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December 16, 2018

Quakers Raise the Dead At Prospect Park Cemetery
by Brooklyn Eagle (edit@brooklyneagle.net), published online 06-30-2008
 
Portray 19th Century Forebears At Unusual Ceremony

By Henry Stewart
Special to Brooklyn Daily Eagle

PROSPECT PARK — Elsie Powell stood at her grave in Prospect Park’s Quaker Cemetery on Saturday afternoon and told visitors about her life.

Well, it wasn’t Powell exactly. She has been dead for decades.

“My name’s not really Elsie,” whispered Alice Pope, an actress for the day. “I just play her in the cemetery.”

Pope was one of the 20 Quakers who volunteered to portray a resident of the graveyard as part of “The Play in the Cemetery,” the culmination of the 150th anniversary celebration of the Quakers’ local contingent, the Brooklyn Monthly Meeting. Tour guides led small groups from gravesite to gravesite while the volunteers, in appropriate period dress, recited scripts they’d written and researched with the help of a historian, Susan Price.

The Meeting held the event, which attracted scores of attendees, to raise awareness about Quakerism and about the cemetery — one of Prospect Park’s best-kept secrets.

“Quakers are not very good at promoting themselves,” said Michael Black, a member of the Meeting’s cemetery committee.

Deborah (“D.K.”) Holland, a former Catholic who was drawn to Quakerism following the death of her father, thought up the idea for the play after a colleague suggested holding an anniversary event in the cemetery.

“I suggested we should have Quakers popping out of graves,” she said. “Quakers don’t usually laugh, but everybody laughed.”

The Religious Society of Friends, whose members are known as Quakers, began in England during the 17th Century, at the close of the Protestant Reformation. Today, it welcomes non-Christians as well. Quakerism boasts no creed, but “Friends” generally share a few common principles — what they call testimonies — such as simplicity, equality and peace.

“Although Richard Nixon was born a Quaker,” joked Mahesha Anderson, a guide during Saturday’s tour.

In accordance with those principles, the cemetery’s inhabitants include abolitionists, suffragists, education advocates, war resisters and participants in the Underground Railroad. “If you need a protestor, you can always call on a Quaker,” Anderson said.

Other residents include Raymond Ingersoll, the former (non-Quaker) borough president, and Montgomery Clift, the movie star.

Quakers first came to the U.S. in the 1650s. While some evidence exists of Quakers living in Gravesend around the same time, records don’t definitively prove a Quaker presence in Brooklyn until the 1830s, said Michael Black, who is also on the Meeting’s historical committee.

Today, the Brooklyn Meeting, with about 200 members, has the largest membership in the tri-state area. In 1850, the Quakers built the cemetery on 12 acres of farmland at what was then the border of the city of Brooklyn and the town of Flatbush. The original cemetery stretched from 11th to 12th avenues, between Ninth and 14th streets — blocks that Prospect Park later overlaid.

Less than 20 years after Quakers founded the cemetery, city planners built Prospect Park on surrounding land. The city tried to acquire the cemetery through eminent domain but failed; today, it is the only piece of private property in the park. Over the years, the Quakers sold some of the land to the city, reducing the cemetery to its present size of nine acres.

The cemetery, in which tri-state area Quakers may be buried to this day, is kept locked except for tours.

“And we don’t have too many tours,” Black said.

Saturday, however, was an exception. Visitors passed, to no objections, a large sign at the cemetery’s entrance that read, “Private Property. Not Open to the Public.” Farther up stood a marker that read, “May Peace Prevail on Earth” in at least half a dozen languages.

Because Quakers don’t believe in elaborate grave markers, small, low-lying headstones dot the cemetery’s landscape. Some of the oldest graves bear no markers at all.

Hardly landscaped, the grounds look like some of the most untouched land in Brooklyn. Large trees, some over 200 years old, create a tall canopy of shade.

The cemetery’s most famous resident is Montgomery Clift, who died in 1966, though no one portrayed the legendary screen actor at Saturday’s event. His family had asked that the location of his grave be kept private, said Robert Wilber, the cemetery’s sexton.

“We don’t even mention him unless somebody asks,” he said.

© Brooklyn Daily Eagle 2008 All materials posted on BrooklynEagle.com are protected by United States copyright law. Just a reminder, though -- It’s not considered polite to paste the entire story on your blog. Most blogs post a summary or the first paragraph,( 40 words) then post a link to the rest of the story. That helps increase click-throughs for everyone, and minimizes copyright issues. So please keep posting, but not the entire article. arturc at att.net

 



 

 


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