November 9: The Nation’s First Planned Burial Ground Receives Its First Resident — During An Epidemic


In the 1790s, a deadly epidemic of yellow fever swept throughout the eastern United States, hitting densely-populated urban centers like New Haven especially hard. As fever-related fatalities multiplied, the old burying grounds located behind the churches on the New Haven green — in operation for nearly 150 years — quickly exceeded capacity. City leaders responded by designating and developing a large plot of land near the outskirts of the city as the new repository for the dead.

On November 9th, 1797, Martha Beardsley became the first person to be buried in the city’s “New Burying Ground,” which would soon come to be known as the Grove Street Cemetery. Borne of necessity, city planners designed the cemetery to model the nine-square grid pattern of the city itself, carefully laying out patterns for where future residents and their families would be buried in order to avoid the overcrowding issues commonly experienced in disorganized churchyards. Because of these features, the Grove Street Cemetery is considered to be the first planned burying ground in the country, as well as the first to incorporate the use of formal family plots. Its construction marked a significant turning point in American urban history, as more cities began favoring purposefully designed, sprawling, park-like cemeteries to house their dead, instead of the centuries-old model of ad hoc, disorganized graveyards typically located behind church buildings and meetinghouses.

An 1879 photo of the Grove Street Cemetery’s Egyptian Revival-style front gate, with a Victorian-style chapel behind it.

When the cemetery’s original wooden fence began to decay in the 1830s, the city built high walls of brownstone to surround and protect the yard, and hired architect Henry Austin to design a striking Egyptian-revival style front gate, inscribed with the portentous phrase “The Dead Shall Be Raised.” Since 1797, the Grove Street Cemetery has become the final resting places for over 14,000 Connecticans, including many of the state’s most famous residents, such as Noah Webster, Eli Whitney, Roger Sherman, Lyman Beecher, Charles Goodyear, Walter Camp, Glenn Miller, and scores of other famous architects, inventors, Yale professors and presidents, and statesmen. Today, as a National Historic Landmark, the Grove Street Cemetery remains one of New Haven’s most popular historical attractions and urban retreats, with guided tours of the park-like landscape offered daily.

Further Reading

The Grove Street Cemetery,” Friends of Grove Street Cemetery

Clay Risen, “The Nation’s First Planned Burial Ground,” New York Times