E ven in the rest-in-peace business, rest and peace aren’t guaranteed.
Bushy-browed Bill and flaxen-haired Joan Cameron, married nearly 60 years, are the superintendents of the Grove Street Cemetery, with 18 landscaped acres and 16,000 graves—including many of historic note—to watch over, and enough available burial plots to keep them busy for a while yet. “We like a simple life,” he says, but the bucolic cemetery giveth as quickly as it taketh. Planting a tree or feeding the birds or even digging a grave, which Joan notes is done by hand at Grove Street, can let you put your brain on cruise control. Dealing with flash funerals—the ones that sometimes pop up without notice, upending plans and causing a scramble—does just the opposite. So does dealing with the occasional set of streaking college students, or the more serious threat of vandalism.
But the Camerons knew what they were getting into before taking the plunge. Bill assumed the superintendent’s gig in 1976, with Joan joining later after leaving her job as an SNET operator. He’d gotten to know the previous superintendent through his family cleaning business; the cemetery was a recurring client, enlisting the company to tidy up “the chapel,” the curious arching brick building just inside the famous Egyptian Revival-style front entrance. (Once used for religious ceremonies, it now houses the cemetery’s administrative offices.) At some point Bill found himself doing odd jobs around the grounds on a volunteer basis, making him a natural successor by the time the previous superintendent was ready to move on.
That was almost 39 years ago. Today, Bill is 84, Joan 77. Their companion Jodie, a white and charcoal shih tzu who keeps a bed with toys in the front room of the chapel, is 13. She’s blind and has respiratory problems, but she’s also “a wonderful friend, believe me,” says Bill, and I do. Bill also raises pigeons, at one point pulling out an issue of Purebred Pigeon (“a full color magazine devoted to all the ways we enjoy our birds,” it bills itself), and conjures other animals—horses, ducks, cows—out of wood, through carving, painting and woodburning. For doing the carving, he has a beautiful collection of small knives laid out on his desk. He says he collects rocks and seashells as well; Joan calls him a “packrat,” then reminds him to mention a model cemetery he once built.
Though Bill and Joan’s domain is almost universally called the Grove Street Cemetery, its official title is “New Haven City Burial Ground,” which is how it appears on the plaque memorializing its national historic landmark status. The graveyard, laid out in 1796, “represents a milestone in the development of a cemetery as a distinct institution,” as the plaque puts it, and is the final resting place of major characters in local, sometimes national, history—New Haven cofounder Theophilus Eaton; New Haven’s first mayor Roger Sherman, who also signed both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution; high-ranking revolutionary soldiers David Humphreys and David Wooster; inventors like Eli Whitney, Charles Goodyear, Eli Whitney Blake; key civic leaders like James Hillhouse, who was instrumental in the cemetery’s formation in the first place; and countless academic titans, from Noah Webster, as in Webster’s Dictionary, to Josiah Willard Gibbs, Jr., a.k.a. “the father of thermodynamics.”
But Bill and Joan don’t pick favorites. “History of Grove Street Cemetery,” a tall pamphlet printed on thick beige paper, uses the phrase “eminent people” to describe the graveyard’s more accomplished residents. To Bill, however, “everyone’s eminent. Almost everybody has done something in their life to contribute.” Joan nods. “That’s right. They all had a purpose.”
At least two of the people named among the cemetery’s stones still have one: Bill and Joan themselves. Along one of the burial ground’s central avenues, next to a small American flag commemorating Bill’s service in the Korean War, a grey granite memorial stone reads “Cameron” in large capital letters, followed by the couple’s names and birth years, and their purpose: “Dedicated superintendents / Grove Street Cemetery / for many years.”
Now that’s a restful, peaceful way of putting it.
Bill & Joan Cameron
Superintendents of Grove Street Cemetery
227 Grove St, New Haven (map)
Visiting hours: 9am-3:30pm
Written and photographed by Dan Mims.