Common Ground

When I visit the Grove Street Cemetery, I look for languages. Scattered among the headstones, I often find Latin or Hebrew, but some days I find Russian, Arabic, or Chinese. One of my favorite plots—a simple headstone designed for a couple—has a smaller stone toward the front of the plot in Croatian: Jako su de voljeli. “They loved each other very much.”

I first started going to cemeteries as a writing exercise. Near my childhood home, the cemetery was rural and overgrown, with tree roots winding between the headstones and patiently pulling them from the soil. As a middle schooler, I would ride my bike a mile down the road, cut through the gravel path at the cemetery’s entrance and walk the uneven rows. Finally, I’d plop down beside a stone marker and wait for inspiration to come, emerging a few hours later with a cramping hand and pine needles in my hair.

On the contrary, when I visited the Grove Street Cemetery upon returning to campus, the meticulous grooming extended even to the headstones buried by centuries of shifting terrain and now, the browning leaves coating the grass. The cemetery is structured like a city itself—there are flora-lined (and named) streets and diverse headstones, from above-ground tombs to towering obelisks to one headstone carved in the shape of a toddler. One of my favorites is a white marble obelisk with a frieze of a cat, napping.

Grove Street Cemetery was established in 1796, the first cemetery to construct itself as a “city of the dead.” Then called the New Burying Ground, the cemetery was deemed necessary because an outbreak of yellow fever had left the New Haven Green—then the city’s chief burial ground—overcrowded. Over time, the headstones that were once on the Green were extracted and moved to Grove Street as well, where they now line the back walls of the cemetery like a tiny, mismatched fence. Many of the headstones are impossible to read, the surfaces weathered away to uneven, grainy stone.

The cemetery’s design is conducive to expressing personality. The layout exhibits the characteristics of an architectural project grown beyond itself, paths creating themselves and headstones occupying too much or too little space. There are thousands of unique headstones, family plots and strange quotes. In the back left corner, one of my favorite plots is lined by ivy-adorned pine trees, forming a tiny, dark grove that feels nearly enchanted. I find special enjoyment in writing about the ones with locations: “Born in Bristol, Connecticut. Died in Rome, Italy.” What were they doing in between?

Still, many parts of the cemetery are not conducive to writing. These are the plots that are too detailed, plots that almost always belong to major historical figures and, even more often, to figures affiliated with Yale. Yale’s gothic arches loom over the cemetery even as it removes the visitor from time—an incessant reminder of the university’s history, and more insidiously, its power. But Grove Street is not merely about Yale. Its streets grapple with the history of New Haven all around. There is evidence that the plots were once racially segregated, and colonial figures and community leaders have family plots tracking as many as eight generations. The Grove Street Cemetery reflects the development of American identity, a visual representation of the desire for individuality, for greatness and for legacy. Roger Sherman, author of the famed Constitutional “Great Compromise,” is buried there; so are survivors of every American war and many of this country’s most prominent intellectuals.

One presidential plot—for Kingman Brewster, Jr., TD ’41, 17th President of Yale University—has a quote that requires walking around the large plot to read in its entirety: “The presumption of innocence is not just a legal term. In commonplace terms it rests on that generosity of spirit which assumes the best, not the worst of the stranger.” Of course, I know from his Wikipedia page that President Brewster was a U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom, that he was a professor of law at Harvard, Oxford and Yale. I also, from the size and style of his plot, recognize that Brewster was important—he mattered. But the plot is still the size of the average household bathroom, surrounded by tinier, supposedly more insignificant plots.

Fourteen Yale Presidents are buried on Grove Street, and I struggle to separate them from the institution they represent. These plots are often the grandest, adorned in quotes and flora. But they also illustrate how even grandiose lives are condensed behind the cemetery’s Egyptian gates into a few numbers, dates and carvings. Near Brewster, there exists a smattering of identical headstones with “REVOLUTIONARY WAR” emblazoned at the top. There are hundreds of them throughout the cemetery—but then again, there are hundreds of large, sweeping plots like Brewster’s, all asserting a similar desperation for personality.

As I walk, I reflect that Grove Street Cemetery has a way of simultaneously reflecting greatness and reducing it. The grounds whisper dissent to the assertion that in death, we are all equal. A stark contrast emerges between those with identical stones and those with mausoleums, those with names and those without. I find it unnerving that even in death, our class differences matter—that inequality embraces us so intimately that we will never escape its grasp. But somehow, this continuity feels soothing. And maybe that is why I return to the well-worn paths of the cemetery again and again, in search of an objection.

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