Graveyard Shift

Graveyard Shift

“Wholly neglected.” “Going to ruin.” “Inconsistent with the religious and moral sense of this community.” These are among the phrases early 19th-century New Haven leaders used to describe their “ancient burying-ground” on the Upper Green.

Its condition “ a want of decent respect for the memory of the dead,” reported a committee appointed to address the problem, according to an 1822 pamphlet. Surrounded by a “dilapidat” fence and “overgrown” with “maladorous weeds and barberry bushes,” the graveyard was routinely disturbed by cattle, geese and Yale students, according to two 19th-century histories. Some colonial-era gravestones had even been repurposed. According to the 1898 history Chronicles of New Haven Green from 1638 to 1862, “South Middle College in particular… was largely indebted to the neighboring graveyard for its hearthstones and backs of fire-places. As oven floors, the slate tombstones were said to be exceedingly convenient, and the bread of a certain baker was always known by the trademark of a cherub’s head or fragment of an epitaph on the bottoms of the loaves.”

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By 1820—eight years after the last burial on the green—some residents had begun removing their family markers from the public eyesore to private plots elsewhere. Descendants of those buried on the green wanted an enclosure to protect the burying ground, ranging in cost from $340 for a “substantial railing” to $1,700 for a “stone or brick wall.” Those whose ancestors weren’t buried there, but who would be taxed to pay for such an enclosure, preferred the option of cleaning up the green by moving grave markers to the “New Burying Ground,” now Grove Street Cemetery, where three acres toward the back were still open.

Following what appears to have been a civil debate among all parties, the “Mayor, Aldermen, Common Council and Freemen of the City of New-Haven” voted on November 23, 1820, to move the markers. Also included in the vote were a promise to erect a memorial behind Center Church and an agreement to carve out burying grounds for both Yale College and the city out of the available space at the new graveyard.

A public church service was held on June 26, 1821, before the grave markers were removed. “A great concourse was assembled” and four ministers officiated “in a very impressive and appropriate manner,” the 1822 pamphlet reports. Hymns were sung, including “Hark! from the tombs a doleful sound.”

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Scripture was read, prayer recited, sermon delivered, blessing given. The unidentified minister who gave the funeral address reminded listeners of the significance of those still buried under the Upper Green:

There rest the remains of Dixwell and Whalley, who, after miraculous deliverances, came to their graves in peace. There rest the venerable presidents of our highly valued institution of learning: pious pastors, on whose lips once hung divine instruction; and near them, the jewels of a heavenly crown: civilians, who once commanded the listening applause of senates: able judges, powerful advocates, and skilful physicians; all ranks, ages and degrees, which composed the generations before us… f a few feet above them, the busy crowd is following its amusements, its fashions, or its duties, often will the tolling bell announce, that one generation passeth away, and another cometh.

Then it was time to move the stones. Some family monuments were placed on private plots in the New Burying Ground. The rest were moved to the city’s assigned area. Later that year, the memorial to the remaining bodies took the form of a “marble slab, with suitable inscriptions,” which can still be viewed behind Center Church. A reminder of the bodies’ continued presence happened in 2012, after Hurricane Sandy uprooted the tree known as the Lincoln Oak—and with it a skull and other centuries-old bones that were tangled in its roots.

After their first move in 1821, the stones were moved again, but not far. To this day, against Grove Street Cemetery’s mortared brownstone walls, many of the Upper Green’s original stones still recline in various stages of ancient disrepair. Some are truncated, reaching as if half-buried from the leaf-strewn grass. The layered faces of others are falling away.

But some still proclaim the decipherable grief etched by those left behind and now long dead themselves. “Here lyes the body of” is no longer true, but here stands the memory in a time the city’s early citizens could scarcely have imagined.

Grove Street Cemetery
227 Grove St, New Haven (map)
Daily 9am-4pm
(203) 787-1443

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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