Washington Irving’s Birthday

COVID-19 interferes with planned celebrations and inspires a meditation on family and death at the Old Dutch Church.

I write this when I should be attending a lecture to kick-off a weekend of festivities to celebrate our celebrated Author during the 200th anniversary of the publication of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Our historical society put together a lovely literary conference of lectures, panels, and tours that included scholars, actors, and our own Old Dutch Church. But then COVID-19 struck and all of those plans were put on hold. But that doesn’t change the fact that today is his birthday and I suppose the heaviness of our current situation has me thinking more about his death.

Anyone who has read anything about Washington Irving walks away knowing this one thing: he loved his family. That love motivated him to travel to England for the family business where, thankfully, he found his inspiration to take up pen and paper and bring us the stories that made him famous. He told us fantastical stories all while living with the very real-world fears of sickness and financial ruin. When he finally gained a reputation and returned to Tarrytown to transform an old Dutch property into his home, Sunnyside, the first thing he did was move in his relatives. In my recent visit to Sunnyside, which is a modest-size home, I played my own game of trying to figure out where every one slept and how the women navigated the narrow halls and staircase in their wide skirts. Still, years after Irving inhabited the place, you can still feel a sense of family when you walk through the front door. In his eulogy for Irving, spoken before the New York Historical Society, William Cullen Bryant described the scene at Sunnyside towards the end of Irving’s life:

“The retreat had now become more charming than ever, and the domestic life within was as beautiful as the nature without. A surviving brother, older than himself, shared it with him, and several affectionate nephews and nieces stood to him in the relations of sons and daughters. He was surrounded by neighbors who saw him daily, and honored and loved him the more for knowing him so well.”

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, adjacent to the Old Dutch Church and Burying Ground, was opened in 1849. Originally planned as “Tarrytown Cemetery”, Irving penned a letter suggesting the name “Sleepy Hollow Cemetery” and he wrote about the new cemetery, “…I hope it may succeed, as it will keep that beautiful and umbrageous neighborhood sacred from the anti-poetical and all-leveling axe. Besides, I trust that I shall one day lay my bones there.” Irving ended up selecting a burial spot right on the southern boundary overlooking the Old Dutch Church which he describes in The Legend as standing, 

“on a knoll, surrounded by locust-trees and lofty elms, from among which its decent, whitewashed walls shine modestly forth, like Christian purity beaming through the shades of retirement. A gentle slope descends from it to a silver sheet of water, bordered by high trees, between which, peeps may be caught at the blue hills of the Hudson. To look upon its grass-grown yard, where the sunbeams seem to sleep so quietly, one would think that there at least the dead might rest in peace.”

Of course, right after this he jolts us out of our serenity and brings us face to face with the Headless Horseman. But that is fiction, and I dare say that Irving’s love of the beauty of Sleepy Hollow was very real for not only would he chose this as his final resting place, he would bring his family members here too. It is not a single burial plot you visit. When you come to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery you visit the entire Irving family.

Some 65 years before Irving chose this place to write about, live in, and finally lay his bones to rest, the evidence of the love of another family can be found near the front door of the Old Dutch Church where several members of the Couenhoven family are laid to rest. Perhaps one of the most visited headstones, other than Katrina Van Tassel’s, is the triple-arched stone of the grandchildren of Edward and Ann Couenhoven. It speaks of a time, not unlike our own, where a disease swept through a family and brought about the death of three children, aged 1, 3 and 5 years old, within hours of each other. These little children are buried a few steps from the doors to the church and their grandparents, tavern owners who had on more than one occasion served General George Washington, and may even have performed some Cupler-style spying during the Revolution, spared no expense on the headstone. I think this is one of Solomon Brewers’s finest works in our burying ground and it has held up well over the years. Three soul effigies with down-turned eyes adorn the sandstone headstone and each name, and age, and moment of death are recorded with an epitaph that breaks your heart:

“How lovely were they in their Lives; & in their Deaths they were (not divided).”

Cornelius age 5, Jacob age 3, Winey age 1, d.9/24/1794

The earliest headstone in this family grouping of eleven belongs to the grandfather, Edward Couenhoven, d. 1786, and if his epitaph is true, it shows a loving heart,

“Here Lies a tender & indulgent Father, to wife children & his neighbor, His Soul adorn’d with heavenly Grace, Now sees his Saviour’s lovely face”

Also part of this grouping is the headstone of the children’s aunt, Anne Couenhoven Sebring, d.1849. There is a story about Anne, that as a child, she met Gen. Washington on one his visits to the tavern and that he lifted her to his knee and kissed her. This is similar to a story from Washington Irving’s youth when it is said his nanny took him to meet President Washington and he too received a kiss on the head. Anne’s marker is very unusual for a Reformed burying ground. It bears an image of the Resurrected Christ carved in marble. It shows a the change of style from the 18th to 19th centuries.

So, what is all this talk of death and family on Washington Irving’s birthday? I have never felt the ill-ease of Ichabod Crane walking through the burying ground. There are no evil spirits here. But the echo of love, sacrifice, family, and perseverance in times of hardship and suffering will embrace you as they embraced Washington Irving. He has not just gifted us with his writings, but also with the story of his life. Happy Birthday, dear Mr. Irving!

Note: Please check out the Historical Society Serving Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow, Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, and Andrew Burstein’s “The Original Knickerbocker” for more information about Washington Irving. Sunnyside is one the historic properties of Historic Hudson Valley.

When the COVID-19 health crisis is over we will be happy to welcome you back to the Old Dutch Church for Saturday tours. Check the Reformed Church of the Tarrytowns Website for any updates.

2 Comments

  1. Ms McCue, Thank you so very much for this interesting background of a wonderful writer, Irvington’s famous resident! I enjoyed the well written, heartwarming details of Irving’s personal life.

    Having lived in East Irvington, I visited Irving’s beautiful home as a child on a field trip and also as an adult , twice. The quaintness of his home, the splendor of his
    property always gave me a feeling of awe.

    Liked by 1 person

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