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Stories in the Stones
At the heart of Yale, the Grove Street Cemetery holds 200 years of town and gown history.

Photo tour of the Grove Street Cemetery

Spend just a little time in New Haven and you’re bound to hear the old chestnut about the Yale president and the Grove Street Cemetery. It seems the president (it’s not clear just which one) looked up one day at the inscription on the cemetery gate—“The dead shall be raised”—and remarked: “They certainly shall if Yale ever needs the property.” That portrait of Yale self-importance aside, the university and the cemetery have a long history together, going back to the cemetery’s beginnings in 1796 as America’s first planned burial ground.

It was James Hillhouse, Class of 1773, who dreamed up the idea of a dedicated cemetery. Before that, New Haven’s dead found their rest in graves haphazardly sprinkled on the Green behind Center Church. Hillhouse, who was Yale’s treasurer as well as an important city builder who planted New Haven’s famous elms, envisioned a parklike space laid out with streets and divided into lots where families could be buried together.

Hillhouse reserved one lot for Yale, which needed a place to bury students who died while at school and could not be easily returned home for burial. That plot and a second one set aside a few years later accepted the remains not just of students, but also of noted professors and other people connected to Yale. There and elsewhere in the cemetery are the remains of 14 former Yale presidents. One of them, Arthur Twining Hadley, Class of 1876, is said to have been interred in full samurai regalia; he died while touring Japan.

A pair of wild turkeys has called the cemetery home for many years.

Also memorialized at Grove Street are a number of other people intimately associated with Yale: lexicographer Noah Webster, Class of 1778; cotton gin inventor Eli Whitney, Class of 1792; scientist Josiah Willard Gibbs, Class of 1858; dinosaur hunter O. C. Marsh, Class of 1860; and football pioneer Walter Camp, Class of 1880, to name a few. One memorial, to the Japanese-born history professor Kanichi Asakawa (1873-1948) is the object of annual pilgrimages by Japanese schoolchildren who admire his legacy of pacifism.

Faculty of more recent vintage also repose in the cemetery. The stone of historian John Boswell (1947-1994), whose research into same-sex unions in the medieval church caused a stir in the early 1990s, has a reference to The Chronicles of Narnia: “He was not a tame lion.” Sylvia Ardyn Boone '79PhD (1938-1993), the first African American woman to receive tenure at Yale, is buried beneath a stone with an image of a mask from the Mende tribe of West Africa.

Today, the cemetery is a well-used oasis of quiet in the city center, frequented by walkers, runners, people needing a spot for lunchtime meditation, and a few fauna, drawn by the attractive flora. (A pair of wild turkeys has called the cemetery home for many years.) Thoughts of displacing the dead and their serene resting place to make room for a new residential college or two are surely a thing of the past—especially since the cemetery was declared a National Historic Landmark in 2000.  the end


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