On a breezy Saturday morning, a typically sleepy and abandoned patch of Bensonhurst revs to life. A handful of volunteers have come out to Old New Utrecht Cemetery to yank weeds, mow the lawn, and spruce up the historic site, which dates back to 1600s.
Over the hum of lawnmowers, David Elligers, president of the Friends of Historic New Utrecht — which is dedicated to the preservation of local historic sites — shares the stories behind the crumbling headstones, and tells of the impact that years of neglect have had on the graves.
Located at the corner of 16th Avenue and 84th Street, the cemetery includes headstones bearing the names of Brooklyn’s major roads. Cropsey, Stillwell, Van Brunt, Ditmars (Ditmas), Courtelyou, Nostrand, and Emmans (Emmons) families are all laid to rest here. Many of the now-immortalized Brooklyn dynasties owned farms in what was once called New Utrecht, which encompassed Borough Park, Bensonhurst, Dyker Heights, Bath Beach, and Bay Ridge.
Some of the dead had originally been buried in plots on their family farms and were later transported to the Old New Utrecht — including a younger generation Courtelyous. Before selling off the family’s Bath Beach farm, a Courtelyou descendant thought to move the bodies to Old New Utrecht Cemetery — cramming them in the same grave as an older Courtelyou husband-and-wife pair.
“And I’m glad they did, because so many of those burial plots were just paved over and forgotten,” says Elligers.
Another layer of history can be found in the southwestern corner of the burial grounds, where you’ll find plots belonging to mostly German immigrants — dated between the late 1800s and early 1900s — who had more suburban occupations: business owners, doctors, and judges.
Perhaps the oldest readable headstone in the cemetery is that of Nelly Duryee, who died August 7, 1781, and whose grave is incredibly still etched with a four-line poem.
Beside Mrs. Duryee, is her husband Abraham — who outlived her — Abraham’s second wife, and their very large joint brood, many of whom died in childhood.
“I calculated, from the late 1700s to 1800, 30 percent [of graves]are kids 10 and under, and a third of them are infants. Infant mortality was a terrific problem, but if you had a strong enough immune system and made into your teen years, you had a shot,” says Elligers.
Unlike other landmarked cemeteries in New York City, Old New Utrecht is not open to the public and has no paid groundskeepers.
Having learned that he had an ancestor buried there, Elligers became interested in the cemetery in the mid-1950s, as a teenager, when he recalls seeing it overrun with shrubs and weeds. Today, he dedicates much of his time making sure the brambles stay under control.
The bushes have since been cleared away, but many of the headstones are heavily deteriorated — split in half from age and exposure to the elements. Each spring, Elligers says, it is a chore to return the cemetery to the same condition it was in the summer before.
Elligers points to a tilted grave belonging to the wife of a Civil War hero and judge that has been completely consumed by a large tree trunk.
“If someone had cut this down when it was still a sapling, it could have been avoided,” says Elligers.
Another notable structure is the Physician’s Monument, built in 1910 in memory of Dr. James E. DuBois and his assistant Dr. John L. Crane, who died fighting an outbreak of Yellow Fever around the turn of the century.
The obelisk that once once pierced the sky was knocked to the ground by a fallen tree limb in 1999, during Hurricane Floyd, barely missing the neighboring Metropolitan Baptist Church (the original location of New Utrecht Reformed Church).
The trees surrounding the cemetery have since been removed as a precaution, making the block seem all the more desolate, but the monument still lies unceremoniously on the ground — a blunt reminder to treat these markers of the past with attention and care.
Friends of Historic New Utrecht is supported by small endowment that pays for gardening supplies, but the organization is always in need of volunteers to help keep vegetation under control. To get involved, call (718) 256-7173 or email [email protected].