I was the kind of kid for whom a door marked "private" meant I needed to see inside; a fence was an invitation to climb. So I have long been intrigued by an area marked "Friends or Quaker Cemetery (Private)" on my local Prospect Park map. And when I became a contributing member of the Prospect Park Alliance, the advocacy group for the park, I received occasional invites to take a tour. The stars aligned — or at least, the sun shone — on a recent Sunday afternoon when I joined about 100 other members on a tour of the normally off-limits area. A Quaker Sexton and the Prospect Park Landscape Management Director offered their perspectives on the cemetery.
The nine-acre site, still a working cemetery, predates the park, which means it has native trees and flora not seen in the rest of the park, a planned area landscaped by Olmstead and Vaux. It also has gigantic trees that may be older than the cemetery, which was started in 1849. My 9-year-old, Nora, was awed by the huge trees, some with equally impressive roots. We also discovered that the Quaker Cemetery is the third highest point in Brooklyn, following Mount Prospect and Lookout Hill (no word on whether the planned Atlantic Yards project will eclipse these).
In addition to learning about Quakers and their burial practices, Nora exercised her math skills, reading tombstones and figuring out how old people were when they died, and how long ago they lived. There were many markers for babies, which led to a somewhat sanitized discussion about infant mortality.
We also learned that though Quakers are known as 'Friends', they weren't always so friendly. The cemetery is in two distinct parts; an acrimonious split between different Quaker factions divided the members. And although Prospect Park incorporated some of the cemetery's land into its own, it was a relatively small portion.
While there were a handful of children on the tour, keep mindful of the fact that this is not a play opportunity; kids must be able to stay with the group and keep relatively quiet during the explanations. And while Nora did not find the tour guides to be particularly interesting, she was able to feign interest and examined the leaves and rocks around us. She also paid enough attention to absorb some of the information passed along (the tour is best for kids 8 and up). You can bring babies, too, but the one woman with a stroller struggled to push her way along the rocky path.
For more information on the Prospect Park Alliance, go to www.prospectpark.org. And for our complete list of insider tours around New York, go to www.NYMetroParents.com and search 'behind the curtain'.