GROVE STREET CEMETERY
The Grove Street Cemetery, the first chartered burial ground in the United States, succeeded the previous common burial site, the New Haven Green. After severe yellow fever epidemics in 1794 and 1795 the Green, which held perhaps as many as 5,000 burials, was simply too crowded to continue as the chief burial ground. ln 1796 a group of New Haven citizens led by U.S, Senator James Hillhouse planned a new cemetery on a location at the edge of town. Their efforts were officially recognized in October, 1797 when the State of Connecticut incorporated the cemetery as The New Burying Ground in New Haven. The first burial, that of Martha Townsend, took place on November 9, 1797.
The pattern of the cemetery also appears to have been unique, for it was arranged in lots for families as opposed to random burials which had been common in the past. The grounds were also divided to give space to parishioners of the three churches on the Green, an area for strangers who might die in New Haven, one for the indigent, a section for persons of color and one for Yale College. The Green continued to be used, but to a lesser extent, the last burial there occurring in 1812. The stone grave markers on the Green were eventually moved to Grove Street. Some were used to mark out the boundaries of burial sites in this cemetery and a great many are lined against the rear walls in alphabetical order.
The Grove Street Cemetery antedates the expansive and distinguished cemeteries of Pere-Lachaise in Paris and Mt. Auburn in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Not long after its opening it was already shown with pride to foreign visitors. Timothy Dwight, the president of Yale, commented in 1811:
"I have accompanied to it many foreigners and many Americans who have traveled extensively on the Eastern Continent, none of whom had ever seen or heard of anything of a similar nature. An exquisite taste for propriety is discovered in everything belonging to it ... No plot of ground within my knowledge is equally solemn and impressive."
Even this solemn location, though, has had difficult times. By 1830 the wooden fences, in need of repair, had failed to prevent the cemetery grounds from becoming a thoroughfare and subject to vandalism. Those who valued the cemetery wanted a place for quiet reflection and a dignified environment for the repose of their families. Under the leadership of Professor Denison Olmsted, Yale's famed astronomer, the city, the public and the proprietors eventually raised $25,000 to establish the protection the grounds deserved. In 1845 the present wall with its imposing entrance was completed. Architect Henry Austin designed it in the Egyptian style favored at that time.
After organization of Evergreen Cemetery in 1849, the title "New Burying Ground in New Haven" was modified to "New Haven City Burial Ground." By the 1870s, however, the site was familiarly called "The Grove Street Cemetery," and that name has since become commonplace.
The building immediately inside the gate was built in 1872 as a chapel so that services could be held in inclement weather. Its only decoration, just under the eave, is a gilded bee (although it looks more like a moth) symbolic of the soul's release from the body. This Victorian structure now serves as the office of the cemetery's superintendent and assistant superintendent.
Foliage in the cemetery has undergone an extensive evolution from the days of James Hillhouse. Hillhouse prized trees; he conceived the extensive plantings that gave New Haven its title, The Elm City. For the cemetery he choose Lombardy poplars along the main streets, but these were dying by the 1830s. Therefore, when the new walls were built, new shrubs and trees, chiefly evergreens, were planted. Photographs from the 1890s show tall evergreens within the walls, but today the trees and shrubs are more varied. Replacing trees damaged or destroyed by ice, snow and high winds, especially old elms and oaks, is a current project.
Grove Street is an urban cemetery. Its geometrical pattern echoes the nine squares of the city. The paths give easy access to horse-drawn vehicles and automobiles. It allows no room for a grove of trees: space for burial sites is maximized. In addition to trees, shrubs and flowers, extraordinarily varied markers from obelisks to sarcophagi to the simplest grave stone decorate the cemetery. The history of New Haven with its many themes, crises and accomplishments can be traced in Grove Street Cemetery.
Among the internationally renowned persons interred here are Eli Whitney, inventor; Noah Webster, lexicographer; Josiah Willard Gibbs, Jr., scientist; Lyman Beecher, abolitionist and prohibitionist; O.C. Marsh, paleontologist and Lars Onsager, Nobel Prize winner. Persons important to American life are numerous: Roger Sherman, the only person to have signed all four basic documents of American sovereignty including the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution; Walter Camp, father of American football; Jedidiah Morse, father of American geography (and of S.E.B. Morse, painter and telegraph inventor) and Dr. Worthington Hooker, father of American medical ethics. New Haven's history is represented by industrialists, clergy, military figures, lawyers, physicians, and Yale presidents and professors. Mary A. Goodman, the African-American woman who gave her life savings to Yale Divinity School to educate African-American clergy, is buried here along with African-American Civil War veterans. Roger Sherman Baldwin who argued the case for the Amistad slaves imprisoned in New Haven, and Professor Josiah Willard Gibbs, Sr. who deciphered the language spoken by the captives are also here.
As the cemetery enters its third century the Friends of the Grove Street Cemetery, an educational and charitable group, has organized to develop and disseminate knowledge about its history and cultural significance. Another goal is to protect and restore the cemetery as an historic land area and a park-like place of reflection and repose for the community at large. The Friends seek to preserve, in Olmsted's words of more than a century and a half ago, "a monument of the moral sentiments, the good taste and the liberality of the present generation."
Grove Street Cemetery
Located behind a brownstone wall and iron fence running along Grove and Prospect streets, the cemetery joins those select, historic structures and districts considered to possess exceptional value or quality in interpreting the heritage of the United States.
Sometimes referred to as the Westminster of Yale,The Grove Street Cemetery maintains the graves of most early residents of New Haven, along with those of Eli Whitney (Class of 1792), Noah Webster (Class of 1778), Walter Camp (Class of 1880), Roger Sherman, fourteen Yale presidents, and hundreds of other faculty members, alumni, and campus luminaries. One of the oldest burial grounds in the City of New Haven, the cemetery was designated as a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior in September.
The cemetery was established in 1797 and was the first in the country designed with family plots. Beside serving as the resting place for many historically important figures and displaying tombstones ranging back to the 1700s and a collection of specimen trees, the cemetery also has an architecturally prominent, Egyptian Revival gateway entrance facing High Street.
The Grove Street Cemetery is one of only 60 National Historic Landmarks in Connecticut and is the ninth such landmark in New Haven.