Grove Street Cemetery: Death, Where is Thy Sting?

Photo by Fareed Salmon

Interviews have been lightly edited for clarity

“Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed,
in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.”
1 Corinthians 15:51-52

It was a warm October day. The sun shone through the still-green leaves overhead as I walked along Grove Street. The tall towers, the asphalt and concrete, the throngs of students crossing at the College Street intersection, the lines of cars waiting in impatience at the stoplight—all of the bustle around me was bursting from the early bounds of Puritan New Haven and sloshing north, up Prospect Street and out toward West Rock. In a few short centuries, the city spread and rose toward the heavens in bubbling plumes of stone and steel. But it left a small pentagon of green untouched, sheltered by thick brown stone walls from the ceaseless building and demolition all around it. 

That pentagon is where I was headed. But something caught my eye before I could even cross the street to it. A pair of workers in uniform waited in front of the Jitter Bus, one of them wearing headphones around his neck. Their shirts conspicuously read “Grove Street Cemetery.” They looked abnormally normal, given the nature of their work. Just two young dudes waiting for their coffee. I don’t know what I expected graveyard employees to look like (have I ever even considered the notion that graveyards have regular employees?) but this was certainly not it. 

Across the street lies a gate that reads: “THE DEAD SHALL BE RAISED.” The imposing brownstone portal was constructed by New Haven architect Henry Austin, sometime between his career-spurring design of Yale’s Dwight Hall and his career-ending burial in this very cemetery. The secret society Book and Snake loomed, solid and stoic and gleaming, just across the street from the cemetery. The cemetery’s dark gate and the society’s white marble tomb seemed to be in a competition over who could appear more ominous. I think the gate wins. 

Grove Street Cemetery was established in 1797. Originally, the New Haven Green was used as the city’s main burial ground, but by the end of the 18th century, it had become so filled with dead bodies that a new cemetery became necessary. James Hillhouse and a group of citizens chose a spot on the outskirts of town, and within a few decades, the burials in the Green ceased, and the existing gravestones were transported to Grove Street, then called “The New Burying Ground.” Since its establishment, the cemetery has pioneered conventions now common in modern cemeteries, such as a private and non-profit status, a planned layout, paved and named streets, and family plots. 

Past the gate lies a squat chapel-like building: the Grove Street Cemetery office. The words “NEW HAVEN CITY BURIAL GROUND” are painted in black and gold on the office’s glass front door. 

Channing Harris is a member of the Board of Directors of Friends of the Grove Street Cemetery, Inc., and a continuous volunteer for the New Haven Preservation Trust. He spent forty years as a landscape architect, and worked on many projects for Yale; those readers who have had the pleasure of sneaking into the Secret-Garden-esque backyard of the President’s mansion on Hillhouse can thank him in part for its beauty. He met me near the gate and we began walking clockwise through the cemetery. He spoke with a slow and measured pace, and walked with an even slower and more measured pace. This, combined with his encyclopedic knowledge of the cemetery and its inhabitants, corporeal and arboreal, means that it took us nearly an hour to circumnavigate the 18-acre cemetery. 

“In 1839, a report to the commissioners was done on the condition of the cemetery…It’s quite a long report, very thorough. It investigated a lot of aspects of the conditions of the cemetery and recommended improvements, which resulted in the wall and the gates, more landscape improvements, and the naming of the avenues,” Harris said. 

Harris explained that the Grove Street Cemetery represents a broader Federal style of cemeteries that rivaled a Romantic approach to their design, fittingly epitomized by the Mount Auburn Cemetery near Harvard. “There’s always been a rivalry between Yale and certain Cambridge institutions… so that might have had something to do with that,” he said with a smile. 

Inside the cemetery office, I met Superintendent Seeley Jennings, who was seated at his desk, puffing a cigar and conversing with his office manager and assistant superintendent. Jennings has been the superintendent of Grove Street Cemetery since 2016. After concluding a 34-year career at Lakeview Cemetery in Bridgeport, he bore the burden of retirement for four long months and promptly went straight back to work in New Haven. Perhaps cemetery management is more enjoyable than I would’ve guessed. 

As I spoke with the superintendent, it became clear that cemetery management is also more work than I would’ve guessed. Jacob Jennings, the cemetery’s assistant superintendent, explained that there are five full-time employees, including the superintendent, assistant superintendent, and office manager Rosa Rodriguez, as well as four seasonal employees who work from the middle of April through the middle of the summer. 

Work on the grounds is constant: cutting grass, blowing leaves, fixing foundations, hosting funerals. The cemetery’s roads are blown clean of leaves and debris every day. 40 recently planted trees require 20-gallon watering bags to be refilled twice a week. If people plant bushes, flowers, or small gardens within the cemetery, those will get watered as well. Jennings and his team are also responsible for the sidewalks surrounding the cemetery, and they regularly collect litter and cut the grass outside the walled perimeter. This is the sort of work that you only notice if it completely halts—and then you really notice it. 

During the interview, a woman entered the office, unnoticed until she sat down in the chair behind me, and got to work sorting through a box of old papers. This is Sandra Markham, another board member of the Friends of Grove Street Cemetery. She explained that, while the New Haven Museum possesses most of the cemetery’s records, many financial papers were left in the attic of the office. She’s taking inventory of them before they, too, get sent to the museum. She also organizes historical talks, including one chronicling gruesome deaths among the cemetery’s inhabitants, and, over the past five years, has photographed and documented countless Grove Street Cemetery graves for the Find a Grave database.

There are also the hundreds of visitors each week to deal with. “Especially before the pandemic, we would have busloads of tourists coming in here,” Jacob Jennings said. While vandalism and trespassing used to be a regular issue, the cemetery has not experienced them for a while now–”knock on wood,” Seeley Jennings interjected. Security drives through the cemetery a couple times a night, and cameras and alarm systems help, too. “I’m sure people sneak in here sometimes at night, hop the wall, but there’s been no actual issues caused by it,” Jacob Jennings added. 

Precisely mapping out the cemetery and locating unused plots that can be reclaimed and sold is also a huge undertaking. From the superintendent and Harris, I gathered a rough outline of how the cemetery is governed. Ownership is based on the families who invested in plots.. “If you own a piece of land here for a family lot, or an individual lot, you are a proprietor,” Harris explained. The proprietors reune for an annual business meeting, while a group known as the standing committee of the proprietors conducts the day-to-day business of the cemetery and directs the superintendent. 

Jennings handed me a 1912 Grove Street Cemetery rulebook. The price of a grave was listed as $6.50. While the rulebook phrased it in less blunt terms, I was morbidly amused by the child discount on the normal grave price. According to a flier found near the cemetery entrance, a full grave today costs $7,500. The child discount is unfortunately no longer available.

Today, the cemetery advertises “perpetual care.” It seems like a particularly heavy burden to bear. “Perpetual” is certainly a long time to be caring for something. How do you ensure the maintenance of this space forever? What happens when the cemetery runs out of plots to sell?

The cemetery’s endowment helps answer these questions. In 2011, the Yale Daily News reported that 95% of Grove Street Cemetery’s endowment is invested within the Yale endowment, with the remaining portion for use on current or ongoing projects. Seeley doesn’t know the details of how the cemetery, an entity completely separate from Yale, vested its funds with the university—–the move occurred before his tenure—–but he does know this: “They do a great job getting return on the money.”

“A certain percentage of all our grave sales goes into our perpetual care fund, and that’s what Yale invests for us… and that money can’t be touched. We operate on the interest of that money,” says Seeley Jennings.

When I asked about any big plans for the cemetery, the response was modest. The biggest upcoming project is the repainting of the cemetery walls, the sort of masonry repair periodically needed for the easily-weathered brownstone used in so much of the cemetery. Further repairs to damaged monuments were also mentioned as a priority. A small columbarium for the interment of ashes was completed a few months ago.

The site’s status as a National Historic Landmark precludes major changes to the burial ground, but I got the feeling there’s not much desire in the first place for big changes to this static oasis amid the sprawl of Yale’s building spree. 

Shortly before the end of the interview, Seeley Jennings took a moment to rhapsodize about his profession. “It’s a business, it really is. It’s just that we deal with people at the worst times of their lives. That’s the biggest part. Compassion is a very big part of this business. And you gotta love history to be here.”

Jacob Jennings chimed in. “This place is almost as much as a museum as it is a cemetery, which is one of the reasons I really love working here.”

I thanked Sandra and the Superintendents Jennings, then stepped out of the office and back into the October sun. The leaf blowers were still running. The day was still bright. I felt a twinge of reluctance to leave. The office interior was airy and light (one benefit of a repurposed chapel), and I had enjoyed the warm smell of Jennings’s cigar. The massive brownstone gate stood in front of me. I passed between the papyrus columns and headed home.

I didn’t pay much attention in Sunday School, and I’m no theologian scriptural scholar, but I did go back to the Bible to look for the verses from which “THE DEAD SHALL BE RAISED.” was lifted. There’s more to these words than vague foreboding. Just a couple lines below them, I spotted a phrase I recognized from a hymn I half-know; a hopeful and beautiful and triumphant phrase I suddenly wished Henry Austin had inscribed atop the gate on the interior side, opposite the existing passage, visible only within the welcoming embrace of the cemetery. The words seem to better reflect the cemetery I saw today: a place occupied with employees who carefully manicuring its lawns and repairing its gravestones, tended by volunteers planting new trees or sorting through old papers or photographing epitaphs, strolled through by passersby, visited by professor-led tours, filled with birds chirping among the tree branches and squirrels scurrying about the headstones. It doesn’t seem like a place of death, at least not exclusively, at least not in the way death is usually conceived.

“So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory.
O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”
1 Corinthians 15:54-55

Leave a Reply