Not what you would expect of a crypt. It’s neither dark nor dank nor Halloween creepy. Yet it’s a graveyard where visitors as well as residents are underground, though at different levels. With sometimes peeling whitewashed walls and modern pendant lamps, it’s a rather clean, well-lighted place where not only the bodies, but the tombstones never see the sun.
Hidden on the New Haven Green beneath the federal style redbrick Center Church with its elaborate pediment and soaring spire, the Crypt is passed by thousands every day though known to few. Although it is the final resting place for hundreds of unknown people whose burials are not marked, there are 137 gravestones dating from 1687 to 1812 below the church sanctuary. Congregants literally pray over these sheltered dead at every service.
This unintentional underground cemetery resulted from construction of the church over a portion of the Green that then served as a public burial ground. Erected during the War of 1812, the building’s foundation enclosed the gravestones in their original configuration. Not long afterward, the headstones on the rest of the Green were removed to another cemetery and the land regraded. Several thousand bodies still lie beneath the grass. In 2012, Storm Sandy blew down a nearby oak which had colonial era human remains entangled in its roots.
The Crypt contains some of New Haven’s earliest settlers as well as a few people that have had a brush with fame such as President Rutherford B. Hayes’s relations, Reverend James Pierpont, a Yale founder, and Benedict Arnold’s first wife, Margaret Mansfield. Most of the names are not readily recognized, but often have memorable inscriptions couched in charming antique language and stone carver’s abbreviations. Topped with a cherubic-looking soul effigy, Sarah Whiting’s stone describes her as “the painful mother of eight children.” Fitch Alling (1754-1777) “lived beloved and died lamented.” Inscriptions like that of young Mary Hillhouse Oswald (1774-1778) are poetry: “Sweet Babe, are all thy winsome pleasing airs/Thy infant gambols come to this/Thy father’s hope, thy mother’s tender cares/Thus buried deep in deaths abyss” Sometimes mere names and dates alone are enough to stir the heart despite the passage of centuries. Such is the case with the tri-arched stone in memory of three young children of Daniel and Sibyl Trowbridge, each a parental namesake, one but a month old.
The stones are placed in an irregular manner, and some graves have footstones. Most of the markers are sandstone, but there some are made of slate, marble and other material. A couple marble ones feature angled gray stripes. The memorials come in a variety of heights and shapes and include tablestones.
More than mere sculpture gardens where the dead rest, a cemetery is a place rich in stories. With energetic warmth and unbridled enthusiasm, church historian M. R. Georgevich gives tours that touch the heart and bring the past alive. Thorough her vivid narration, visitors meet John Trowbridge (1684-1740) whose brownstone memorial features a unique sundial engraving. He was a carpenter by trade, but also a public spirited individual who, among other things, served as a constable, fence viewer, and sheriff of New Haven County. Jeremiah Townsend (1711-1803) was a barber and wig maker catering to the needs of Yale men. A person of deep faith, he fasted in his attic for a day each year while reading the Bible. When New Haven was invaded in 1779, he hid in a chimney for a night to avoid gunfire.
My favorite story belongs to Jared Ingersoll (1722-1781), a Yale graduate and lawyer whose long flattering inscription is written across a tablestone. He was sent to London to protest the Stamp Act, but after it passed was empowered with implementing the hated law. He headed to Hartford when violence was threatened, but was stopped near Wethersfield by 500 men on horses who forced him to resign his post, and made him throw his hat into the air and shout “Liberty and Prosperity” three times.
At first it seems strange to walk through a graveyard where there is no wind or cloud-studded sky, where it neither snows nor rains. Lacking birdsong or the soaring architecture of trees, this is a burial space apart. Without such distractions, it becomes a perfect place to contemplate the past and explore the stories of people long gone. Secure with a roof and walls, many of these stones read remarkably clear, having defied weather and thus centuries. Intimate and insular, the Crypt seems to more sharply focus stories. We realize that the dead experienced joys and suffered perils not unlike our own. Their narratives bend time and better connect us to where we live.
The author wishes to thank Church Historian M. R. Georgevich for her work researching the stories of those buried in the crypt, and for sharing them with the public. For more information go to https://ctcryptkeeper.wordpress.com/