In few American places are so many brilliant people found in such a small space. They may be silent. They are certainly dead. But inhabitants of New Haven’s Grove Street Cemetery have left a living legacy.
Walking through the monumental Egyptian Revival gate feels like a passage from one world into another. Not only am I gripped by a solemn grandeur, but an almost palpable pharaonic sense of an afterlife. Regardless of my personal theology, many who are buried here live through long past deeds, writings, art, and discoveries.
As I passed by an obelisk in his memory, I realized that few days go by when I don’t consult a dictionary with Noah Webster’s (1758-1843) name on it. I was dressed all in cotton from socks to jeans and flannel shirt as I stood beside Eli Whitney’s (1765-1825) brownstone sarcophagus, reminding me that the rise of the now ubiquitous fabric was made possible by his invention of a cotton gin that removed sticky seeds from the fibers. At Charles Goodyear’s (1800-1860) grave, I realized that I rode here on tires that paid distant homage to his invention of vulcanization of rubber.
Laid out in a grid pattern of roads, Grove Street Cemetery is a kind of subdivision of the deceased. Chartered by the Connecticut legislature in 1797 to replace burials on the New Haven Green, it was the first to be arranged in family lots, unlike the relatively haphazard burials in colonial graveyards. And distinct from the sprawling country cemeteries developed later in the nineteenth century, here the monuments are tightly packed, somewhat reflecting the architectural density of the community beyond and creating a city within a city.
While strolling the avenues named after tree species such as spruce, locust and maple, I visited with Roger Sherman (1721-1793), the only man to sign all four seminal documents creating the American republic including the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. I spent a few moments with Lyman Beecher (1775-1863), an influential clergyman, abolitionist and father of Harriet Beecher Stowe. I took time to admire the polished granite stone bearing the likeness of Walter Camp, “father of American football.” David Humphries (1752-1815), General Washington’s right-hand man got my attention as did Yale president and baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti ((1938-1989). Finding the sarcophagus of Yahudi Ashmun (1794-1828), first agent of the African Colonization Society promoting settlement of blacks in Liberia was a surprise discovery.
Along the streets and beneath the trees are generations of politicians, diplomats and judges; professors of medicine, religion, philosophy, geology, pathology, and languages ancient and modern. There are artists, surgeons, historians, ship captains, musicians, poets, missionaries, athletes and military heroes of every rank. There is an astounding range of ethnicities and religions represented, and names inscribed on the stones tell of near and distant places and diverse backgrounds.
Despite the regularity of the layout and density of monuments, a thick brownstone wall embracing the space and a veritable arboretum of trees and shrubs give this burial ground a tranquil vibe. It’s a place for the living to find peace among those enjoying eternal rest. A popular place for walkers, I’ve also seen folks tapping away on laptops while sitting on the occasional stone bench, or reading with their back against a tree. Couples sometimes picnic on a blanket.
Every time I visit, I discover more accomplished people like Lars Onsager (1903-1976), awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1968, and William Harry Goetzman (1930-2010) who won the Pulitzer Prize for a history of American western exploration in 1967. I’ve found the final resting spot of lattice truss bridge inventor Ithiel Towne (1784-1844). Here lies the grave of Ross Granville Harrison (1870-1959) discoverer of the tissue culture method of studying organisms, and that of African-American businesswoman Mary Goodman (1804-1872) who established the first scholarship at Yale for African-American students.
Grove Street’s dead have much to teach, and it’s hard to spend any time here without getting an education. I’ve learned that Cortlandt Van Renssalaer Creed (1833-1900) was the first African American to earn an M.D. from an Ivy League school, served as a surgeon in the Union Army during the Civil War, and became an expert in the assassination of President James Garfield. Sybil Bingham (1792-1848) was the first American woman missionary teacher in Hawaii, and Hezekiah Augur (1791-1858), a self taught man, is considered by some to be the nation’s first sculptor.
Wandering among the graves of such high achieving individuals is humbling. But the deeds of those lying here are done. The living still have the most valuable possession of all—time. Time is, perhaps, the essence of opportunity. Whenever I visit this singular patch of ground I feel a carpe diem/tempus fugit moment. I want to seize this day and any others. Regardless of all the smarts buried here, no one could outwit death.