A cemetery is, by definition, a place of rest. Cemetery derives from the Ancient Greek term “koimeterion,” which means “sleeping place.” Throughout history, cemeteries have been primarily conceived of as places for the dead. This conventional definition of cemetery, though valid, neglects the word’s many layers of meaning. A cemetery is at once a place for the dead and a place vitally tied to the living. On Halloween, it occupies a starring role in our notions of wickedness and the macabre, yet a cemetery can also be seen as a place of mediation, sadness and longing. It can be political — who can get into a cemetery, and who can alter one? — but it can also transcend politics and exist as a linkage between past and present, between memory and experience, between life and death. As a concept, cemeteries are complex, and, as a physical space, they possesses a rich history of the town that they inhabit and of the people interred within them.
The cemeteries of New Haven are no exception.
RETURN TO ITS ROOTS
Two days before Halloween of 2012, on a particularly dark and stormy night, a tree fell in the New Haven Green. In and of itself an unusual occurrence, the real surprise came later, when a homeless woman discovered what the tree had unearthed. As the inscription on the lintel above the Grove Street Cemetery gate promised, the dead had been raised. The remains of seven bodies, including two adults and a child, had been churned up by the roots.
University research archivist and New Haven historian Judith Schiff remembers the “Lincoln tree” well. It was named after the 16th president when planted in 1909. A forensic investigation team called Schiff to the scene for historical context.
The first person who found the bones, Schiff told me, was afraid to tell anyone. He had thought someone had been murdered and buried. Within a few hours, the state was notified and their archeologist confirmed the bones were antiques.
The bodies were among the last interred in the Green before it closed as New Haven’s town burial ground in the late 1790s, a role it had filled since the colony’s founding in 1638. Schiff says the closing came after outbreaks of communicable diseases like Scarlet and yellow fever overwhelmed the Green.
“They decided they needed a place where people would not breathe in the recently entered bodies … everything was very organic at the time,” Schiff said.
Connecticut politician and real estate developer James Hillhouse came up with the idea to create a place of beauty for burials, and he donated his own land to be made into the 18 acre Grove Street Cemetery (then the New Haven City Burial Ground), commissioned in 1797 as America’s first planned cemetery. Yale School of Architecture associate professor Elihu Rubin said the concept of a beautified cemetery was revolutionary for the period.
“In many ways the Grove Street Cemetery was a new city for the dead, with a system of named streets and planted trees,” Rubin said. “Although it is very antique and one of the oldest still existing part of the city, at the time it was a very modern idea — very progressive thinking of the late 18th century.”
Rubin said the serene, park-like atmosphere of Grove Street influenced a 19th century movement towards more picturesque cemeteries. Other well-known graveyards like Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris followed the example pioneered by Grove Street, and the cemetery became an international draw to New Haven.
“People came from all over the world to see this cemetery. It established the idea of a memorial place, a place to be kept beautiful to think about loved ones,” Schiff said. “We have found poor people and people of color all over the cemetery, even in family plots as beloved servants. There doesn’t seem to be specific segregation, partly because they didn’t have stones to tell, and in early 19th century, we see burials of wealthy people of color, too.”
During the first 50 years of the cemetery’s existence, a wooden fence enclosed its premise, but as the wood began to rot, local residents raised funds to construct a high sandstone wall on three of its sides. On its Grove Street front, architect Henry Austin decided to use wrought iron to preserve an inside view from the street, and he constructed what is now the cemetery’s most prominent feature: a massive Egyptian Revival gateway, dual-columned and engraved succinctly with an excerpt from Corinthians 15:52: “The Dead Shall Be Raised.”
Upon reading the gate lintel, many former Yale presidents are supposed to have quipped, “The dead shall be raised? They certainly shall if Yale ever needs the property.”
THE DEAD SHALL BE … RAZED?
Though Yale surrounds the cemetery, the University has struggled with making the site and its red sandstone walls a part of campus.
In February 2008, a report from the Academic Resources and Student Life Committees recommended changes to the cemetery to accommodate the then-unfinished Benjamin Franklin and Pauli Murray colleges, which now border the cemetery on its northern edge.
“The impermeable walls of the Grove Street Cemetery pose significant aesthetic and psychological barriers and render the Prospect–Sachem Triangle [new colleges] site distant in perception,” the report read.
The document also called upon the University to work with the cemetery’s standing committee to find mutually agreeable changes.
Penelope Laurans, former head of Jonathan Edwards College and vice chair of the report-authoring committees, said the committees advocated for a number of changes in the area surrounding the new colleges, and changing the cemetery’s sandstone walls was one of them. However, Laurans said the issue is less important today than it was nine years ago — as the new colleges have become a vibrant center on campus.
“Many changes we advocated for were happily made. The creation of the CEID on Prospect Street … the addition of Yale Health; and much landscaping and lighting on all the streets surrounding the new colleges … has made a dramatic improvement,” Laurans said. “Whereas I think it would be pleasant to have the cemetery and its beautiful landscaping more open to view, I can understand why the Grove Street Cemetery Board wished to preserve its historic nature.”
Political science professor James Cameron wrote a 2008 op-ed published in the News calling for the removal of the cemetery’s sandstone walls, and said that regardless of other changes on Prospect Street, his viewpoint remains.
“I still think a high wrought-iron fence — high enough to keep intruders out but open enough to allow those walking by to look in and see the gravestones, grass and trees — would be an improvement, aesthetically speaking,” Cameron said.
While the Yale report mainly called upon a change to the walls, a 2009 proposal from Charles Ellis, a member of the cemetery’s governing board, called for a new entrance on the north side of the property. The aim was to allow students in the new colleges to cut through the grounds, but the plan was withdrawn after heated objections from cemetery mourners and preservationists.
In an interview with the News in 2008, emeritus history professor Howard Lamar GRD ’51, who served as acting University president from 1992 to 1993 and was one of several University affiliates on the cemetery’s standing committee, said the issue would likely be readdressed when the colleges are built. But Charles Bailyn, current head of Franklin College, said the plan for changes to the wall has been more or less dropped.
“As I understand it, there’s currently no plan to change the boundaries of the cemetery,” Bailyn said. “Certainly I haven’t heard any discussion of this since I was appointed Head over a year ago.”
INSIDE, OUTSIDE THE WALLS
When I asked Grove Street chief docent Patricia Illingworth about Yale’s proposed changes to the cemetery, she answered succinctly: “No way — that’ll never happen. This is the New Haven burial ground, not the Yale burial ground.” Illingworth has been a docent at the cemetery for 18 years and knows the place better most. Like an old friend giving a hometown tour, Illingworth took me through the cemetery’s gridded streets, bright pink umbrella in hand.
Though the cemetery operates independently from Yale, the site receives financial support from the University, and Yale affiliates sit on the cemetery’s standing committee. The site has interred more Yale presidents, faculty and students than anywhere else, including many prominent names on campus like Timothy Dwight IV and his grandson Timothy Dwight V, Benjamin Silliman and his son Benjamin Silliman Jr. and Ezra Stiles. Other notables include Eli Whitney, inventor of the cotton gin, Noah Webster, lexicographer, Charles Goodyear, inventor of vulcanized rubber, and Walter Camp, the “father of American football.”
“The cemetery is a wealth of history, knowledge, art, and beauty. It can be a tool to teach so much,” Illingworth told me. “This is an outdoor museum.”
Though the site is undeniably tied to Yale, its role within Yale’s campus remains murky. Many students interviewed by the News expressed an understanding of the site’s significance and importance, but had never actually been inside.
Out of 32 people surveyed, only 10 said they had gone into the cemetery. The remainder said they either never considered going, or that they preferred not to. For instance, Ioann Popov ’21 said cemeteries are simply to be an appealing place to visit, and Renee Ong ’21 said that her Asian upbringing instilled a superstition surrounding death and a desire to avoid graveyards.
Two of the 10 students who had visited the cemetery — Armin Thomas ’21 and Zulfiqar Mannan ’20 — said they had only entered to cut through it, assuming there was a gate on the northern side. There is not. Although they were inconvenienced, both were understanding that the cemetery’s board was reluctant to alter the site.
“It kinda adds to the charm of the place if they don’t have [another] gate,” Thomas said. “Metaphorically, there is only one way into a graveyard, and no way out.”
Mannan said it would be disrespectful to the site if students could easily cut through, changing the cemetery from a place of reverence to “Cross Campus.”
Yet, not everyone is as friendly towards the board’s resistance. Will Taft ’20 said he would prefer a route that cut through the grounds regardless of the aesthetic effects on the site. As a resident of Murray College, he said the change would help connect the new colleges to the rest of campus.
But among those who had been inside the cemetery, most were enamored by the site’s serenity and peacefulness, and preferred no alterations.
“I find it is a really restful place to walk because it doesn’t tend to have a lot of people,” Stephan Sveshnikov ’17 said. “There are few places at Yale so close to campus where you can get away from the noise and get into a meditative state.”
Quinn Crawford ’21 said his walks through the cemetery give him peace of mind about his own mortality, and Monica McDonough ’19 said the site is a nice change in scenery from New Haven’s urban setting. She goes to listen to music and podcasts or just to ponder what is on her mind.
“It’s basically the best thing ever because it’s a huge space that’s almost always empty — it’s like having a huge backyard to myself,” McDonough said. “Plus, it’s fun to see people’s faces when you say you like hanging in cemeteries.”
A RESTING PLACE
Though some may view the cemetery as a place to think, muse or study, come Halloween season, it is usually associated solely with the supernatural. In popular culture, cemeteries portrayed as dark and mysterious, evoking the haunting and the haunted. Zombies rise from its plots, witches brew cauldrons among its rows, and ghostly spirits materialize from its mist. But how did a site defined as a “resting place” become so feared and macabre?
Rubin said much of the association comes from the 19th century Egyptian Revival style of architecture, which brought a resurgence of the Egyptian cult surrounding death. In 1809, a French scientific expedition to Egypt began publishing aspects of ancient and modern Egypt. The report, as well as the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt in the late 18th century, introduced the trademark motifs of Egyptian architecture and culture to the Western world, where they took root.
He added that the Grove Street Cemetery’s Egyptian Revival gateway was designed with Egyptian notions of death and reincarnation in mind — especially the Corinthians quote.
“The cemetery predates the gate, as well as the wall and fence, and yet the gate is certainly the most iconic aspect of the place,” Rubin said. “It brings the elements of a 19th century cult of the morbid and the macabre onto this late 18th century burial ground.”
But must a cemetery force us to confront the morbid and the ghoulish? Can a place that brings us close to our mortal fear of death move from the macabre to the meaningful?
For Yale Humanist Community Executive Director Kathleen Green, the answer is yes.
In many ways, Green said, the concept of the cemetery has been commercialized. Its scare factor is used to sell movies, and its defined role as a resting place has become detached from its function in our society.
“The times we talk about cemeteries are around Halloween … we’ve taken it so much out of the realm of normalcy and daily life,” Green said.
Green said this removal comes from a deep-seated taboo we hold of death, and it is this morbid notion that the YHC hopes to disrupt. On Nov. 18, the group will host a “Death Cafe” — a space meant for confronting the major existential questions, especially those our society neglects to discuss.
“We live in a culture where we don’t talk about these things, they’re just not appropriate,” Green added. “We are doing the the Death Cafe to have a space where we can speak very frankly about thoughts on death. It is such an essential topic, and there should be places to talk about it.”
For Green, death is an immutable and ever present part of our lives, and, as such, it warrants discussion. Green hopes that the Cafe will normalize the topic among Yalies and encourage greater confrontation with the taboo.
On cemeteries, Green says that they should be seen not as places of fear but as sacred grounds. They are settings where the living can interact with the dead and remember them — and that remembrance, Green says, is how humanists find peace beyond death.
“For humanists, that is how we live on — through the work we’ve done, the memories we’ve created, and the lives of those we’ve touched,” Green told me. “Cemeteries are not to be feared or made a joke of but to be honored. In visiting, you’re honoring the lives of your fellow human beings.”
For most people there will always be something tangible — a plaque, an urn, or an alter — that will help the living remember them. In a cemetery, that tangible memorabilia is a rectangular plot of land dug into the earth, and a humble slab of stone that reads: “I lived, I died, and now I am here.”
The earliest settlers of New Haven understood our innate need for this connection when they chose the Green as a burial ground, but as the times changed, so did their needs. They constructed a larger plot of land that is set apart from the original town, yet still remains deeply intertwined within it. It was a spot respected across the world, known for its innovation, its beauty and its reverence.
A city and its university grew around the spot, and the cemetery changed again. Rather than being wholly revered, it was often questioned or ignored. But among those who frequent its rows, then and now, nothing has changed. Within its sandstone walls, the Grove Street Cemetery remains what it was intended to be: a resting place. For some, it is place of thought, others, of history, and for the dead, a place of sleep.
Regardless of politics or status or origin, the great equivalency of death unites us in our own mortality. We all share an innate desire to live, to remember and, when the time comes for us all, to rest in peace.
Ryan Gittler | firstname.lastname@example.org .