The Third Death

I couldn’t see the words. There was a story there, but the tree was in the way. Who would have planted an elm on a boys’ grave: A grieving mother burying two children forty-five days apart? A father, wanting to honor the lives of his boys with something that would grow stronger each year, as they should have, passing seed and essence to generations to come? Or was it the wind howling over ground which years before had witnessed the Battle of Washington Heights, a great loss for the roughly clad, fledgling Continental Army, who, in their retreat across the Hudson to Fort Lee, left behind nearly 3,000 troops, some of whom died on this land but most who would die that year at the hands of their British and Hessian captors? Perhaps it was not so much the wind as the birds that soared and dipped on its currents, attracted to the adjacent farm once known as “Minniesland,” as if they knew it had been home to artist and ornithologist John James Audubon who had devoted his life to the careful rendering of the natural world.

Was it the intention of those who loved these boys, or just a whim of nature, using breeze or creature to plant a tree that would put its enormous roots literally through the bodies of my ancestors, entwining them and me forever with this place, rich in history, which the original inhabitants called “Manahata,” and we call Manhattan? But there it stood, my DNA rising upwards among the tombs, extending its limbs skyward and casting a large shadow across the path so that those seeking respite from city life could find shade on an afternoon stroll, or tourists wanting to see the final resting places of the famous and the infamous might pause beneath its branches to check the map.

This place, Trinity Cemetery, had few “residents” when Hamilton and Clifford Flock were buried in late autumn of 1850, but over time the population of these four-square blocks has grown to more than 75,000.  It is located in an Upper West Side neighborhood known as Hamilton Heights, named not for my ancestor, but for one famous resident remembered, less for being the first Secretary of the Treasury, with his image gracing today’s version of a ten-dollar bill, and more for having died in a duel with then Vice President Aaron Burr. Alexander Hamilton, who my ancestors admired enough to name a son after, is interred not at this Trinity Cemetery, located at 155th Street but at Trinity Cemetery at Wall Street, the closure of which, in 1822, caused the church to look for this second site uptown. Opened twenty years later, these Victorian grounds, bisected north and south by Broadway, were laid out by James Renwick, who when he wasn’t landscaping graveyards, was busy designing Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, one hundred and five blocks south, Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY and the Smithsonian Castle in Washington DC.

The Flock plot is in the westerly section, with a view of the Hudson River. Bounded by granite posts and linked by wrought iron rails with a large obelisk just north of center, it is inscribed with the names of the boy’s parents, Alfred and Maria, my third great grandparents.   

Through the years several noted residents have joined them on the gently sloping hillside:

Alfred Tennyson Dickens, the oldest surviving son of Charles Dickens, and godson of the poet Lord Tennyson, was buried nearby in 1912, having died of acute indigestion while staying at the Waldorf Astoria. He was only five when Hamilton and Clifford died, having been born two years after his father finished writing A Christmas Carol. Had the Flock boys heard of Ebenezer Scrooge and his midnight transformation? Had they felt a kinship for Tiny Tim: frail and weak, but strong of spirit? It only took a year after it was written for that story to jump the pond, be set to music and performed in 1845 at the Chatham Theater, not too far from their father’s poultry shop on Broadway and 12th Street. Even if they had not heard of the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future, perhaps Hamilton and Clifford had overheard their father relate a tale gleaned from his customers of how hundreds of newsboys had been brought in to see a performance and had behaved so badly the police had to haul a bunch of them off to the ominous Tombs, the House of Detention named such because it looked like an ancient Egyptian Mausoleum. I could imagine that conversation becoming an “instructive” moment between parent and child starting with the phrase “If I ever hear of my boys acting that way…”

Or perhaps Ham and Cliff had had the chance to see acrobat and clown Richard Sands perform his backwards somersaults off his horse May Fly two years later when he also performed at the Chatham during a slump in the theater’s history that allowed for circus acts. The boys would be several years embraced by elm roots by the time Sands invented the act for which he was most remembered–walking on a ceiling using suction cups attached to his feet. Legend had it he died in Massachusetts, plunging from the inside of a dome when the plaster gave way, but he actually lost his life with much less fanfare, succumbing to yellow fever in Havana, Cuba.  Buried in 1861 just down the hill from the Flock plot, a tall monument, reminiscent of a Corinthian temple was erected over his grave. In the center a platform sits empty, where once the bust of this circus showman sat encased. Apparently, someone years earlier made the statue disappear and never returned to finish the act.

If a link to Ebenezer Scrooge and a star circus performer are not enough company for two young boys, down the hill nearer the mausoleums is a low, gray granite grave with the word Moore cut in large letters below a list of names. Close by is a small marker, also made of dull gray stone with the letters C.C.M. and nothing else. This marks the last resting place of a dour theologian, professor of Greek literature and Bible and writer of A Compendious Lexicon of the Hebrew Language, likely used as a 19th century cure for insomnia. One wintry day in 1822, while traveling by sleigh from his home in Chelsea to Greenwich Village to buy a turkey, he penned a few verses to read to his own six children on Christmas Eve. The following December a friend had those verses published anonymously in a Troy NY newspaper. It was reprinted many times over the next fifteen years until Clement Clarke Moore finally admitted that this frivolous, unscholarly verse was his own. By that time his “jolly old elf” and sleigh with “eight tiny reindeer” were already reshaping the culture and defining how children like Ham and Cliff might experience Christmas. Of course, their deaths just before the holidays in 1850 likely did much to shape their family’s observance, at least for that year.

There are some other permanent residents of Trinity that would not be so interesting to two young lads: Four New York mayors including the more recently deceased Ed Koch, at least that many congressmen, any number of socialites, including Caroline Webster Schermerhorn Astor, the doyenne of the gilded age and self-proclaimed arbiter of the elite four hundred. There are physicians like David Hosack, whose unusual family practice included trying in vain to save Alexander Hamilton after his 1804 duel in Weehawken, New Jersey where, three years earlier, Hosack also could not save Alexander’s son Phillip after his own duel. One of the most infamous residents is one who excelled in business endeavors and was, at the time of her death, the richest woman in America. Born Eliza Bowen, she married French wine merchant Stephen Jumel and after his death increased her fortune through wise investments. An unwise investment, though, was marrying 78-year-old widower Aaron Burr who promptly began losing her money. So she put him out of her house and, for emphasis, divorced him on the day he died. A strong, independent woman, she was known derogatorily throughout the city as “Madam Jumel,” because as any 19th century citizen would be certain, a successful woman must have some level of connection with the second oldest profession.

Not far from the Flock plot is a vault containing a body recovered at sea a week after a British liner making its maiden voyage sank after colliding with an iceberg. According to the Encyclopedia Titanica the following description helped to identify the floater:

“NO. 124 – MALE – ESTIMATED AGE 50 – LIGHT HAIR & MOUSTACHE. CLOTHING – Blue serge suit; blue handkerchief with “A.V.”; belt with gold buckle; brown boots with red rubber soles; brown flannel shirt; “J.J.A.” on back of collar. EFFECTS – Gold watch; cuff links, gold with diamond; diamond ring with three stones; £225 in English notes; $2440 in notes; £5 in gold; 7s. in silver; 5 ten-franc pieces; gold pencil; pocketbook. FIRST CLASS. NAME- J.J. ASTOR”

At the time of his death, John Jacob Astor IV was likely the richest man in the world, traveling on the largest ship afloat, reported to be unsinkable. Here at Trinity Cemetery, he is just another resident.

A few steps from the Astor vault is a monument in memory and honor of United States Marine Stephen Higginson Tyng, Jr., also lost at sea, but unlike his famous neighbor, never found. He was on his way to Parris Island, South Carolina when his transport ship City of Athens was rammed in the fog by a French warship on May 1, 1918. Married on the day the ship set sail, his wife Elizabeth never remarried and is buried close by. She died May 2, 1964.

The loved, the cherished. The lost, the found. The youthful, the infirmed, the scoundrel, the fascinating and the dull. The busy, the brutish, the fop and the fanatic. First lives, then stories, then just names carved on stone. Passersby read them aloud. Perhaps. Or go by, gazing at the foliage, the marble angels, their timepiece, trying not to imagine themselves here, on the other side of the sod.

Genealogists say we die three deaths. The first is when our body dies. The second when the last person who knew us dies. And the third? The third death is the last time our name is spoken.

Here in Trinity Cemetery, under the shade of my family tree, I, the last of my line, read these names:

Hamilton Flock. Age 10. Clifford Arms Flock. Age 6 years, 5 months, 20 days. Nothing else under Hamilton’s name is legible. I only know the date of his death from the City Hall records: 29 October 1850, and even there his name is misspelled “Flack.” About his younger brother Clifford, I know a little more. He died of “water on the brain”–hydro encephalitis. Whether this was a problem from birth or the result of an illness or accident is unknown. All the obituary in the New York Herald said was that family and friends would gather on the Friday following his death in his parent’s home “in Fiftieth Street three doors west of Third Avenue” at two in the afternoon and that his remains would be taken to Trinity Cemetery. There all would gather, two weeks before Christmas, to help Alfred and Maria do the one thing parents never want to do–bury their child.

Hamilton and Clifford. They had not lived long enough for time to assign them fame or anonymity. Likely they had played on cobblestone streets, heard stories told to them by firelight, slept in a crowded bed with several other siblings and grew up to the rhythm of the marketplace where their father dealt in poultry and pumpkins. But they were loved. Fifteen lines of illegible carving on a granite slab whose face is wedged up against the bark of that great ancient elm tree attest to that. But there was a sixteenth. Embracing the tree, I leaned in for a closer look:

“… tear is shed.” Wait. A bit of maneuvering. A squint or two. “… farewell tear is shed.” Then above it “… greet them

On a hunch, I typed the words into a search engine on my android phone. It was the last line of a hymn written in 1833 by Lowell Mason to eulogize Martha Jane Crockett, a sixteen-year-old, well-loved student at the Mount Vernon School in Boston where he worked. He’d composed both tune and words on his way to school the morning after her funeral service. Not as inspiring as “Antioch”, the tune of “Joy to the World” he wrote six years later, nor as useful for mass casualty situations as his tune “Bethany” to which “Nearer My God to Thee” is sung, but heartfelt nonetheless. When the still grieving students arrived in his classroom that warm July day, Dr. Mason put them through their vocal exercises using individual lines of plain music. Toward the end of the session he instructed them to sing those lines in harmony. Then he wrote these words on the chalkboard to be sung with the tune:

“Sister, thou wast mild and lovely, gentle as the summer breeze,
Pleasant as the air of evening as it floats among the trees.
Peaceful be thy silent slumber, peaceful in the grave so low;
Thou no more wilt join our number, thou no more our songs shall know.
Dearest sister, thou hast left us, here thy loss we deeply feel,
But ’tis God that hath bereft us, He can all our sorrows heal.
Yet again we hope to meet thee, when the day of life is fled;
Then in heaven with joy to greet thee, where no farewell tear is shed.”

From what I could read on the stone marking Hamilton and Cliff’s grave, these were the verses written there – his parents only creating plurals where the original called for a singular. If the words I could not see were indeed the rest of the hymn, likely they changed gender, too, but the sentiment remained.

“Yet again we hope to meet them, when the day of life is fled;
Then in heaven with joy to greet them, where no farewell tear is shed.”

A few more touches to the screen on my cell phone and I was listening to the melody.

I’d come to Trinity Cemetery to see the burial place of my ancestors and save them from the third death, at least for my lifetime. Instead, I walked away, as Clifford and Hamilton’s immediate family may have when the headstone was erected 170 years ago–singing a hymn of promise, peace and belonging.


Copyright © 2020

2 thoughts on “The Third Death

  1. I think I’ve heard it before though. Just a point since I can’t help but critique. In the 11th paragraph, the 12th line you wrote “So she put out him out of her house…” You should lose the first “out”. Still a great story. I hope all is well with you and yours.


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