The Treasures of Yale: Grove Street Cemetery

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Grove Street Cemetery and my hometown have a few important similarities: both have streets with names, and nothing really happens in either place after 5 p.m. Thankfully, the residents of my hometown are alive, at least as far as I can tell. While I can’t say as much for New Haven’s hottest National Historic Landmark (sorry I’m not sorry, Connecticut Hall), I can assure you that in terms of sheer posthumous star power, the denizens of Grove Street put on a lively performance.

From my experience, it’s easy to lose sight of New Haven’s colonial history – the city doesn’t make as concerted an effort to emphasize seventeenth- and eighteenth-century roots as places like Wethersfield, Connecticut or Boston. Fortunately, Grove Street Cemetery is a feeding frenzy for history buffs. Graves of the general populace tell the city’s story. A gravestone for the Atwater family remembers the deaths of three of their young children in 1776, 1777 and 1782; an especially large obelisk is dedicated to Pierrepont B. Foster and the three wives he had survived before his death in 1886; another bears the name of Frederick Farnsworth, Mayor of New Haven from 1897 to 1899 (thus crushing my Mayor-DeStefano-has-literally-been-mayor-forever conspiracy theory). Many Yale grads have been laid to rest at Grove Street as well, and I was able to spot newer tombstones for professors of African art and clinical virology, as well as the tombstone of Theodore Dwight Woolsey, tenth president of Yale College and the likeness of the Woolsey statue with the ill-fated (I mean, rub it for good luck!) foot on Old Campus.

In many ways, Grove Street Cemetery feels like a city unto itself, to the point that I even feel comfortable pretending to be its tourism bureau. Take in the skyline formed by the graveyard’s obelisks and reflected in New Haven’s buildings, or take advantage of the extensive trails and sense of quiet by visiting the Cemetery for a long walk. If you’re ambitious, try solving the mystery of why willow trees and Grecian urns repeatedly appear on tombstones throughout the cemetery (Hint: Go to a blog entitled “Gravestoned” for the answer… but seriously, cemetery blogging is totally real… and the blog doesn’t actually have anything to do with getting stoned, if that’s what you’re thinking). Funerary art in itself is an interesting study and can get pretty spectacular (one word: sphinxes), and the graves of Roger Sherman, Eli Whitney, and Noah Webster augment the cemetery’s prestige.

At the entrance of Grove Street Cemetery, the imposing Egyptian-revivalist style gate’s proclamation “The Dead Shall Be Raised” always provokes thought. For one, I can’t help being shallow and thinking it would make for a great Halloween photo-op. But more importantly, it serves as the gateway to an afternoon paying tribute to New Haven’s life via its deceased. At the very least, I can promise you that while the cemetery’s subject matter is grave, you most certainly will not be bored to death (sorry, couldn’t resist).

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