The New Haven Burying Ground

A Brief History and Discussion of the Grove Street Cemetery

By Thomas Plunkett
This is under construction

The Grove Street Cemetery (officially the New Haven Burying Ground) was incorporated as the New Burying Ground in 1796. It has served as a centerpiece in the town of New Haven due to it's unique historic significance. For the first time ever the corporate form was used at the New Haven Burying Ground to conduct the affairs of a cemetery; It is also the first cemetery in the United States (and possibly in the world) divided into family lots. Pere-Lachaise in Paris, a famous scenic attraction, was similarly established eight years later, in 1804. Laid out on approximately one city block, it is bounded to the north by Lock Street and Canal Street, to the west by Ashmun Street, the east by Prospect Street, and its southern entryway is on Grove Street. In area it is established on approximately three acres of land and is laid out in a grid of avenues and streets (see map). Nestled next to the Yale University Law School it enjoys a commanding presence in the Yale community.

To add to the significance of this cemetery, it was one of the first known corporations in any form in the colonies prior to 1800; the English crown never conceded to the colonies the right to create private corporations.

"Among the thirty-two subscribers who associated with James Hillhouse were prominent lawyers Simeon Baldwin, David Daggett, Pierpont Edwards and Jonathan Ingersoll. These gentlemen soon had the venture organized and formally recognized by the General Assembly of the State of Connecticut as a corporation."
- From the visitor guide
Such action in 1797 makes Grove Street Cemetery one of the oldest corporations in the nation. The division of the cemetery into family lots with their own family ownership further served to add to this cemetery's unique creation. The lot is a segregated piece of ground over which the family had the free and sole, and exclusive control. Thus, each individual lot has it's own unique character, laid out by individual families that controlled it as such. When initially conceived, Yale College already had a substantial influence in the city, and thus was provided a lot for the President and Fellows of the college. In 1796, the cemetery was organized in such a way: "Six city squares, numbered 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. One square for Yale College. One for strangers. One for people of color" (Benham, 1863). Inspired by the original layout of the city of New Haven, which itself was established on nine squares.

The establishment of this "new" cemetery was in response to a dire problem the city faced with it's ancient burial ground, located on what is today the western green in the center of New Haven. First established in 1639, the ancient burial ground was modeled after the common land burial grounds in Boston which were in the center of that town. Following this tradition, there was no orderly arrangement of burial. Between the parish church and the west side of the market place on the ground gently sloping to the east, the graves were dug by relatives or friends and the interments were made as fancy, or affection, dictated. There was a solemn procession on foot, the grave was filled in, and those present departed. Thus an age-long English tradition that shepherded the departed around the parish church and under its sacred protection was satisfied. And in this tradition, with no private ownership in the burial space, no responsibility was felt. Twenty years after settlement, in 1659, it was proposed by then Governor Newman a new site be found due to the fact that the burial ground already had at least fifty graves. Nothing was done however, and the number of graves in the site grew at a rate of 5 to 10 per year (Townshend: 1947).

Throughout the eighteenth century illness provided a harsh reality for the people of New Haven. Dysentery, malaria and tuberculosis were always more or less present. 1711, 1724, 1734, 1735 and 1751 were all particularly bad years. After 1752, almost every year was a bad one, culminating in 1794 and 1795 with the epidemic of Febris Scarletina Anginosa (scarlet fever) and the plague of yellow fever. The midnight burial became an all too common site in the city. In an area of approximately 70,000 feet were located approximately 5,000 graves. This was in an area about half the size of the present west green in New Haven. So dense was the ground packed that in 1849 the skeletons of 16 people were unearthed in a space 12 feet square. Toward the end of the 18th century an increased sense of taste and refinement came to the people of New England, and New Haven was no exception. The Green did not present a very attractive picture to the generation then in its prime.

The combination of New Haven's refined atmosphere and it's unattractive town center served as the impetus for establishing a new burial ground for the city. A group of prominent citizens of New Haven were gathered by James Hillhouse in 1796. Contemplating the establishment of his own family burial ground after the severe plague of 1794 and 1795, James Hillhouse was gifted with the foresight of realizing that the future would not bode well for such a burial ground. He was well aware that the Hillhouse property could easily change hands and a family burial ground would not always remain a Hillhouse shrine (in fact, the Hillhouse property did exchange hand in the early 20th century; Yale University now owns this property). Aware of the need for a new burial ground, Hillhouse and several of the newly established committee members chose the site that is now the Grove Street Cemetery because it provided "ease of access from the highway and avoidance of usable property" (Townshend, 1947: p. 125). The property was "an almost level, sandy, and loam plain dipping to the north into a swale, the drainage basis of the East Creek" (Benham, 1863). Thus a plot of land which was easy to access and provided a negligible barrier to the towns development was chosen. Hillhouse then organized thirty-two fellow citizens to join with him and form a syndicate all signing an agreement fated September 9, 1796 that reads as follows:

The citizens of New Haven having experienced many inconveniences from the small portion of ground allotted for the burial of the dead in the center of the city; propose to obtain larger better arranged for the accommodation of families and by the retired situation better calculated to impress the mind with a solemnity becoming the repository of the dead. (Benham, 1863)
The thirty-two original families each agreed to advance fourteen dollars each to pay the purchase money of six acres of land for a burying ground and to fence it in. The original thirty-two signers represented every prominent family in New Haven except one. The first burial that took place in this new cemetery was that of Martha Townsend on November 4, 1797. By 1814, all the lots in the New Burying Ground had been sold and the need to expand the burial ground became an immediate reality. Once again, thirty-two citizens banded together to purchase 8 acres of land from Henry Daggett which was immediately adjacent to the New Burial Ground. A road passing between the two lots had to be eliminated and a new highway established on what is today Ashmun Street. Not yet the area to which the current Grove Street Cemetery now occupies, the New Burial Ground was firmly established by 1814. Another happening in New Haven around this time would further act to stimulate the growth of the cemetery: an ecclesiastical "revival."

From 1812 to 1815 was the great period of ecclesiastical building in New Haven. Trinity, Center and United Churches, in architectural and religious rivalry, then assumed their present "Trinitarian" grandeur. Center Church had to undergo the greatest change in an effort to present a unified religious front in New Haven. It had to be turned around so as not to face the paling ancient burial ground. The new construction would disturb the overcrowded burying ground, and the Center Church had to deal with sentiment to the contrary. The city had wiped its hands clean of the problem in 1812 when in granted permission for this relocation provided "it does not vary the rights of individuals" (Townshend, 1947: pp. 132-134). The resolution to the problem was to build the church on top of the graves, provided none would be disturbed. The work was completed to the satisfaction of all but an old problem persisted for the graves located outside the church foundations. They became more unsightly than ever. It was not an uncommon sight to see animals digging up the bones from past burials for which no relatives remained or cared. The city now faced a problem growing increasingly serious; in 1820 the New Haven Common Council took action. A committee found that those who had relatives buried there wanted them left undisturbed and the space walled in; those who had no relatives buried there wanted the stones and graves removed to the new burial ground. A tax was levied on the people of New Haven of one cent and five mills on a dollar to carry out the removal and erection of an appropriate monument in Center Church which would appease most interested citizens. On September 21, 1821 James Hillhouse as chairman of the committee could report that Yale had moved all the graves of officers and students to the new Yale lot; that at family requests all family stones and remains had been removed into family lots; and that they had moved all others to the city plot; that they had reserved lots for the Baptist and Methodist societies; that they had leveled the ground on the Green and erected a monument in Center Church. On it's 24th birthday the new burial ground had come of age and one of New Haven's problems had been settled. During the next twenty years the cemetery affairs were handled quite effectively and casually with only minor problems. The last of a series of problems facing the New Burial Ground came in the form of pedestrians, and its solution the great wall surrounding the cemetery today.

The need for a "proper enclosure" surfaced as increased vandalism, rotting wood fencing (for which plot owners had to mend), and vagrants trampled upon the beauty of this cemetery. Again, a committee headed by Professor Denison Olmstead and greatly influenced by Aaron N. Skinner formed to solve the enclosure problem once and for all. A stone wall built of East Haven sandstone was erected between 1840 and 1843. Almost $20,000. was raised, of which the city provided $7,000., the general public $7,000. and the rest from Yale College and privately organized efforts. By 1845 the cemetery was completely enclosed with an iron fence and gateway to rival Pere-Lachaise. A place where "the wicked cease from troubling and the weary are at rest;" the new surroundings put to rest not only the wicked and weary, but the people and religious societies of New Haven, desirous of a grand resting place for the deceased. By 1918 all the lots in the cemetery had been sold, and only 24 half- and quarter lots were unoccupied, and their owners had been unheard of for more than forty years. Today the only available lots are owned by Yale University; all the great families of New Haven long since deceased. The Yale lots are reserved for Presidents and dignitaries of the university (Bartlett A. Giamatti, former President of Yale University, was interred here in 1990).

Thus completes a somewhat simplified history of the Grove Street Cemetery. This cemetery does not serve as an adequate barometer of actual living conditions and cultural tendencies of the average New Haven citizen. Having been established in 1797, the cemetery benefited from it's location; the city of New Haven was already a college town of refinement and taste. This fact is visible on the epitaphs in the cemetery. Many of the stones, especially of the college set, bear inscriptions in classic Latin. As an example of 18th century phraseology I draw on the illustration of the tomb of Sarah Hillhouse.
How uncertain, short and vain are
Our fondest
hopes of sublunary Joy
When joined in wedlock the appro-
bation of Friends, and mutual ten-
der affection promised the height of
 	conjugal Felicity.
But alas; one year had not revolved
before this lovely Fair was called
(as there is good grounds to believe
and hope
	to happier Realms)
We do see here an ironic suspicion of a doubt as to her future state. And on the stone of her infant daughter, Mary Lucas, this appears:
"Peace to thy dusty bed
Fair lovely sleeping clay"
Virtually every female in the cemetery appears to have been superior, virtuous, amiable, "endowed with a sweet and delicate temper and all female purity," patience, and resignation, if these epitaphs speak to their mortal tendencies. In the epitaph of Sarah Whiting we see a hint of the long, painful and distressing ailments with which we all can sympathize: "the Painful mother of eight children." Abigail Noyes is one exception: "To ye Faulty a Faithful Reprover." In later years, the epitaphs begin to lose their poetic charm; Mrs. President Daggett needed only: "Her character is found in Proverbs XXXI:10:11;" which for the benefit of the heathen (myself) is translated: "Who can find a virtuous woman; For her price is above rubies."

The most notable stone cutter and monument builder whose work we find in the Grove Street Cemetery is John Ritter. As a touch of unconscious local humor by New Haven's premier cutter, we find the following curiosity:

Ann Smith
		As designed by John Ritter
But what of the anonymous many, whose graves were removed to the new cemetery from a Green that was falling under disregard. They for the most part remain anonymous tenants of the cemetery. Unless they were members of one of New Haven's wealthier families, or of the Yale community, their names remain anonymous with but a memorial to mark their humble status. Along the walls of the northwest corner of the cemetery, approximately from Cedar Avenue on the North Wall around to the southern end of Sycamore Avenue on the West Wall are the headstones of several hundred individuals from the old cemetery. The headstones are of many individuals for whom no families came forth during the move. The stones range in date from as early as 1657 to as late as 1801. Isaac Allerton, dating to 1659, is said to be the first pilgrim to have died in Connecticut. He was born in England in 1586 and came to the new world on the Mayflower. The headstone is extremely damaged, due years of neglect in the old cemetery. Theophilus Eaton (1590 - 1657), the co-leader of the expedition that founded New Haven and the first Governor of New Haven, is also interred here and thus he seems to be the earliest known. However, it is possible he did not die in Connecticut, and thus Allerton would have been the first.

By evaluating these headstones one can see an evolution in world view among the citizens of New Haven as it left its puritan beginnings and entered the Victorian age. The first example in the series is that of Nathaniel Yale (figure 1). It represents the typical deaths head of the time; a light bulb shaped head and exposed teeth. The epitaph read as follows:

Here lyethe the Body 
of Mr Nathaniel 
Yale Who Deceased 
October 29th 1730 
Age 78 Years
An informative epitaph lacking of prose or adulation as we begin to see in later years. The epitaphs prior to and until approximately 1740 normally follow this pattern and have the same design deaths head. Figure two is of the headstone belonging to a Josiah Woodhouse whose epitaph reads:
In Memory of 
Mr Josiah 
Who was Born in ye
City of London in
old England and
died in New Haven
Sept. 3rd A D 1764 in
his 42nd Year

Life how Short
Eternity how Long
The death head adorning this stone is far gentler than earlier puritan influence deaths heads (as that of N. Yale). The rounded head is adorned with a smile, and the wings extending from the head arc gently lacking the sharp morbidity of earlier designs. A statement or poem following the particulars of life are to be found among virtually every tombstone into the twentieth century; except in the particularly bad plague years. During these bad years there are an abundant number of headstones bearing nothing more than the initials of the individual interred. The stones are cut hastily as well, and it is doubtful the remains of these individuals were actually removed to the new cemetery. It is more likely headstones that were in good shape moved, and the burial itself left on the Green. A series of these hastily carved tombstones are located near the Barnett family plot simply because they were grouped together in the old cemetery and their second initial was B (ie. H. B. ; J. B. ; A. B.). Though these people remain essentially anonymous, it is known they all died during the plague years of 1721, 1724, and 1734. The New Haven Colony Historical Society has records for individuals whose names correspond to the initial on this series of headstones (thus the reason they were placed near the Barnett family lot): Hezekiah Barnett; Johnathan Barnett; Abigail Barnett -- all of whom died in those years.

There are also a host of headstones for which families with money were able to have decent craftsmen carve, but the high demand of plague years meant the stone cutters would forego the decorative stones. The epitaphs also reflect a simpler approach in the high demand of these deadly years. Here are several examples:

The Body of
Ebenezer Basset
Who Died April
ye 28th 1721 Aged
About 22 years

Abigail The Wife of Capt Isaac Johnson Died Decemr ye 6 1724 Aged 45 years Also his daughter Eunice died Sept 5
Here Lieth the Body of John Bassett Who Died July ye 11th 1724 Aged 36 Years
All of these headstones lacked any design and simply functioned as markers of these individual graves. In later years, death head designs evolved into a "sun-face" design (Figure 3), while the "smiling death-head" appeared occasionally. A curious example is found from the old cemetery in which two brothers were interred together, one apparently died of tuberculosis and the other on a prison ship in New York (Figure 4).
In Memory of Mr Hezekiah Gilbert
who was educated at Yale College
Where he graduated 1783
An early Death terminated
His Studies & Literary Pursuits
and called him into Eternity
Oct. 10 1785 Aetat 23
Dies atra abstulit ilbin & funere
merfit acebbo

Also in Memory of his Brother
Mr John Gilbert who died
in Captivity on board a Prison
Ship in Newyork January 20th
1783 Aetat 25
The elaborate headstone with a dual deaths-head was paid for by Yale College because of the death of the student. Notice in the figure the fact that the heads remained open to each other and that the headstone itself is wide enough to accommodate two grave sites. The family was able to add their elder son's name to the tablet with the permission of the college. The simple epitaphs adopted during the many plague years seem to be much more common toward the late 18th century:
In memory of
Mr Stephen
who Died Dec. 6
A.D. 1787
Age 36 Years
It cannot be forgotten however that many famous individuals have been interred at the New Haven Burial Ground. A prominent New England businessman, Henry Trowbridge, is marked by an enormous twenty-five foot tower on the Trowbridge lot. Though his brother Timothy Trowbridge was to become more famous as a "Merchant, Soldier and Politician" his grandson outdid him with this tremendous monument to the Trowbridge estate. Henry Trowbridge died in the 19th century and this tower is decorated on all four sides with extensive tribute to his contributions to the state, city, and country. Perhaps the most famous resident of the cemetery is Eli Whitney. His tomb (figure 5) is an elaborate monument to his achievements. The Egyptian Revivalist design of his tomb speaks to the culture and refinement that arose in New Haven at the end of the 18th century and had a profound effect around the time of his death in 1825 (Egyptian Revivalist design is also evident in the gateway to the burial ground, itself built in 1845). From 1840 and into the twentieth century an enlightened Victorian age was to come to fruition in England, and the educated elite of New Haven were to revel in its splendor, in life and death. The earlier examples of prose would come to be associated with the highly educated elite of New Haven who increasingly chose to have their existence remembered in the new burial ground. The numerous plots belonging to Yale have come to be filled by students and dignitaries from its past: Timothy Dwight, Alfred Whitney Griswold, Benjamin Silliman, Noah Porter, Arthur Twining Hadley and A. Bartlet Giamatti are but a short list of such individuals. Latin was used during the early parts of the 19th century, a testament to the scholarly achievements of the individuals here. But with the rise of the Victorian age, English gained in respect as a language of scholars, and Latin was used in rare cases and usually only to date the deceased. Additionally, the use of Willows and Sycamores became common as headstone decorations (figure 6). With large urns beneath the sloping branches of the trees they came to signify the hopes and life under the protection of the Sycamore (or Willow).

Thus with the evolution of these tomb decorations one can see the obvious maturation of the city into a place of refinement and education to which scholars and clergy came to learn. The ornate lots belonging to the wealthy in New Haven actually served, for a time, to raise the pride of the citizens in New Haven. The New Haven Burial Ground has been and still is a focal point in New Haven. It is hard to wander the streets beneath the gothic towers of Yale University and not be drawn to the solace of the burial ground. The dominating presence of Yale University within the City of New Haven has caused many to associate the cemetery as a Yale cemetery, but this is not the case. The mighty gates leading into the cemetery are inspired by Egyptian architecture. It is symbolic of an attitude towards the dead and their part in the hereafter, excessive but respectful and reverential, which arose in the Valley of the Nile centuries before Christianity and thus so detached from modern creeds, prejudices and sentiments that it can appeal to any faith or belief.

Established in a time of dire need, during the terrible yellow fever plague of 1794-5, the New Haven Burying Ground serves as a reminder of our cultural heritage in the United States, and especially in New England. In it, one can see a contrasting and evolving belief system reflected in epitaphs dating from the old cemetery, and rising to new heights with the enlightened prose of the Victorian age. The growth of New Haven as a college town can be seen as an increasing number of dignitaries have come to rest at this cemetery. Though it may not serve as an adequate barometer of the social setting in which the commoner lived, it does provide a glimpse into the hopes of these people. After all, in the United States, it has always been the dream of every citizen to achieve greatness, and to be remembered for one's contributions. This cemetery is home to such visionary's as Eli Whitney and Ezra Stiles, and it is in these people that we can see the adulation and dreams of the common person. The grand tombs, scantily decorated but mighty in there presentation, act as constant reminders of their contributions to our lives. The visitor's brochure sums up the cemetery's uniqueness:

Lured inside by the aura of tranquillity sensed from without, the visitor finds immediately before him the Chapel designed according to the strictest tenets of Victorian decorum with its gilded butterfly which, to the Greeks, symbolized the flight of the soul. Behind the Chapel, and to either side, stretches the cemetery proper: its rigid grid of avenues and paths softened by well-groomed trees and shrubs, and named after such living things as Spruce, Sycamore, Myrtle and Ivy. The cemetery, established in 1796, is perhaps the oldest in the nation with this type of layout. For example, the famous Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, dates from 1831.
As one enters the massive Egyptian Revival Gates to the cemetery this sense of tranquillity and awe is sure to inspire idealistic dreams; and this cemetery has been home to many such idealists. It is said that President Hadley on reading "The Dead shall be Raised" (the inscription on the gateway to the cemetery), turned to his companion, and quite forgetful of the Twinings and Hadleys buried there, remarked "They certainly will be if Yale University wants this land."

Today, the burial ground is maintained by the university due primarily to the fact that it is an integral part of the university's past. Well maintained by a daily work force funded by the university, the grounds are well kept and guarded by an eight to ten foot fence on the perimeter. Due to this formidable surrounding and the fact that it is in the heart of the university the cemetery experiences little abuse from vandals. Though it is well guarded and the grounds are well maintained there is evidence of erosion especially on the older stones. Prior to the establishment of the New Haven Burial Ground, the old cemetery tombstones that were moved to the new site had already eroded to varying degrees. Though efforts are made, evidence of weathering and erosion from pollution are evident throughout the cemetery -- this is highlighted by the fact that most of the tombstones are at least a century old. But the university funding as well as city support is geared toward maintaining the cemetery and the stones within and thus the future looks brighter than it does for other cemeteries of comparable age. The corporation actively maintains ties to external funding sources (from the university, families, and the city) and will continue to function as a preservation trust for the cemetery.

This paper is a brief review of this place, the New Haven Burying Ground. It is "under construction" as I am gathering images (you may have noticed references to figures which do not exist in the paper) and, additionally, I shall be gathering more information from the New Haven Colony Historical Society (consider this a warning!). The bibliography contains several excellent references, both on the Grove Street Cemetery, and on cemeteries in general (James Deetz is a particularly fascinating read; Ludwig provides an excellent resource on stone carving and its symbolism in New England).


Benham, J. H.
1863 History of the City Burial Ground, in New Haven, Together With The Names of the Owners of the Lots Therein. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Deetz, James
1977 In Small Things Forgotten. Garden City: Anchor Books.

New Haven Colony Historical Society
New Haven Historical Society Papers.
1865 Vol. I ;
1877 Vol. II ;
1882 Vol. III;
1888 Vol. IV ;
1894 Vol. V;
1951 Vol. X

Townshend, Henry H.
1947 The Grove Street Cemetery. New Haven: The Whaples-Bullis Company.

Recommended reading

From the visitor guide
Grove Street Cemetery in Particular
Heddin, James, S. Civil and Military Records of Men Moved from the (New Haven) Green to Grove
Street Cemetery, unpublished paper (New Haven, 1944), in the collection of the New Haven Colony
Historical Society, 114 Whitney Avenue, New Haven, CT, USA

Stokes, Anson Phelps, Memorials of Eminent Yale Men, Yale University Press (New Haven, 1914),
Includes a chapter on eminent Yale Men in Grove Street Cemetery.
On Cemeteries in general
Ludwig, Allen J., Graven Images, New England Stone Carving and its Symbols, 1630 - 1845, Wesleyan
University Press (Middletown, CT, USA, 1966)

Osterwies, Rollin G., Three Cemeteries of New Haven, 1638-1938, Yale University Press (New Haven, 1953).