Portray 19th Century Forebears
At Unusual Ceremony
By Henry Stewart
Special to Brooklyn Daily Eagle
PROSPECT PARK â€” Elsie Powell stood at her grave in Prospect Parkâ€™s Quaker Cemetery on Saturday afternoon and told visitors about her life.
Well, it wasnâ€™t Powell exactly. She has been dead for decades.
â€śMy nameâ€™s not really Elsie,â€ť whispered Alice Pope, an actress for the day. â€śI just play her in the cemetery.â€ť
Pope was one of the 20 Quakers who volunteered to portray a resident of the graveyard as part of â€śThe Play in the Cemetery,â€ť the culmination of the 150th anniversary celebration of the Quakersâ€™ local contingent, the Brooklyn Monthly Meeting. Tour guides led small groups from gravesite to gravesite while the volunteers, in appropriate period dress, recited scripts theyâ€™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 â€” one of Prospect Parkâ€™s best-kept secrets.
â€śQuakers are not very good at promoting themselves,â€ť said Michael Black, a member of the Meetingâ€™s cemetery committee.
Deborah (â€śD.K.â€ť) 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.
â€śI suggested we should have Quakers popping out of graves,â€ť she said. â€śQuakers donâ€™t usually laugh, but everybody laughed.â€ť
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 â€śFriendsâ€ť generally share a few common principles â€” what they call testimonies â€” such as simplicity, equality and peace.
â€śAlthough Richard Nixon was born a Quaker,â€ť joked Mahesha Anderson, a guide during Saturdayâ€™s tour.
In accordance with those principles, the cemeteryâ€™s inhabitants include abolitionists, suffragists, education advocates, war resisters and participants in the Underground Railroad.
â€śIf you need a protestor, you can always call on a Quaker,â€ť 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 donâ€™t definitively prove a Quaker presence in Brooklyn until the 1830s, said Michael Black, who is also on the Meetingâ€™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 â€” 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.
â€śAnd we donâ€™t have too many tours,â€ť Black said.
Saturday, however, was an exception. Visitors passed, to no objections, a large sign at the cemeteryâ€™s entrance that read, â€śPrivate Property. Not Open to the Public.â€ť Farther up stood a marker that read, â€śMay Peace Prevail on Earthâ€ť in at least half a dozen languages.
Because Quakers donâ€™t believe in elaborate grave markers, small, low-lying headstones dot the cemeteryâ€™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 cemeteryâ€™s most famous resident is Montgomery Clift, who died in 1966, though no one portrayed the legendary screen actor at Saturdayâ€™s event. His family had asked that the location of his grave be kept private, said Robert Wilber, the cemeteryâ€™s sexton.
â€śWe donâ€™t even mention him unless somebody asks,â€ť he said.
Â© Brooklyn Daily Eagle 2008
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