There is an eerie scene near the end of the 1972 John Boorman movie Deliverance where the character played by Jon Voight peers through some weeds and witnesses a group of men exhuming coffins from a cemetery, soon to be deliberately flooded by the construction of a dam.
The fleeting vision disturbs on some inchoate and primal level. Perhaps because it is such a mock of the idea of sacrality. Perhaps because it shows that even the dead are not free from the dislocations of time.
Even as I could find no historical account of such a thing anywhere, sometime in the late 1890’s something akin to that strange scenario in Deliverance must have taken place at St Luke’s Place in the West Village. And it was precisely such a scene that allowed the metamorphosis of what was St John’s Cemetery, burial ground of Trinity Parish, into what is now James J. Walker Park. (The park is named after the notoriously corrupt if charming Jimmy Walker. Walker, a lawyer turned songwriter turned Tammany politician turned charming scoundrel, who was mayor of New York from 1925 till he was forced to resign in 1932. Walker’s family lived across the street at 6 St Luke’s Place. )
I have no idea how peopled the cemetery was – information is not easily come by and why would it be? — but I imagine there must have been quite a crowd as the land served Trinity Church from 1812 to 1895. It must have taken many men making a Herculean effort to dig them all up and move them from there to wherever it was they reburied them.
At any rate, there is but one extant memento to the park’s former existence as a graveyard: a nearly 200 year old marble sarcophagus containing the remains of two firemen who died in the line of duty in 1834, the year the monument was dedicated.
Appropriately, two small fire helmets sit atop what looks like a child’s coffin.
The monument was donated by the Eagle Fire Department, one of the several competing fire departments (a competition that provided the initial ladder for the rise of Boss Tweed) that served the city before the creation of FDNY.
One side of the marble is inscribed with these words:
HERE ARE INTERRED / THE BODIES OF / EUGENE UNDERHILL / AGED 20 YEARS 7 MONTHS AND 9 DAYS / AND FREDERICK A. WARD / AGED 22 YEARS 1 MONTH AND 16 DAYS / WHO LOST THEIR LIVES BY THE FALLING OF A BUILDING / WHILE ENGAGED / IN THE DISCHARGE OF THEIR DUTY AS / FIRE MEN / ON THE FIRST DAY OF DUTY / MDCCCXXXIV /
On another side is inscribed the following:
THIS MONUMENT IS ERECTED / BY THE MEMBERS OF / EAGLE FIRE ENGINE COMPANY / NO. 13 / IN CONNECTION WITH THE FRIENDS OF THE / DECEASED / TO COMMEMORATE THE SAD EVENT / CONNECTED WITH THEIR DEATH / AND THE LOSS / WHICH THEY DEPLORE /
“And the loss which they deplore. ”
I do not think I have heard the word “deplore” used in that sense in all my life.
Addendum: I have long read about the Potter’s Field that somehow became Washington Square Park but this took me by surprise. It also makes me wonder what and who else we are cluelessly strolling on.