In the Rossville section of Staten Island there is a small little graveyard. It is hidden away, on the side of a two-lane road. This tiny graveyard seems out of place in an area that is dotted with light industry and that’s about it. The smattering of houses that probably once existed, as well as a store or two are long gone. Perhaps there was a ferry crossing here and a depot too, but whatever was here long ago is only represented by an early 19th century graveyard. The graveyard sits on a bit of land that is on the water, near the infamous Tugboat Graveyard. Stone stairs lead to a shaded spot, where the overhang of the trees acts as a natural screen, blocking any view from the street. No one has stopped by this graveyard in a long time. Maybe a dozen grave markers rest on either side of an overgrown path. Some gravestones are in very good condition, made of stone that has withstood nature’s natural erosion process. Other markers are in much poorer condition, almost bare with only a hint of letters on the face of the marker. The stone of these naked markers is sparkly with crystals and when you touch them, the crystalline grains of stone come right off in your hand. Sadly some markers sit in heaps of thin sheets of shirred brown stone on the ground. It has been years since anyone has taken care of this graveyard.
At one time this was a visited place. People whose lives were taken from them while they were in their prime are buried here: children and men and women of varying ages, many quite young. These beautifully carved stones may have been the only relic remaining to give solace to the living for their loved ones who are buried at this graveyard. At the time these stones were made, they were carved by hand. Chisels and mallets carved sinuous lines into the hard stone. No computer driven machine wrote the tender missive underneath the name and date of death on one stone. The elegant decorative design that is at the top of another marker was carved by a caring hand. Men with tremendous skill, cut into the hard stone in such a way that makes the letters look light, even ethereal. Some stones show a combination of writing styles. Script with arabesques may be followed by a heavily stylized letter design, and then followed by yet another style. The letters rest on an invisible line of unbelievable straightness. The beauty of these stones is the result of dedicated training, strong hands, simple stone carving tools and an intuitive design sense.
Please join us on Tuesday October 20th at 6:30 PM when Mid-Manhattan Library will be presenting New York’s Early Gravestone Imagery: The Artisans of the 18th Century Memorials in the Metropolitan Area with guest speaker John Zielenski. Photographs courtesy of Peter and Genevieve on Flickr.