Walking Among the Dead 

Photo by Fareed Salmon

The wind nipped at my face, biting my nose and dancing in my hair. My hands had long since retreated into the oversized sleeves of my hoodie. My feet scurried forward on their own, my mind preoccupied with the music pouring in from my headphones. Suddenly, I found myself at the entrance of the Grove Street Cemetery: a gated field of green, bespeckled with stones. I had never spared a second thought to the cemetery; it had always been a passing scene, a landmark to acknowledge but not a destination to go to. But this time, I stepped inside. 

It struck me first as strange. One step forward and I was suddenly in a place where the dead outnumbered the living. It was quiet.  My breathing, my heartbeat—every noise, every sign of life, came from me. I was surrounded not by living beings but rather by beings who had lived.

I made my way through the green. Each headstone stuck out from the ground like plant labels in a garden. I departed from the main road and began zigzagging in between the maze of headstones.  

To my left lay Sally Merriman, “the amiable Comfort of Marcus Merriman who fell Victim to the Small Pox.” Marcus was right next to her. An American flag was planted firmly in front of his gravestone—a  recognition of his service in the American Revolution. As a member of Capt. Phineas Bradley’s crew, Marcus had helped fight the British when they invaded New Haven in 1779. After the war, he served as a silversmith and married Sally on the 13th of November 1783. After Sally died in 1793, he married his second wife, Susanna Bonticou, in December of that same year. Marcus would go on to have two more wives, Lydia Wilcox and Betty Huntington, before finally passing on the 20th of February 1850. Out of four, however, only the first lay with him till the end.  

Across the field, a perfect cube rose from the ground. Immediately, I knew it marked a life that had recently ended. The grave’s sharp edges pierced the world around it—its stark silhouette out of place. The structure was resolute in its purpose: a solid block of stone, simple and unmoveable. The top of the cube had a thick ring of darker granite, like a record. Around the edge of the ring, in a serif font, read: Richard Warren Jr 1937 – 2012・Mary-Jo Worthey 1937. Richard was 75 years old when he died, having completed a 45-year tenure at Yale College, his alma mater, working for the Yale Collection of Historical Sound Recordings. He met his wife, Mary-Jo, in Cambridge, MA while getting an Ed.M from Harvard. The two bonded over their passion for music and enjoyed 50 years of marriage. Now one roamed the Earth while the other decomposed beneath it.  

The lack of a death year near Mary Jo’s name seemed rather ominous. She was living, but the people who had made this gravestone were waiting for her to die. In order for the ring to close, Mary Jo would have to die. With her alive, the grave was incomplete. 

I continued along the path, switching the song in my ear, both to respect the dead but also to ease my mind. The singer’s voice was deep and low as he strummed his guitar. The wind whistled in tune. Leaves broke free from a tree ripe with the season and rejoiced in their newfound freedom, riding the soft gusts of wind and landing softly at my feet.  My eyes tracked them to an orange and red tree—a secular burning bush. Underneath it lay the tomb of Harriet E. Sears, the wife of John Townsend. Five engraved crosses surrounded her name, framing her life with religious subtext. The top of the tomb came to a point, almost like a bishop’s hat: heavily embossed with a patterned motif.  A giant stone cross, taller than my five-foot frame, stood next to it: the grave of Harriet Rebecca Townsend. Behind them was Frances Townsend. His grave was unlike any other I’d seen. Huge, foreboding, and yet nothing more than what could otherwise be described as a lump–a great swell in the earth as if he were somehow attempting to push his way back up to the surface. 

I walked past the Townsend family and stumbled into the Hillhouses. In front of me laid William and Frances Hillhouse, the parents of James Hillhouse. Born November 19th, 1854, James went on to attend Columbia Law School and worked with several prominent attorneys before opening his own private practice in New York City and then eventually teaching at New York University School of Law. James died from arteriosclerosis and left 2,400 volumes of books to the Yale Law Library. He now rests near his parents and is surrounded by the rest of his clan. No longer gathered around a table or exchanging letters back and forth, here the Hillhouses lay in permanent reunion. I wonder if James knew his books would be housed just a few feet away from him. And, I wonder if law students know that the books they use gloves to carefully look through were once the cherished possessions of a man just across the street. 

I continued my walk scanning the stones that decorated my view. The engravings on a few had been worn away by time, washing away any memory of the person buried beneath. I wandered by Thomas Munson, the founder of Hartford, Connecticut, and Roger Sherman, the only one to have signed the Continental Association, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution. I also passed Mrs. Rebecca Minot. Her gravestone was tiny, barely making it to my mid-calf. It was rugged in every sense of the word. The color of a brick set ablaze, the gravestone was engraved with letters in different sizes, each one slightly tilted. There was no indication of a birth or death; it was simply her name in handwritten letters. The “Mrs.” told me she was married, and the hand-crafted nature of the gravestone told me she was loved. Nothing else mattered. 

The last grave I passed was that of M. Charles Hill: an American diplomat, lecturer in international studies at Yale, and senior advisor to George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, Ronald Regan, and Boutros Boutros-Ghali. But, the thing that intrigued me most was the name directly below his: Norma Thompson. Born in 1959, her death was not yet written in stone. I wonder whether she feels a sense of peace or of doom when she mourns her husband and sees the empty date next to her name. I wonder if she’s ever walked around and met her future neighbors. I wonder what she thinks of them.  

Here I was standing while everyone around me lay flat on their backs, deep under the earth. They had all lived their lives. Some had engraved their accomplishments on their tombs, others had built monuments on top of their graves, and still, others had chosen to be remembered by just their name. Each one had a story. Between those two dates was a line that represented a life. 

Exiting through the steel gates, I looked behind me and had a different perspective of this place that I once saw as nothing more than a background. Here lies a library. A destination filled with stories, each one real, rich, and varied. Some old, some new, and some still waiting for a conclusion. 

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