side of the entrance, which derive from the Old Middle Dutch Church on Nassau Street in New York City, erected in 1729 and given over to civic uses in 1844. With Biblical inscriptions in Dutch on the sandstone and in English on the granite, the tablets read, “I have loved the habitation of thy house” and “My house shall be called a house of prayer.”

These stones were presented to the Old Dutch Church in 1876 by one of its most celebrated parishioners, General George H. Sharpe. He also caused the statue called “Patriotism,” very recently refurbished, to be erected in 1896. Twelve years later the remains of George Clinton — first governor of New York State and Vice President under Thomas Jefferson and James Madison — were removed from Washington, D.C. to a memorial in the west lawn of the cemetery.

Bronze tablets of interest adorn the front as well, one detailing the history of the church and the other a 1932 commemoration of George Washington’s visit, 150 years earlier, to the church then on this site. That church and the Lafever church of 1852 both fronted onto Main Street, but the latter was sited some distance north, directly above the graves of 81 congregants whose earthly remains the Old Dutch directors deigned to move. They lie under the church still, though their grave markers were relocated to the Fair Street side of the cemetery. These sadly fated souls and their death dates are cited on four marble tablets within the church, two on each side of the altar. One may identify their disembodied headstones by the “X” (St. Andrew’s Cross) incised on the backs. The marker for one of these unfortunates fronts on Main Street, just inches from pavement passersby:
OF APRIL 1690.
APRIL 1746

Several of the stones on both sides of the graveyard are cracked, their information lost to view though retained in the church records. Some are copper-clad at the top to hold the crumbling stone together. Many of the inscriptions are rubbed to the point of being indecipherable, or have splintered off into fragments that still lie on the turf, presenting a perplexing jigsaw puzzle. Bronze emblems placed by the Sons of the American Revolution to honor veterans of the War of Independence ornament the lawn like dandelions. Jagged obelisks, stone spears of more primitive times, mark the graves of Dutch parishioners such as Andries DeWitt, who died on July 22, 1710.

Why do we bury our dead in such sylvan settings and see that their graves are kept clean? Why not a funeral pyre or catacomb or pyramid? Because in Judeo-Christian cultures of the West we are nostalgic for the Garden of Eden, from which we so long ago were banished, never in life to return. We imagine that in death our heroes cavort on the fields of Elysium, les Champs Elysees, the Elysian Fields of Gold. In colonial America a headstone or urn under a weeping willow in back of the farmhouse was sufficiently affecting, as was a country churchyard setting like that of the Old Dutch. But as the nation urbanized, the need emerged for a park within the city, one that not only honored the fallen but gave recreation and clean air to the generations on the rise.

The national response may be measured equally by the new landscaped cemeteries — notably Mt, Auburn outside Boston (founded in 1831 by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society) and Green-Wood in Brooklyn (the first rural cemetery in New York, incorporated in 1838) — and such playing fields as the tellingly named Elysian Fields or Fenway Park. All were designed for the living, not for the dead, to provide country air and freedom from care for an afternoon’s picnic or amatory frolic (yes, boneyards were not always daunting).

When New York was swallowing up country retreats in its midst such as Lispenard’s Meadow while stingily repurposing military parade grounds such as Madison Square Park for public amusement, the open-spaces movement came into being. William Cullen Bryant proposed a vast park along the East River; Alexander Jackson Downing proposed a Central Park in very nearly its current location. From the cemetery to the ballfield to the public park is but a matter of degree.

So ... as we rush headlong into the Season of the Witch and the mercantile bonanza that October has become in our fair land, the question springs to the tip of the tongue: when and how did cemeteries become scary? And ghosts malevolent? When did we begin to feel the need to whistle in the graveyard rather than reverently touch the headstones?

More on this next week, when we visit the rolling landscape of Montrepose Cemetery.
--John Thorn


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