Shades of New Haven

Looking for quiet amidst the hustle and bustle of Yale’s sidewalks and New Haven’s busy streets, I found a shaded oasis at the Grove Street Cemetery.


This is an unexpectedly fascinating place. The first chartered burial ground in the US, the Grove Street Cemetery was founded in 1797 when the town of New Haven outgrew its original burial grounds on the New Haven Green (my brochure says that the old cemetery was “cluttered”). Grove Street was one of the first cemeteries in the country to offer lots for families (as opposed to higgledy-piggledy site arrangements) and also one of the first to have a grid-style layout with wide lanes and planned landscaping.


There is only one way to enter the Grove Street Cemetery: through this imposing (if somewhat squat) gate:


Built in 1845 in the then-popular Egyptian Revival style, the entrance arch is headed by this ominous warning:


There are multiple reminders of the fondness for all things Egyptian scattered throughout the cemetery, including this tomb …


…and a pair of marble sphinxes:


A number of famous people have been buried in the cemetery; the brochure lists “a chronicle of eminent people” that totals 89 individuals. These include actually famous people, like Noah Webster (the compiler of what we now know as Webster’s dictionary), and Eli Whitney (inventor of the cotton gin and of a system of interchangeable gun parts):


Roger Sherman is buried here, too; he was one of the signatories from Connecticut of the Articles of Confederation, the Declaration of Independence, and the Articles of Confederation (his gravestone says that he was, among many other things, “prudent,” ‘sagacious” and a man “of cool discerning judgment”).


Lyman Beecher, a clergyman and the father of Harriet Beecher Stowe (the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin), lies a few lanes over:


Some of the other “eminent people” who make the list are Walter Camp (“father of American football,”), Charles Goodyear (“inventor of vulcanized rubber”), and Jedidiah Morse, (“father of American Geography”):


There area multiple reminders of New Haven’s ties to slavery and the abolition movement. A marker has been placed to honor those Africans who died after coming to Connecticut on the slave ship La Amistad:


Here we also find the grave marker of Jehudi Ashmun, a clergyman who became involved in the work of the American Colonization Society as they attempted to send ex-slaves and other black Americans to the colony of Liberia. He later moved to Liberia himself and essentially became its governor; while in this position, he helped to draft a constitution that gave blacks the right to serve in the Liberian government.


But I’m most interested in those people who have unusual claims to fame, like Othniel Marsh (“recognised for organisation of the whole skeleton rather than individual bones”), Sybil Bingham (“first American woman missionary teacher in Hawaii”), and Alexander Twining (“inventor of the first practical artificial ice system”). There are also Yale professors, Yale presidents, clergymen, scholars, and military men galore. Here is the gravestone of a fallen Civil War hero (who died early in the war, in 1861):


There’s a lot of writing on some of these tombstones.


Henry Trowbridge, a New Haven merchant, earned a whole column of description (including testimony that he was “honest, enterprising, and successful, distinguished for activity and mental force, sound in his judgment, comprehensive in his views”):


I spent a lot of time reading as I walked around. Some epitaphs are incredibly earnest, like Benjamin Silliman’s (1779-1864): “During fifty years a teacher of science in Yale College. Through life an earnest trustful cheerful Christian. The friend of man and of all truth.” Some are sweet, like Liliane Massarano Greene’s (1928-2010): “She loved Paris in all light and seasons.” And then there’s this one, my absolute favorite:


Some inscriptions don’t stand the test of time quite so well. For example, this epitaph for Josiah Willard Gibbs ( 1790-1861), Professor of Sacred Literature) would probably raise some eyebrows if written today: ”As a scholar, Cautious, Penetrating, Erudite. As a teacher, Considerate, Zealous, Fond of young men.” Other inscriptions puzzle me — for example, why would you want to note so specifically that someone was born on a Sunday?


And no matter how often I look at this gravestone, I will always think that the inscription says “the pure in heart shall see cod”:


While the reading is entertaining, my favorite part of the tombstones — especially the old ones — is the art. This graveyard boasts only a bit of beautiful carving …


… and a few interesting edifices …


… but it has a dizzying number of wonderful gravestone faces!




These winged and usually crowned heads from the 1700s represented the Puritans’ desire to achieve resurrection and immortality. A similar view toward life after death can be found in the winged skull:


Sometimes you find winged skulls with the lower jaw missing, as a sort of half-face, half-skull:


And some of the winged faces are festooned with hearts:


You’ll even find the occasional hourglass:


These eighteenth century sandstone or slate tombstones were relocated from their original locations on the New Haven Green in the mid- to late 1800s and lined up in Grove Street Cemetery.


The people once buried under these stones had great names like Phineas, Josiah, Hezekiah, and Isaiah …


… and while the women are often called by names we would recognize today, like Sarah and Elizabeth, the wives were usually called “consorts” …


… and you might just stumble across one named Mehetabel!


These older headstones are just remarkable:


By the nineteenth century, the Puritan focus on resurrection and immortality had dimmed a bit — you find more writing and less ornamentation on many of the grave markers. But there are exceptions; this stone, for example, memorializes a man who died at sea:


In the twentieth century, you start to see people’s attachment to their pets:


This one — it reads “with family” — is awfully sweet:


If you pay a visit to Grove Street Cemetery, I highly recommend that you (1) pick up a brochure just outside of the gatehouse office and (2) also have your phone open to this page (that’s the only way to cross list the names in the brochure against the grave numbers in a workable manner — it’s difficult to follow along with the brochure alone). But this cemetery is worth visiting even if if you aren’t playing who’s who with a brochure in hand!

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