Just as his own fond hopes aspired
To deeds by which bright minds are fired
Death snatched him hence in youthful bloom
And sunk those hopes beneath the tomb
Son of Mr. David Whitman and Elizabeth his wife
Student of Yale College who died July 25th, 1759
In the 20th year of his age
In the late 1790s, consecutive epidemics of the yellow and scarlet fevers ravaged New Haven residents. The overcrowded, 150-year-old cemetery on the New Haven Green reached maximum capacity. To secure a more dignified burial ground for the community, Sen. James Hillhouse and wealthy New Haven residents purchased a new burial plot on the northern outskirts of New Haven. Construction ended in 1797, marking the first chartered burial site in the United States.
The cemetery sparked a revolution in future graveyard designs. Unlike contemporary cemeteries, which randomly interred their dead behind churches and meetinghouses, this cemetery was the first in the country to organize plots of land, first by religious parish then by family name. Architects modeled avenues after the New Haven city blueprints to enhance the organization of and access to burial sites. The city later transferred the remaining headstones from the New Haven Green to the cemetery, leaving to this day over 20,000 unmarked graves.
The original wooden fences, however, proved insufficient to prevent vandalism and trespassing. By 1830, cemetery trustees resolved to reinforce the cemetery with new, stately architecture, a hallmark of the cemetery’s uniqueness and grandeur. New Haven residents raised over $25,000 for cemetery renovations and hired renowned architect Henry Austin as chief of construction. After erecting its brownstone wall and iron-railed fences, the pinnacle of Austin’s design remains the Egyptian Revival-style gateway. The entrance recalls across the archway the solemn promise in 1 Corinthians 15:52: “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump, The Dead Shall Be Raised.” I love 1 Corinthians 15, especially what the Apostle Paul says three verses later: “Where, O Death, is your victory? Where, O Death, is your sting?”
I stroll under the columns of the archway at 3 p.m. on a breezy New England afternoon. Having always viewed the cemetery from the outside, I expect to see a very morbid, dreary landscape akin to those in scary movies. I arrive at the Grove Street chapel. The groundskeeper has parked his cherry-red Ford F-250 here, and several visitors in the distance peruse the tombstones with their kids and cameras. The trees shiver in the wind. Hawthorne Avenue, the pathway parallel to Prospect Street, spans the southern flank of the cemetery. Shuffling several steps to the right, I see it stems into 10 parallel avenues racing toward its northern end, the chapel with five on each side. I’m curious to see how many avenues there are, so I note the signposts as I stroll rightward along the gently descending terrain.
I pass four of them until Hawthorne becomes Sylvan near the intersection of Grove and Prospect Street. A sizable blue spruce tree tucks itself away at this corner. Here, most graves are a darker tinge of gray than that of SSS or the CEID, which loom in the background. Norway and red maples rest in this section. Labeled with its own plaque, the weeping Higan cherry tree catches my attention. Its trunk reminds me of my grandmother’s cherry trees I used to sit in with my siblings during the summer. We would always play in her pool and eat popsicles as we dried in the sun, relaxing after too many games of Shark and Minnows. The sagging twigs resemble those of my neighbors’ weeping willow tree near the edge of my home’s pasture, the one out of which I always wanted to snatch a few twigs to swing around. But trespassing is illegal, just like stepping over these headstones gives me a sense of breaking some unspoken graveyard etiquette.
The white, black and gray tombstones look like scattered chess pieces. I reach out to touch a few. Some are flat slabs of granite; others are thin slices of limestone. Iron fences enclose some while Japanese yew enshroud others. Some thick graves lie horizontally while other thin columns stand like balanced pencils. The crosses, tables, obelisks and sarcophagi seem designed to catch tourists’ eyes. While walking, I spot a sarcophagus so big I walk closer to see whether I recognize the inscription. Sure enough, it’s Louise Farnam, the one in whose building I do my laundry every Friday afternoon.
I turn right down Ivy Avenue and peer through 200 yards of neatly flat terrain lined with columns of trunks. At the right angle, the sunlight-suffused foliage seems to coddle a small campfire. The trunks and canopies of dogwoods and silver maples form long tunnels whose entrances are shaped like chubby pentagons. They resemble the chicken houses at my barn. I would feed the baby chicks with my grandfather. Whenever I stepped into their territory, they scattered like splashing water just to refill the sea of feathers as soon as I lifted my foot. Now the chickens are gone, and the chicken houses are untended. Their decaying wood and rusted tin roofs signal they earned their right to retire.
The tombstones on this side of the cemetery appear newer. Some look like ivory bath tubs; others have spindles like Russian architectural onion domes. Some smaller graves look like semicircles peeking through the soil; others rival the design of Murray Tower in the background. Eli Whitney is buried here. Though his monument is impressive, it’s more modest than the immaculate crosses of Townsend and Trowbridge. Noah Webster and Roger Sherman also lie nearby. It’s humbling to stand over the historical luminaries I read about in American history.
On my right, I stumble across the hand-carried headstones that once belonged on the New Haven Green. Stacked flush against the northern flank of the wall, they have rested 200 years in the same alphabetical order.
I challenge myself to find the oldest grave. Most of them I can’t read due to erasure from time and weather, but some still have the names and dates intact. I keep a mental checklist: 1794, 1792, 1785, 1766 … 1749 … 1742 … 1733 … When I was a child, I used to search for the oldest graves at nearby churches. At one family reunion, I found a grave from 1799 and thought about how this person was still alive during George Washington’s last year of life. But as I squat in this cemetery to read what’s on the portly gray brick, I hardly decipher the number — 1673. He died before George Washington was born.
By now, I’ve reached the third corner of the cemetery, the one near the intersection of Lock and Ashmun streets. A mighty sugar maple guards this corner along with a stubby white pine. I adjust my stroll away from the perimeter and toward the center of the cemetery. This part of the graveyard feels like walking through a botanical art gallery.
The magnolia tree is hard to spot, but it’s nestled away next to some modest headstones. It hasn’t yet bloomed its smooth, creamy seeds that look like albino pine cones. Among the sea of gray headstones, I notice a patch of dark brown slabs.
Most in this patch died in the 1700s. I notice one in particular. Isaiah Whitman was a student of Yale College when he died at 20 years old. I’m a student at Yale College — and 20 years old. What was his major? What was his hopeful career? Was he in love? What was his religion? I view this grave not as a headstone, but as a person. I wonder if he would be happy with his epitaph.
The gates close at 4. I stop at the intersection of Spruce and Myrtle Avenue. A robin mourns in the background and I hear a faint siren in the distance. I listen some more, pause and sit down. I look around and lean back until my head touches the asphalt. Above me lies a network of branches from the overhanging honey locust.
It’s 3:54 and I close my eyes. For a moment, all the p-sets, all the papers, all the midterms and deadlines just disappear. I think about the dead lying beside me. This place is so full of stories, memories and dreams — sometimes cut short. It’s a place for grief and also for solace and recollection and reflection. It’s oddly soothing, a world designed for a spiritual exhalation, for those above or below ground. I think about how much time the dead get to spend in this place. Isaiah isn’t buried far from here. For a moment, I envy him.
Luke Bell | email@example.com