The Smallest Cemetery in Brooklyn Has a Story

The Smallest Cemetery in Brooklyn Has a Story

Dedicated to my entire family: Those who came before me, those who stand beside me, those yet to come to continue the story. This is how Mary Barkuloo Johnson opens her book The Barkuloo Family History, published in April of 2019.

Mary Barkuloo Johnson’s book about her family | Photo courtesy of the Bay Ridge Historical Society

Who would have known that among ‘those to continue this story’ would be the residents of Bay Ridge? For among the relics of this dynamic and extensive family’s past is the smallest cemetery of Brooklyn, one that has been struggling to maintain its carved place in history, at the intersection of Narrows Avenue and Mackay Place in Bay Ridge.

The Barkuloos moved to America nearly five centuries ago and, according to Johnson, the spelling of the family’s name varies due to “widespread illiteracy or inadvertent historical transcription errors.” This explains why the Barkaloo Family Cemetery, also referred to as The Revolutionary War Cemetery, has a slightly different spelling than the family name.

“This tiny landmark, bearing my family name, has survived for nearly 235 years despite surrounding urban growth,” wrote Johnson. According to Zodet Negron, the director of communications of the Landmark Preservation Committee, the cemetery has not been officially landmarked. “Some people consider it a landmark because they like to use the word referring to its history,” she said. “But according to the records it has not been designated by us.”

The Barkaloo Cemetery | Photo by Costanza Cerasi for The Brooklyn Ink

The story of this graveyard dates back to the 18th and mid-19th Centuries. At the time, the Barkuloos who resided in the Bay Ridge area were buried in the confines of their private property. According to Johnson’s book, Jaques Barkaloo “sometime after 1770” bought the land, which then became known as the Jaques Barkeloo Family Farm and today as the Barkaloo Family Cemetery.

There are currently three gravestones on the plot, two for soldiers of the Revolutionary war and one for the second wife of Jaques Barkaloo — respectively Simon Cortelyou (1746-1828), Harms Barkulo (1745-1788), and Maria Barkeloo (1768-1841). Johnson confirms that there is solid evidence that four other individuals were buried there, “whose stones have either succumbed to the passing of time or perhaps were stolen.”

Besides its historical significance, Henry Stewart, vice president of the Bay Ridge Historical Society, believes the graveyard has an even greater value in the present. “It’s unique because back in the day, when Bay Ridge was a farmland, there were many small cemeteries and churches, but none of them survived,” he said. “Because of it we still get a sense of what these places must have been like, even though it doesn’t look exactly like it did 200 years ago.”

The Barkaloo Cemetery | Photo by Costanza Cerasi for The Brooklyn Ink

And indeed, it doesn’t. The Barkaloo Cemetery has been through some troubled times. “For a century, the little plot held its own,” reported the Brooklyn Eagle in 1923, “it was overgrown and forgotten,” confirms Stewart. In 1923 some action was taken when the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) took charge, according to an article in the Brownstoner published this year. However, despite the calls for action, by 1950 the plot was covered in beer cans. “Last summer I made a trip to Barkaloo Cemetery and I found it in a shocking state of neglect,” wrote the Eagle columnist Margaret Mara in 1952. “Only in 1960 it was properly cleaned up and fences were put around it,” said Stewart.

Interestingly, until today, it seems that the cemetery has been surviving because of the Bay Ridge community’s effort. “The Bay Ridge Historical society is involved but it’s not official,” said Stewart. “It’s up and down, there is no possession oversight that I’m aware of.” Without any organized maintenance, it would seem difficult for such an ancient slice of this neighborhood to survive.

Yet, not only is the Barkaloo Cemetery still intact, it’s flourishing.

Clean, shiny, black fences guard what looks like the doll-house-sized miniature of a graveyard. Perfectly trimmed plants surround the trail of concrete that leads to the tombstones, that are bordered by a frame of colorful bricks and tiny American flags.

The Barkaloo Cemetery | Photo by Costanza Cerasi for The Brooklyn Ink

“Gardeners in the neighborhood walk in and trim the edges of plants for free, residents pass by pick up cans and trash,” said Stewart. The residents of Bay Ridge have been playing their role in paying respect to the past by preserving an old family plot. Besides being important for the Barkaloo descendants, the tiny graveyard has been gaining more and more space in the community’s heart. “It is a private family cemetery but now it’s important to the community,” said Stewart. “It’s very existence speaks to the community involvement.”

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