I didn’t know what to expect as I walked across the New Haven Green last Saturday. The Center Church on the Green, home to the mysterious crypt I was to visit, emerged damp and red against the drizzly day. The Crypt, according to the church’s website, is “one of the exceptional colonial burial grounds to endure untouched.” I didn’t know what it meant for a burial ground to be untouched.
The Center Church was built between 1812 and 1814 on the north side of the New Haven Green, over a portion of what was then a burial ground. In order to preserve the departed, builders left the gravestones in their positions, constructing the church’s foundation on pillars so that the building loomed over the graveyard. The result is a dimly lit basement with ceilings so low they come with a warning. The graves within the Crypt, however, represent only a portion of the bodily remains in the New Haven Green. It is estimated that the remains of between 5,000 and 10,000 settlers are still buried beneath the grass.
Mark Peterson, a professor of early American history at Yale, explained to me that the New Haven Green, a part of the original plan for the city’s nine-block construction in 1638, propagated the colonial pattern of Puritans aiming to separate themselves from the Church of England. In England, people died in the same parishes into which they were born, their bodies buried outside the church they attended since childhood. For the New England settlers, the ability to choose a church or a meetinghouse was a powerful one, but on which created the caveat that not everybody had a particular burial ground. “Not everybody wanted to go to church, but everybody dies,” Peterson said. Bodies that were churchless at death were buried in the Green.
When I arrived at the Center Church, Kevin Chase and Nancy Ahern sat in the entryway, waiting for people to arrive. Crypt tours run Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., April through the end of October. My suitemate came with me. They greeted us with pamphlets about the history of the church and the Crypt. I opened the map of the basement graves, each one numbered, corresponding to a list on the back of the sheet in a tiny, almost illegible typeface of the names and ages of the buried.
Ahern accompanied us into the main part of the church, and took great pleasure in recounting the minutia of the church’s history and structure. She discussed the context of colonial America in which the bodies were buried and the churches built.
“You know who was very happy when the settlers came?” Ahern asked. “The Indians. The local Quinnipiac tribe.” We thought she was being facetious so we laughed, but she soldiered on. “The Quinnipiac were very happy to see the British arriving, because the British had guns. And their guns could protect them from the Pequots.”
I asked Peterson, who had also visited the Crypt on Saturday, about this comment. He said he was unsure about the accuracy of this particular fact, though he noted that there had been significant fighting between Dutch and British settlers, and that some Native American tribes did, indeed, form alliances with the settlers. It’s unclear whether that was the case in New Haven, particularly because the Quinnipiac were the first tribe that settlers displaced to a reservation. They did so in 1638, the year of John Davenport, a Puritan clergyman and co-founder of New Haven’s first sermon.
At the church, the Crypt tour was beginning. Chase, donning droopy, 1970s-style glasses and a bright red, faux-satin jacket with “The Rolling Stones – Grrr!” printed on the back, led the tour. “These stairs are 200 years old,” he said as he guided us downstairs. “Presidents Monroe and Hayes walked down these stairs.” He looked up at us with his eyebrows raised at the thought. We descended from the winding stairwell into the dark basement. A clunky dehumidifier stuck out from the right wall, buzzing. I understood the floor vibrations I’d felt upstairs as I stood behind the church pews. It was an act of preservation.
The Crypt is home to 139 gravestones commemorating such historical figures as Benedict Arnold’s first wife Margaret, President Rutherford Hayes’s grandmother and aunt and the Reverend James Pierpoint, a founder of Yale College. Because gravestones were a luxury for the wealthier members of society, the exact amount of bodies beneath the basement floor remains unknown. Church officials estimate that the Crypt houses the remains of about 1,000 people.
Gravestones that were recovered but uprooted from the earth, usually small and worn down, rested against the walls when we walked in, as if the graveyard was still under construction. Chase informed us they’d been there for a while. When the church was built, some of the loose headstones couldn’t be matched to their corresponding underground bodies. They nonetheless remained shielded under the Crypt’s ceiling to honor their associated dead.
In 1985, it was discovered that the implementation of cement flooring had caused the recent deterioration of the bottom parts of the tombstones. The cement trapped moisture, staining the headstones which acted effectively as wicks for the moisture. The cement floor was removed in 1990, leaving, for a brief period, the bone-filled dirt exposed. The dirt was covered with red bricks, which, unlike cement, allow moisture to escape from the gaps. Little cone-shaped lamps hung down across the ceiling, bathing the stones in dim, yellow lights. None of the headstones were moved during the construction and subsequent renovations of the church; everything was built around the resting bodies.
“I hate graveyards,” one of the women who attended the tour with me noted, before smiling beside a decaying tombstone for a photograph.
“You can take all the pictures you want,” Chase joked, “but the ghosts might just text you later.”
The parts of the stones that have not been damaged remain crisp and preserved, tucked away from the elements. Chase led us to one tomb, a long slate raised above ground. “See that?” he asked, running his hand close to the engraving. “It looks like it was chiseled this morning.”
Large and rectangular tombs like these, Chase informed us, had been known as “wolves’ tombs.” New Haven, it seems, used to have a wolf population, which Chase suggested led families to build wolf-proof graves to prevent their relatives’ bodies from being dug up and eaten. “Don’t want to see Grandpa being Thanksgiving dinner,” Chase joked.
But Peterson suggested that such tombs might have less to do with hungry wolves than with customs of family burial. The bigger tombs, he explained, tended to signify a family tomb. When a family member died, the grave’s top slab could open up, the new coffins lowered into their reserved spots. The idea is that graves served a different purpose back then than they do now. Nowadays, people regard graveyards, tombs and resting bodies as sacred and untouchable. According to Peterson, notions of death differed significantly at the time of the settlers. “People understood death and what happens after in a much more visceral way,” he said. “Bodies were buried to convert the mortal remains into mere earth.”
Most bodies buried on the New Haven Green were just piled up under the earth; only wealthier classes got tombstones while other bodies piled up over each other to decay back into the earth. Nowadays, the widespread use of tombs and caskets has raised questions about the environmental impact of graveyards. “This is a modern problem,” Peterson explained. “Back then, most people were all just buried together. The purpose was more functional than sentimental.” The Crypt, it seems, is somewhere in between.
Chase joined the Center Church five years ago. He was homeless, until then-Reverend Sandra Olsen brought him to the church. “She gave me a tomorrow, which I never knew I could have,” he told me as the rest of the tour group perused the space, departing from his repertoire of facts and ghost-themed jokes. “I named my cat Sandra, after her.” Chase, now a deacon at the church, has been leading Crypt tours for the last three years.
“What draws you down here?” I asked. Chase shrugged.
“I have no complaints about being down here.”
The Crypt, which hosts the bodies of some of the founders of New Haven, contains the city’s history in its most visceral form.
“This is the unknown history of New Haven,” Chase said, gesturing to the dark indoor graveyard. “You never knew until you came and saw it. You can’t believe it.”
I left the basement, climbing up the 200-year-old steps. I didn’t have to mind my head anymore. The ceiling opened up; it was, impossibly, still daytime. It was drizzling outside, the burnt orange leaves falling down too early, weighed down by the rain. As I walked back across the Green, my footsteps landed more gingerly than before. I thought of the settlers, rotted and resting below my feet, in graves unlabeled and unpreserved. Four hundred years later, I was stepping over them all.
Sara Luzuriaga | firstname.lastname@example.org .