Knowledge of the Dead: Grove Street Cemetery

April 20, 2014 —The first thing you notice about Grove Street Cemetery in New Haven, Connecticut, is how freaking erudite the place is. Outside the walls of this urban graveyard, the buildings of Yale University soar up—the church-like admin building that is Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall, the dome of Woolsey Hall, the turtle shell that is Ingalls Rink, the if-Tim-Burton-had-a-warehouse-it-might-look-like-this Health Services Building. Inside, about every other grave is a past Yale president or professor, many proud enough of the fact to have it engraved on their tombstone in the eternal hope that tenure continues in the afterlife.

But the cemetery is far from an ivy-covered ivory tower. Established in 1797, it touts the fact that it’s the first officially chartered cemetery in the country and the first to be designed to take into account family plots. It’s older than the garden cemeteries of Mount Auburn in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Pere-Lachaise in Paris, and while it doesn’t have the size or the variety of landscape of either of those sites, Grove Street Cemetery was designed to both please the living and honor the dead. It’s an extremely walkable cemetery, small enough that you can cover the whole thing, but large enough that you won’t exhaust it quickly, and it has an impressive variety of species of dead-fed, from ginkgo tree to magnolia.

Its residents share a similar variety despite the ground being tilted in the direction of Yalites. It boasts Revolutionary War veterans, a victim of the Hindenburg disaster, inventors like Charles Goodyear—who gave us vulcanized rubber—and Eli Whitney—whom, for some reason, we all had to learn invented the cotton gin. Dictionary guy Noah Webster’s in there, as is the father of Harriet Beecher Stowe and the guy who named most of the dinosaurs. Plenty of other notables and semi-notables and local-notables. Mostly, though, it's a lot of very smart people buried here.

The funerary art continues the variety, from classic old New England slates with winged skulls to unique statuary and reliefs. Its Egyptian Revival gates proclaim in large letters, “The Dead Shall Be Raised,” a statement of hope or threat, depending on the context.

Most interesting to me personally, were the thin, ancient brown gravestones that lined the base of some of the stone walls surrounding the cemetery. They closed a circle for me from another jaunt years ago. The engraved deadboards are headless headstones, decapitated grave markers. They mark no bodies, not anymore at least, and are transplants from another, older New Haven cemetery.

The bodies that they once weighted down rest below the nicely manicured public area that is New Haven Green, about half a mile away. The only bit that remains untouched of that older cemetery is in the basement of the Center Church-on-the-Green, my visit to which I’ve told you about before.

It kind of means those people-under-the-green are buried in two places. All I know is that the auspicious Grove Street Cemetery isn’t a bad place to end up, even if it’s just your headstone.

Actually labeled "Libby's Grave."

A dead bird makes more sense than most things I've seen carved on gravestones.

I've heard of cotton gins all my life. Still barely know what one is.

This is the grave of the first black woman given tenure at Yale.
Note how it's her years at the university and not of her life that are engraved.