The Grove Street Cemetery has plots for sale.
As Halloween approaches, the haunted and creepy take over. Fake cobwebs hide houses, inflatable witches cackle from windows and the shelves at Walgreens bleed candy corn and Reese’s pieces. We stock up on sugar, compare costumes and grow graveyards on our lawns.
And in the midst of all these preparations, we forget about the tombstones that lie in Yale’s own backyard: the Grove Street Cemetery.
Many students will spend four years at Yale without ever walking through the Grove Street graves. The cemetery is sketchy. It is far away. It is merely a landmark in emails from Ronnell.
This is where we’re wrong.
Yale and the Grove Street Cemetery are very much intertwined: 16 of Yale’s 22 presidents are buried within the cemetery’s fortress-like walls, along with countless other professors and notable University figures. Many of the cemetery’s board and standing committee members are Yale professors, administrators or others affiliated with the University. Professors make use of the cemetery in their classes, and some students consider it a place of peace and refuge within their daily lives.
IF YOU BUILD IT, THEY WILL COME
The Grove Street Cemetery has celebrity status. In addition to being a National Historic Landmark, it is sometimes called “the Westminster Abbey of Connecticut” because it houses so many big names: dictionary designer Noah Webster 1778, founding father Roger Sherman and abolitionist Lyman Beecher 1797, to list a few.
Nestled between Yale Health, Commons and the Central Power Plant, the Grove Street Cemetery deserves more than a glance on a Parents’ Weekend tour. A brownstone gate guards its entrance on Grove Street, and the words “And the Dead Shall be Raised” keep watch from above. Walk through the gate, and a small building awaits you. Here you can pick up a map, detailing the history and layout of the cemetery. As you wander through its expansive avenues and well-maintained greenery, you might be struck by the incredible diversity of the monuments. They come in all different shapes and sizes, from obelisks to lions, with some more traditional tombs in between.
Though often overlooked by students, the cemetery grounds the University in its history and narrative. Consider the names we hear every day: Silliman, Stiles, Whitney and Farnam. To us, these words signify streets, dormitories, dining halls. But they’re all in the cemetery, along with their stories and their first names too.
The Grove Street Cemetery fades into the background of our everyday lives; we pass it on the way to Payne Whitney or spot it from afar on Wall Street. It’s become part of the landscape of our college experiences.
But, this holds true for some more than others. Many bedrooms in Swing Space overlook the cemetery directly. For Kate Liebman ’13, it has become little more than an element of the surrounding scenery, and its well-kept horticulture provides a nice view from her room.
“I have no feelings about it one way or the other. It’s nice in the summer because it’s really green,” Liebman said. “Now the leaves are changing, and it’s still beautiful.”
But Adam Demetriou ’13, also a Swing Space resident, has had an odd experience. One morning, Demetriou woke up around 7 a.m. and saw “a guy just standing there.
“I’m not used to seeing people out there,” Demetriou said. “There’s never anyone else there.”
By the time Demetriou had gotten out of the shower, the mysterious man had vanished. Like Liebman, Demetriou has never been inside the cemetery, but does not have a desire to go.
When darkness falls, the cemetery’s appearance can change completely. “It’s kind of creepy at night when you look out the window and all you see is the cemetery,” said Sarah Kelley ’13. “I’ve walked around it once, and it was kind of creepy, but nothing really weird.”
Unsightly or not, the cemetery hasn’t always been there.
In 18th-century New Haven, most burials took place on the Green, the center of town at the time. Many of those remains still lie beneath the newly paved and sodded square we know today, or below what is now Center Church on the Green. With the outbreak of yellow fever epidemics in New Haven in 1794 and 1795, though, the Green just couldn’t take it anymore. Mass burials of fever victims became an unbearably pungent public health hazard, and something had to give.
City planner John Hillhouse developed the plans for the Grove Street Cemetery, originally named the “New Haven City Burial Ground,” to resolve this dilemma. He proposed the construction of a park-like cemetery far away from the stenches of the Green, in what was then considered the New Haven suburbs. At the time, Hillhouse’s innovation was unparalleled.
“Grove Street Cemetery is the first landscaped and beautified cemetery in the world,” said Judith Schiff, chief research archivist at Yale’s Manuscripts and Archives Library, also a member of the Friends of the Grove Street Cemetery and the Grove Street Cemetery Standing Committee. Established in 1797, this National Historic Landmark predates Paris’s Père Lachaise cemetery – often thought to be older than Grove Street – by seven years. Schiff explained the uncertainty that surrounds Hillhouse’s creative process and “how he came up with this idea of perpetual care and beautification.” For the first time, a cemetery became a pleasant place to visit, somewhere “where people could revere the dead” rather than navigate unorganized, unpleasant graveyards, Schiff added.
Today, students and community members alike still benefit from Hillhouse’s devotion to beautification. The cemetery can provide a way to relax and to escape the stresses of Yale. Isabel Ortiz ’14 began to take walks in the cemetery her freshman year for exactly this reason. “It was really nice to have a place off campus but still nearby, where I could leave the bubble a little bit,” said Ortiz, who is originally from Argentina. “I just really love cemeteries. There’s a cemetery I love [in Argentina], so it kind of reminds me of that one. It reminds me of home and of my family, in a weird way.”
Grier Barnes ’14 visited the cemetery for the first time during finals last spring. Barnes was on her way to the library to do research when her mom called to tell her that her aunt had been diagnosed with breast cancer. “I had been so stressed, and that was the final straw,” Barnes said. “I started bawling on the way to the Law School library. My mom asked if there was anywhere else I could go, and I said I could try the cemetery because it was right there.”
Once she arrived at the cemetery, Barnes was struck by its sense of openness. “It’s not like you’re locked up in your room crying in your bed. You have the sense of being in an open place. It’s a very intimate but shared space,” she said. “Now, if I’m upset, I’m definitely going to go there. It’s a nice spot to get away from your room and not be the crying girl in front of the dining hall. I hate crying in public. It was really nice to be able to cry in a public spot but to be very alone at the same time,” she added.
FROM THEN TO NOW
Tombstones line the outer walls of the cemetery, and closer examination reveals them to be in alphabetical order. In the 20 years following the establishment of the cemetery, families were invited to retrieve their loved ones’ tombstones from the Green and transport them to the cemetery. At the end of this grace period, the 2,000 remaining tombstones were brought from the Green to the Grove Street Cemetery and ordered along the wall. Consequently, “for the first time, you had clusters of families who had been scattered along the Green,” Schiff said. Their remains, however, were left buried in their original locations.
For Raisa Bruner ’13, these tombstones have great personal significance. (Bruner is a former production and design editor for the News). Among them is her ninth-great-grandmother’s headstone, which was moved from the Green to the Grove Street Cemetery when it opened. Though her ninth-great-grandfather’s tombstone could not be found, he was one of the original founders of the New Haven colony in 1639. More than 50 of Bruner’s ancestors are buried in the cemetery, for the Tuttle family “was one of the more prolific families in New Haven,” she said.
Bruner only found out about her relation to the Tuttles when her great-aunt, an amateur genealogist, passed away during her freshman year. Her father happened upon documents that mentioned New Haven while managing her estate, and the rest was history. Bruner has visited the cemetery three times since then. “Personally, knowing that I have family there makes it feel like I’m connected to it. When I’m there, I’m in a place of reflection about my past, what I belong to, and where I belong,” she said.
This new discovery did not change Bruner’s Yale experience drastically, but rather broadened it. “I’d already felt like this was my place, but it gave me a better sense of the history. Especially after researching it, I’ve discovered that I am deeply connected to New Haven and Yale College. Whether or not that changes my experience here, it changes my perspective on my experience here,” she added.
The alphabetical order of tombstones such as the Tuttles’ testifies to the incredible organization of the cemetery. In addition, this well-populated “City of the Dead” had a surprisingly democratic structure. The Grove Street Cemetery has been nonsectarian from its opening. Until the 1840s, it was really “the only place for burials,” Schiff said. As churches began to build their own cemeteries, fewer people were buried in Grove Street, and it became more selective. The original map of the cemetery indicates specific allocations of spaces for different social groups, such as “one for people associated with Yale, one for persons of color, and one for persons who died in New Haven,” G. Harold Welch Jr. ’50, former president of the Grove Street Cemetery, said while explaining an original map of the cemetery. “It’s very interesting that over 200 years ago, it was a very, very democratic place,” he added.
Even if they’ve never stepped inside, most students know the quotation above the gate: “And the Dead Shall be Raised.” The reasoning behind the choice of this unsettling phrase, though, remains unclear. It is a quote from the Bible, an excerpt from Corinthians 15:52: “In the moment, in the twinkling of an eye, the last trump, the dead shall be raised.” The quotation in its entirety is inscribed on the tomb of Theophilius Eaton, one of the founders of the New Haven colony, behind the Center Church on the Green. Schiff remarked that early watercolor depictions of architect Henry Austin’s gate do not include the quote, suggesting that it was perhaps a later addition.
And if the dead are indeed raised, many ghosts of Yalies past will roam New Haven. For in addition to the many Yale affiliates who are buried there independently, Yale owns two lots — groups of plots — in the Grove Street Cemetery. The first, Schiff explained, is mostly filled with students who died while at Yale and lived far away, could not be retrieved by their families or suffered from extremely contagious diseases that mandated immediate burial. The second lot, which still has space open, was intended for other people affiliated with Yale, like professors or administrators. One such example is paleontologist O.C. Marsh, who discovered several species of dinosaurs and founded the Peabody Museum, and whose body is now buried in the Yale lot.
The inspiration of notables like Marsh lives on in the classroom. Some professors structure class activities around the cemetery because of its historical and scientific value.
Tessa Williams ’10 took a playwriting class, “Microdramas” with Paula Vogel, in which students had to spend half of one class walking around the cemetery individually. “We had to pick a grave, spend some time around it, and write a microdrama about the person buried there,” Williams said.
Scarlett Lee ’12 also used the cemetery for research in her “General Ecology” class. Lee recently had to go there to record dates of death of various tombstones “to study the death rates and model the population of New Haven,” she said.
The legacies of the cemetery live on not only in students’ coursework, but also in university programs and scholarships. Schiff, who has worked to emphasize notable women buried in the Grove Street Cemetery, also recounted the story of Mary Goodman. Goodman, a New Haven resident, was an African-American woman with no family of her own. She inherited property through marriage and ran a relatively prosperous laundry business. She decided to offer her estate to Yale because “after the Civil War, she didn’t feel like things were progressing fast enough, and she thought that if black ministers were educated at the Yale Divinity School, then they could inspire young boys to go to college,” said Schiff. When she died in 1872, the University offered to bury Goodman in the second Yale lot as a display of gratitude. Goodman’s scholarship is still in use at the Divinity School.
GROUND AND GOWN
The Goodman scholarship is but one example of close relations between Yale and the Grove Street Cemetery.
Schiff attributed much of this overlap to the interest that members of the Yale community take in the cemetery. People who make their careers at Yale “want a place to be buried,” she said. “They like the idea that many presidents and professors have been buried there, and they like the nonsectarian aspect. Every religion is represented there.”
Additionally, all board members must own a lot in the cemetery in order to have a place on the board. As a result, members of the board and of the standing committee have parents, grandparents or children buried in the cemetery.
Yale and the Grove Street Cemetery have grown up together over the past 200 years, and, like siblings, have learned to share and collaborate, to discuss and to compromise. In fact, about 95 percent of the cemetery’s endowment is invested with the Yale endowment, according to John Simon LAW ’53, a professor at the Yale Law School and longtime member of the Grove Street Cemetery Standing Committee. The cemetery recently decided to place its funds with the Yale endowment “so we can get the benefit of David Swensen,” said Simon, who described Swensen as “the best investor in the country.” The cemetery retains a small portion of its endowment — around 5 percent — for use on current or ongoing projects.
Like brother and sister, the Grove Street Cemetery and Yale have also seen moments of tension or disagreement, albeit few and far between. Schiff told a “now rather hackneyed, but still kind of funny” joke about the dynamics between Yale and the cemetery. “The joke is, ‘Yes, the dead shall be raised, but not until Yale needs the land,’” said Schiff. “It’s a fabrication because Yale doesn’t even own the land. I don’t think people ever realized how Yale would eventually surround the cemetery because when the cemetery was built, it was in the suburbs,” she continued.
Yale hasn’t tried to take the land, but proposed modifications to the cemetery have provoked interesting discussions. A relatively recent disagreement between Yale and the cemetery concerned a proposition to create a gate on the Prospect Street side of the cemetery. With the plans to build two new colleges, the gate would enable easier access from those buildings to the center of campus. Students would be able to walk through the cemetery instead of around it.
“Some thought it would open the cemetery up. It’s a walled fortress on some sides and has grating on others,” said Welch. “They thought this would be more inviting.”
Simon explained the opposition to this idea. It would have involved cutting a hole in the fence surrounding the cemetery, which is part of its historic preservation. Students’ behavior and respect for the cemetery could also not be guaranteed. “With people walking through all the time, some might stop to have drinks or picnics or things like that, and it would be very hard to police. We also don’t want stragglers left behind when the gates close at four. It’s happened before and we have to get the cops to come in and let them out,” said Simon.
Ultimately, the controversy was resolved and the board decided against the addition of a new gate. “They thought it might be nice, we talked about it and then decided it was not a good thing for us to agree to,” said Simon. “That was a difference of views that was really settled very amicably.”
Welch, however, raises an important question: how can the Grove Street Cemetery be more inviting to students? Its looming presence and the quote alone can be enough to scare away visitors. Welch believes strongly that the renovation of the meeting house would encourage more people to explore the cemetery. Currently, the meeting house lies directly behind the cemetery gate, and it is little more than a place to pick up a map and perhaps ask for directions. Turning this building into more of a visitors’ welcome center would make it a “much more receptive place,” said Welch. “It’s a peaceful place, and it’s open to all, all days of the year. People can come for reflection, for solace, for thought of any kind … It’s too bad that we haven’t done more to advertise that fact.”
Welch, who was in Davenport, doesn’t think he “ever set foot in the cemetery” in his four years as an undergraduate because he was “so preoccupied” with his studies. The cemetery later became the site of both his parents’ and grandparents’ burials. Welch also mentioned a place in the cemetery where “two chemistry professors of considerable note,” John Kirkwood and Lars Onsager, are buried next to one another. “[John Kirkwood] died first, and there’s long list of all his accomplishments,” said Welch. “His rival, Lars Onsager, is buried next to him, and it all it says is ‘Lars Onsager,’ with dates. Then ‘Nobel Laureate.’ Period. That’s one of my favorite places. It’s the ultimate putdown.”
ALL ROADS LEAD TO GROVE
Stories like that of Kirkwood and Onsager, despite proving Death’s power as the great equalizer, demonstrate the greatest beauty of the Grove Street Cemetery: its ability to immortalize personalities and narratives. It preserves the fiery rivalry between these two chemists just as it maintains the legacies of O.C. Marsh and Mary Goodman and provides current drama students with food for thought.
Though not officially affiliated with Yale, the cemetery stands as a crucial location within the university. Surrounded by Yale on all sides, it provides a safe spot for students looking for for contemplation or solitude. It brings together members of the Yale and New Haven communities, both past and present. And the occasional disagreement, such as with the Prospect Street gate, forces a reevaluation of the cemetery’s relationship to Yale and its role in the city. As the first landscaped cemetery, Grove Street’s carefully crafted plots defied traditional perceptions of burial grounds as a “source for pestilence” and “scary places,” said Schiff.
But maybe not on Halloween night.