At the bicentennial celebration for the Grove Street Cemetery in 1997, University President Richard Levin joked with those in attendance about the cemetery’s location in the heart of Yale’s campus.

“The dead shall be raised?” he asked, referencing the famous words imposingly inscribed above the brownstone front gate. “It certainly shall if Yale ever needs the property.”

Ten years later, Levin’s joke — first uttered by former Yale President Jeremiah Day — has suddenly become relevant. But for students and administrators considering the effect of two new residential colleges on the Yale undergraduate experience, the cemetery is no laughing matter.

The Grove Street Cemetery, a National Historical Landmark and the final resting place of founding fathers, celebrities and a samurai, stands between central campus and the Prospect Street location proposed for two new residential colleges. Administrators said figuring out how to accommodate the 18-acre plot, which houses more than 14,000 bodies and has room for 2,000 more, will be crucial in drawing up plans to integrate the colleges into campus life.

The neighborhood surrounding the cemetery currently comprises mostly quiet, residential streets, but if colleges 13 and 14 go up beyond its stone walls, the area could be transformed into a bustling hub of student activity, complete with a gymnasium, recreational spaces and even restaurants and other businesses.

Although officials have in the past rejected suggestions that they allow the University to undertake construction in the cemetery, the current manager told the News he is open to reconsidering the cemetery’s relationship with Yale.

Yalies crossing over

For many current students, the Grove Street Cemetery is best known for its tall brownstone walls, which line the march up Prospect Street to Science Hill. Although the cemetery offers free tours once a week from May to November, few Yalies pass through its gates and into the two-century-old burial ground.

“I’m a junior, and I don’t feel like I’ve been exposed to it,” Daniel Marks ’09 said.

But if the Yale Corporation approves the expansion plan in February, the geographic center of campus will likely shift to include the cemetery and the surrounding area. Former Calhoun College Master William Sledge, chairman of a committee investigating the impact of the new colleges on student life, said the cemetery’s intrusive location makes the site of the new colleges feel far away.

“It’s on the other side of the cemetery, which is an enormous barrier psychologically, architecturally, spiritually,” he said at a forum on expansion earlier this semester. “We’re trying to develop ideas about how to integrate it.”

At an October forum to discuss the expansion, Brad Hargreaves ’08 said he worries that the geographical center of the campus will shift to the cemetery, which he said “is essentially an eight-foot-high wall.”

Marcus Strong ’11 said the students of the 12 existing colleges may not mesh well with the students of the other two.

“No one would want to go around the cemetery to get to the other colleges,” he said. “It would suck for those people.”

Members of the student life committee said no property nearer to campus could accommodate the hundreds of new students that would fill the new colleges.

In several faculty-student forums in October, administrators said they hope retail stores and recreational facilities in the area to the north of the cemetery will attract more students to the location. The plans also include the possible formation of a student center at a “third building.”

Historically, the cemetery has not had a close relationship with the University, which has traditionally avoided tampering with the plot. According to the Friends of Grove Street Cemetery Web site, former Yale President Kingman Brewster Jr. ’41 signed a declaration in the 1970s stating that the University would not touch the cemetery.

The signing occurred around the time Yale officials approached the cemetery managing board in “casual talks” about a possibility of undertaking construction in the cemetery, current Board President G. Harold Welch, Jr ’50 said. The proposal was quickly shot down, he said.

“It was a ridiculous idea,” Welch said. “It really wasn’t for discussion.”

But he said cemetery managers would be receptive to any conversations the University would like to have concerning their changing relationship with Yale.

“We’re totally independent,” Welch said. “But we’re happy neighbors.”

In Oct. 2006, the Board of Aldermen unanimously voted to cede three streets to the north of the cemetery — Prospect Place and sections of Mansfield and Sachem Streets — to Yale in return for about $10 million to improve city roads.

The cemetery is currently under the jurisdiction of Ward 22 Alderman Greg Morehead, who said while the cemetery is a symbol of New Haven’s rich culture, it does little to contribute to the ward otherwise. But since the cemetery is a National Historical Landmark, Morehead said, it is here to stay — and will likely never be altered.

A resting ground on Myrtle Avenue

Cemetery managers have more than just physical space to protect — they have a rich and varied history as well.

The Grove Street Cemetery, officially called the New Haven City Burial Ground, was founded in October 1797 by land proprietor James Hillhouse and several other New Haven residents. It is the oldest chartered, Victorian-style cemetery in the United States, according to the Friends Web site.

The cemetery was established on what at the time were the outskirts of the city. Yale was then just a “brick building with a few students here and there,” Friends member Patricia Illingworth said at a tour she led last Saturday.

In 1845, the brownstone wall and Egyptian-style gate that surround the cemetery were completed by world-renowned architect Henry Austin. Below the words “The Dead Shall Be Raised,” a reference to the second coming of Christ, lies a uraeus, the Egyptian symbol for immortality, Illingworth said. The well known wall replaced a wooden fence, which did not adequately defend the cemetery against the wolves who would pick on the scraps of corpses and spread disease to the nearby residents.

Although the University has no institutional connection to the cemetery, several important figures in Yale’s history are buried beyond its gates.

Fourteen Yale presidents and hundreds of faculty members and alumni are buried along Myrtle Avenue, the paved road that cuts through the center of cemetery.

Yale professor emeritus Josiah Willard Gibbs Sr. 1858 is buried under a headstone near the front of the cemetery. Gibbs is famed for finding a translator to record the story of a slave captive on board the ship Amistad.

In the center of the cemetery, Yale President emeritus Arthur Twining Hadley ’1876 lies buried in complete samurai garb, katana included, because he died in Japan.

Also interred in the Grove Street Cemetery is Mary Goodman, a Divinity School laundry worker who donated her life savings of about $5,000 to the school upon her death in 1872. The Divinity School today offers a $5,000 scholarship to minority students in honor of Goodman’s gift.

For now, the cemetery and its denizens occupy a secluded space largely untouched by the bustle of Yalies.

After 32 years on the job, cemetery superintendent William Cameron Jr. has his daily routine set in stone.

Cameron arrives at the cemetery at 6 a.m. everyday. He cleans the headstones, rakes leaves and mans the front office. He said he does “too many things to mention” before finally clocking out at 4:30 p.m., sometimes later — seven days a week, all year.

With a University expansion, Cameron and his wife Joan, the assistant superintendent of the cemetery, may get to spend a lot more time with Yalies. Cameron said he is all for it.

“They’re wonderful kids,” he said. “Very cordial.”