A look at Lawrence Family Cemetery in Astoria, NY, a small family cemetery dating from the 1600s, tucked into a residential neighborhood in New York City.

The Lawrences were an old family from Queens, New York, arriving in the area in the 1600s and buying land all over. Despite the destruction of many family cemeteries in NYC over the centuries, two Lawrence cemeteries have survived, one of which is in an Astoria man’s backyard.

The cemetery, surrounded by both a stone wall and a chain link fence, is closed to the public, though curious onlookers can peer through its iron gate and see a variety of tombstones, some of which belong to veterans of the Revolutionary war.

Highlights include:
• Forgotten cemeteries
• Accidentally scaring local cemetery owners
• A lost shoreline
• Inheriting a cemetery

Links mentioned in the episode:

Donate to the Emergency Release Fund to get high-risk people out of Rikers

Tiffany Cabán for council district 22 (Astoria): https://www.cabanforqueens.com/

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Pictures of Lawrence Family Cemetery

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Episode Script for Lawrence Cemetery

DISCLAIMER: I’m providing this version of the script for accessibility purposes. It hasn’t been proofread, so please excuse typos. There are also some things that may differ between the final episode and this draft script. Please treat the episode audio as the final product. 

 

“A private cemetery holding the remains of this country’s great patriots should be considered as much a Landmark as are certain buildings. . . . The Lawrence Family cemetery is important, primarily because of the history connected with those who are buried there. It is also notable due to the beauty of its handsome grounds.” – the 1966 Landmarks Preservation Commission, April 18, 1966

 

Lawrence Cemetery in Astoria, NY

  • The Lawrences were an old Astoria family. They were English and came to America in the 1600s and ended up in Flushing in 1644. They bought land all over, including some land in Astoria in 1656.
  • I found their family crest in the 1852 book The annals of Newtown, in Queens County, New York; it’s a pretty boring one, just a shield with a jagged cross thing in the middle, something that looks like an overturned cup above that, and then a scroll with “quaero invenio,” or “I find” according to google translate.
  • As I talked about last week, many historic families cemeteries no longer exist; typically, the remains were removed and then stuff was built on top of the land. As I’ve mentioned before, NYC has basically been run by developers for a very long time, and a ton of history has been destroyed in the name of profit.
  • There are actually two Lawrence family cemeteries left in Queens. I don’t know if that speaks to their wealth, their influence, or just plain luck. One is in Bayside, which is in northern Queens, pretty far away from mass transit, so I’ve never been there. The other is right here in Astoria.
  • Last spring, I ran up to the Lawrence cemetery, which is in northern Astoria near the big Con Edison power plant and wastewater treatment plant. If you look at a map of northern Astoria, you’ll see there’s this bit of land that juts out a bit, kinda between the Hell Gate and Riker’s Island, and just north of Astoria park. That’s where the Coned plant is, and it’s notable because even on Google maps nowadays, it’s called Lawrence Point.
    • Also, there used to be a family cemetery where the Coned plant is now, according to Carolee Inskeep’s The Graveyard Shift: A Family Historian’s Guide to New York City Cemeteries. At 20th avenue and 21st street in Astoria, the Berrien-Remsen Family Burial Ground, a private cemetery with gravestones dating from the 18th century to 1810, once stood. To read from her book:
      • This burial ground was at the north end of Berrien’s Lane, facing Berrien’s Creek and Berrien’s Island. It was obliterated in 1902 for construction of a gas manufacturing plant. Con-Edison now occupies the site.
    • As you can probably guess, the Berrien family was another old family in Astoria, and Berrien Lane, Berrien’s Creek, and Berrien’s Island are all gone now. Landfill united Berrien’s Island with the mainland of Queens and is now also occupied by the Coned plant.
    • Last episode, I talked about the Ravenswood Generating Station, which stands where the Blackwell family cemetery once was, and which is a major polluter that causes a lot of health problems for local residents. I have a friend who used to live up near the Coned plant, and they said that they had a lot of respiratory issues because of the plant. However, I believe the area around the Coned plant is less densely populated, since there aren’t 6,000 people living in public housing basically right next door. Off the top of my head, I think the closest public housing to the Coned plant would be the Astoria Houses on Hallet’s Point, just north of Socrates Sculpture Park, though I don’t know northern Astoria, also known as Ditmars, very well.
    • One reason for that is that because of the power plant, the wastewater treatment plant, LaGuardia airport, and Riker’s Island, regular citizens don’t have access to the northern shoreline of Astoria. That whole area is blocked off and feels kinda dystopian and weird. The only real reason I’ve had to go up toward Astoria’s northern shore was to see the Lawrence Cemetery last year.
    • Oh, and since I mentioned Riker’s Island, I actually talk about Riker’s in a bit more detail in one of the the Renwick Smallpox Hospital episodes, but just a reminder: Riker’s is a jail; 85% of the people who are imprisoned there are waiting for trial.
      • It’s an infamously unsafe place to be imprisoned, especially during COVID. I don’t want to get too off topic here, but if you do want to help people make bail and get out of there, you can donate to the Emergency Release Fund at emergencyreleasefund.com, which focuses on getting high-risk inmates out of Rikers, like queer and trans people.
      • If you’re listening to this, you probably agree with me that it’s a horrific human rights abuse to put people who haven’t even been convicted in jail for years, usually because they can’t afford bail. Basically, it ends up just housing people who are too poor to post bail.
        • But if that isn’t a convincing argument for you and you’re more concerned with money: for some reason that I don’t understand, it costs the city of New York $209,000 per person per year to house them in Riker’s. And while prisoners at Riker’s are used for slave labor, doing tasks like burying indigent people in NYC’s potter’s field, Hart Island, I think it’s obvious that that doesn’t offset the cost.
      • In NYC, the idea of closing Riker’s is a very popular one, and the current city council member who represents my district proposed legislation called the Renewable Riker’s Act, which will close Riker’s and instead use the land to generate power through renewable energy. That legislation was signed into law a couple weeks ago, which is great news for all of NYC.
        • And actually just last week I was out collecting signatures to get a great candidate for city council, Tiffany Caban, on the ballot, and she also supports closing Riker’s Island and Renewable Rikers. If you happen to live in Astoria, please vote for her on June 22. You can learn more about her at cabanforqueens.com
      • I know this might seem like a tangent, right, why am I talking about a local city council race in an episode about hidden cemeteries? It’s because history isn’t over, and power–both literal and figurative–here in Astoria is really relevant when looking at history, but particularly the history of family cemeteries around here.
      • I mean, multiple family cemeteries around here have literally been demolished to build power plants that are making people sick today. Landfill has made islands, like Berrien’s Island, vanish, and Rikers Island, for example, has been made four times bigger than it originally was, just so it could hold more prisoners. Homes have been obliterated, the shapes of islands have been changed, and it’s only when you start to look at historical maps of what the neighborhood was like a couple hundred years ago that you really realize all the things that have been buried, destroyed, and forgotten.
  • But Lawrence Cemetery is one piece of history that still stands.
  • The cemetery is more than 300 years old. It was founded in 1656, though it was officially founded in 1703, according to an inscription in stone beside its gate. It was landmarked in 1966. Oliver Lawrence was he last person buried there, in 1975.
  • This is a privately owned cemetery that’s not really open to the public. The current owner/caretaker is James M. Sheehan, whose wife inherited the cemetery and the house next door, where they live. Sheehan’s father-in-law had inherted the cemetery and the house next door from Ruth Lawrence, one of the last surviving Lawrences. Sheehan is 84 and has been the cemetery’s caretaker since 1956.
  • Records say that 94 people are buried in the cemetery, though Sheehan says it’s actually more.
  • I wanted to read a bit from a Queens Chronicle article from October 5, 2000:
    • “The Lawrences were important folk, many playing key roles in local history. They intermarried with the Rikers, of Rikers Island. They are related to Captain James Lawrence, the naval officer whose words “Don’t give up the ship” during the War of 1812 have become immortalized.
    • James Lawrence was buried in Trinity Church in Manhattan, as an honor, but the rest of his family is buried in Sheehan’s backyard.
    • The graveyard holds the remains of lieutenant governors, New York City mayoral candidates, Revolutionary and Civil War heroes and other notables with rich histories.
    • There is another Lawrence Cemetery, in Bayside, where the family eventually expanded their burials. That graveyard started in the 1800s and is now tended by the Bayside Historical Society.”
  • The cemetery stands on an ordinary street corner, elevated on a stone wall and behind both a chain-link fence with barbed wire (separating it from the street) and the more picturesque stone-and-iron fence.
  • Inside are three centuries’ worth of Lawrence family burials, including Sarah Lawrence (who the university was named after.)
  • The Lawrences were an old family, apparently descended from one of King Richard the Lionheart’s crusaders in England
  • I read somewhere that there supposedly used to be three Lawrence family cemeteries, including one a few blocks away from this one (which has been destroyed), though I didn’t see mention of that third one when I checked Carolee Inskeep’s book The Graveyard Shift, my trusty companion in all of this.
  • I did want to read a bit of the history from The Graveyard Shift, which calls the cemetery the Lawrence Manor Burial Ground:
    • “In 1915, the cemetery was restored after some years of neglect. Its stone fence and wrought iron gate were repaired, and the grounds were planted with flowers. There were plans to purchase the surrounding property and convert it into a park as a historic site for future generations.”
  • I think it would be awesome for this to be a park someday; it’s a really beautiful cemetery.
  • A 1932 report called Description of Private and Family Cemeteries in the Borough of Queens describes the wall of the cemetery; the bit with the front gate, which faces 20th Road, formerly called Bowery Bay Road, is a “dressed stone wall with an iron rail fence,” and the part facing 35th Street is a “brick wall topped with iron rail fence.”
  • These days, the cemetery wall also has a chain-link fence around it, to really make sure people can’t get in.
  • The 1932 report has a list of all the inscriptions in the cemetery, and in addition to the Lawrences, there are other familiar names from old families in the area.
    • For example, Abraham Riker Lawrence; I’ll talk about more the Riker family next week.  There’s also a Ruth Lawrence who was the daughter of Andrew and Jane Riker.
    • There’s also Agnes Rapelye, whose name I can’t see but whose relative, Cornelius Rapelye Trafford, I mentioned last week. He was the man with two graves.
    • There’s also some members of the Suydam family. You may recognize that name because Trafford’s Green-wood Cemetery grave is beside one of the Suydams.
    • There’s also an Amy Lawrence, who was the daughter of Cornelius and Amy Berrien of the nearby Berrien family. I like the inscription on her tombstone, which was “This life is a dream and an empty show / Into the wide world we must go.”
    • Another inscription I like appears on Judith Lawrence’s marble tombstone. There’s a skull and cross bones with the words: “To this must all flesh come” which I find very metal and cool.
  • There’s a great Huffpost article about the cemetery from 2011, and it had some quotes from Sheehan I just had to read:
    • “It’s heavenly living next to the cemetery. I consider the people there my neighbors, and I want to keep them looking good.”
    • Another quote is: “I take pride in doing this. People always ask me if it’s scary. It’s not. It’s very tranquil here. I love to turn on the radio and sit out here in the evenings. But there are those scary moments — you feel something tugging at your shoulder, and you turn around and discover it’s the rosebush.”
  • Also, the article mentions how apparently his daughters used to hold seances at the cemetery, though it doesn’t go into any detail.
  • When I visited the cemetery, I wasn’t able to get many pictures of this cemetery, because as I crouched behind some cars trying to get a good angle of the gates and stones inside, Sheehan and (I think) his wife came out to go into the cemetery. They looked at me kinda suspiciously (can’t imagine why) so I scurried away.
  • Givemeastoria.com ran an article about Lawrence Cemetery in October 2020, and I wanted to close with a quote from that which looks ahead to the future of the cemetery:
    • “The thing that worries me the most is what will happen to this place after I am gone,” said Sheehan.
    • Sheehan has been tending the site for nearly 60 years, paying for repairs out of his own pocket. But now he is worried about what will become of the place in the future.
    • “I’ve been maintaining this out of respect for my father-in-law and the history of the Lawrences,” Mr. Sheehan said. . . . The Queens Historical Society will be working with the City Council and Community Board 1 to assist Sheehan in helping to preserve the property for future generations.

 

Sources consulted RE: Lawrence Family Cemetery

Books

Articles

  • Brooklyn Times Union (Brooklyn, New York) · Thu, Jul 2, 1903 · Page 10
  • Brooklyn Times Union (Brooklyn, New York) · Thu, Nov 3, 1870 · Page 3

Websites

  • https://www.findagrave.com/cemetery/1966907/lawrence-cemetery
  • https://forgotten-ny.com/2010/10/bowery-baynorth-astoria-queens/
  • https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/18/nyregion/nyc-news-rikers-island.html
  • https://qns.com/2021/03/mayor-signs-queens-councilman-renewable-rikers-act-into-law/
  • https://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/ny-rikers-covid-ruling-20210219-56juh2eccvb4jg7hxwxdfvnv34-story.html
  • https://qns.com/2021/03/mayor-signs-queens-councilman-renewable-rikers-act-into-law/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rikers_Island#COVID-19_crisis
  • https://newtownpentacle.com/tag/bowery-bay/
  • https://rihs.us/2020/09/09/wednesday-september-9-2020-wpa-architecture-found-in-unlikely-place/
  • https://www.qchron.com/editions/western/landmark-cemetery-owner-s-call-for-help-is-heeded-in-astoria/article_fd09df4b-c4cd-51ae-bf6b-c9905004501e.html
  • https://forgotten-ny.com/2012/01/north-astoria-queens/
  • https://forgotten-ny.com/2012/01/north-astoria-queens-part-2/
  • https://www.huffpost.com/entry/astoria-characters-the-ca_2_b_915833
  • Lawrence Cemetery Google maps: https://www.google.com/maps/place/Lawrence+Cemetery/@40.7775676,-73.9056275,3a,75y,161.24h,99.51t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sCZw8qzAceYKfel0pAPXHsA!2e0!7i16384!8i8192!4m5!3m4!1s0x89c25f643d061421:0xe5447ac8f6f12426!8m2!3d40.7773027!4d-73.9056237?hl=en
  • https://www.hmdb.org/m.asp?m=162550
  • https://www.givemeastoria.com/2020/10/28/astoria-man-breathes-life-into-forgotten-family-cemetery/
  • https://www.brownstoner.com/history/a-look-at-lawrence-cemetery-astoria/
  • https://forgotten-ny.com/2020/10/lawrence-family-cemetery-astoria/
  • https://www.flickr.com/photos/emilio_guerra/5326285917/
  • http://www.neighborhoodpreservationcenter.org/db/bb_files/66—LAWRENCE-FAMILY-GRAVEYARD.pdf

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