No Plot of Ground

Design by Anasthasia Shilov

It’s what one might call a dramatic irony, the maple blushing red next to the gate of the Grove Street Cemetery—leaves readying for death just paces away from the gatetop inscription proclaiming, in a proud majuscule sans serif: THE DEAD SHALL BE RAISED. Or maybe the irony only fully unfurls in winter, once the maple’s bare. In any case, the Grove Street Cemetery is not one for subtlety; the gatetop proclaims and the foliage dances an echo.

While its public-facing take on the afterlife (which comes, by the way, from First Corinthians) is certainly the first interesting aspect of the Grove Street Cemetery, it is hardly the most interesting. For one thing, the Cemetery is old, perhaps older than one might expect of a site sandwiched between the acute angles of the Yale Health Center and the Beinecke’s self-important marble, quarried in Vermont. Established in 1797, Grove Street began as a cemetery of necessity, if such a thing as a cemetery of superfluity exists. After an outbreak of yellow fever in 1794 claimed nearly two percent of New Haven’s then-four-figure population, the New Haven Green, which had hitherto served as the city’s principal burial place, grew too crowded. The dead demanded more space, and the Grove Street Cemetery obliged.

To say “the Grove Street Cemetery,” though, is technically imprecise—that’s another interesting thing. The Cemetery was incorporated, two hundred and twenty-five Octobers ago, as The New Burying Ground in New Haven, a name that became New Haven City Burial Ground in 1849. “Grove Street Cemetery” is little more than a nickname that stuck, and one that’s nearly a misnomer: the Cemetery, its website explains, “allows no room for a grove of trees: space for burial sites is maximized.” But despite its fluid moniker and the unanticipated deaths that necessitated its construction, Grove Street arose nevertheless from decisive intention. Inside the Cemetery, the cement walkways that run perpendicular to its namesake street are marked each by street signs of their own. Most of them are floral: Pine Avenue; Magnolia Avenue; Woodbine Path, named, per Merriam-Webster, for “any of several honeysuckles.” Locust Avenue was probably named for the locust tree, though one can’t help but entertain a more biblical reading, that passing nod to plagues.

Grove Street Cemetery was designed as a literal “city of the dead,” hence its odd delineation of avenues. It abides by a self-contained order; Pine Avenue, or Locust, ceases to exist beyond the cemetery gate. Inside, the dead are prioritized, their map squarely imposed upon ours, as if to say, yes, the dead shall be raised, but until then let their streets be named for trees that flower. There is a softness to the Grove Street Cemetery, despite what the declaration on its Egyptian Revival-style gate might lead one to believe. From its exact center, one finds oneself almost isolated from the city. Subgenres of memorial blur together—headstone, footstone, obelisk all in orderly rows like so many seats in an empty auditorium. Squirrels abound, alongside the occasional chipmunk. Plum-sized sparrows litter the leaves, which have just begun to adopt a fabled autumnal crunch. Sentimentalisms aside, I’d hardly call the Grove Street Cemetery scary.

Timothy Dwight, Yale’s eighth president, said of the place in 1811, “No plot of ground within my knowledge is equally solemn and impressive.” His description is apt; while the superlative nature of Dwight’s comment may not hold up after two centuries, those words, “solemn” and “impressive,” taken at their more literal meaning, seem a good fit. The Cemetery, from its entryway, is playing a waiting game. THE DEAD SHALL BE RAISED. Okay. Along the back wall, flat and meager gravestones from the eighteenth century, some of them illegible, a whole line of shrugged shoulders. Well. When?

What I mean is that Grove Street, by design, prompts contemplation of mortality, even in those uninterested in that sort of thing. Its unmissable gate makes a promise; inside, every added headstone is a flicker of doubt. How long ’til shall? The whole place is an appeal to big questions, to that chimera of fear and fascination often evoked in considering what, if anything, comes after all of this. Sylvia Ardyn Boone, art historian and the first black woman to be given tenure at Yale, is buried in Grove Street Cemetery, her headstone a neat rectangle of red granite. Her epitaph, taken from her book West African Travels, perhaps speaks to our stake in those big questions: “We all yearn for transcendence, for immortal life, to be part of the future.” Put otherwise: we all yearn, or have considered yearning, once the time has come, to be raised. This raising need not be literal. But it is a longevity either way. To know that we endure to some degree after death is at best cause for elation, and in any case is at least an answer.

I stick by my saying that I’d hardly call the Grove Street Cemetery scary. A catalyst for existentialism, sure, but not scary. Its softness is a faithful underscore, especially in autumn. On walks with my friends, it’s a regular destination. Just a few weeks ago, before the gateside maple had reddened, I walked through the Cemetery, Willoughby’s cup in hand, with my friend Leo. He was probably the first to take me there, our sophomore spring, as the pandemic encouraged such outdoorsmanship. That year, Leo also wrote about Grove Street in a piece for the Herald. He seemed to have his mind made up about endurance: “In due time, all epitaphs will be blown away and the stones will crumble.”

That much is probably true. During our most recent trip to the Cemetery, though, we talked nothing of mortality. We stood beneath a ginkgo tree on Sycamore Avenue. Leo plucked one of its blond leaves. “You know,” he said, “these things are ancient. They’re, like, prehistoric.” Indeed, the ginkgo tree’s ancestors first appeared nearly three hundred million years ago; in its order, the ginkgo is the last living species. Leo pointed to the lines, innumerable and imperceptibly thin, spreading like a consortium of rivers up and out of the fan-shaped leaf. “That’s why they don’t have veins,” he said. “Or, that’s why their veins aren’t like other leaves.”

Fitting as it would be, the undying ginkgo has no street sign in the Grove Street Cemetery; it’s what one might call a missed opportunity. THE DEAD SHALL BE RAISED, announces the cemetery gate. In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, the word immediately following “raised” is “incorruptible.” Jury’s still out on the verb, let alone the adjective. Time, I suppose, will tell whether that solemn and impressive place can keep its promise. I know only as much as I have told you: on Sycamore Avenue, in the city of the dead, there is a ginkgo tree that has stood for three hundred million years.

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