Grove Street: The (CPTV) Movie

IMG_5871.JPGYou don’t have to be a WASP, military hero, dictionary writer, Yale president, or founder of modern American manufacturing to be buried at the Grove Street Cemetery.

Although it doesn’t hurt.

Truth be told, there are plots still available in America’s pioneering cemetery, the first to be a non-church, non-governmental, and non-profit. If you have the funds, be you so humble in your accomplishments, you can still get in on, er, the ground floor and have your eternal resting place in the same magnificent necropolis as Noah Webster, Eli Whitney, and the heroes of the Amistad.

That Grove Street never buried African-Americans or Jews separately from the New Haven elites such as James Hillhouse, who established the cemetery in 1797, is one of the points, among much local cemeteriana, made in a new film, City of the Dead/City of the Living.

karylev.pngThe documentary is by local filmmaker Karyl Evans (pictured). The five-time Emmy Award winner packs an impressive amount into her 30 minute-film that justifiably celebrates one of New Haven’s and the nation’s true treasures, the nationally landmarked Grove Street Cemetery.

Produced by CPTV and funded by the Board and Friends of the Grove Street Cemetery, the film debuted Sunday and Monday nights on CPTV’s channel 12 in New Haven.

(Click here and here for previous Independent stories on the cemetery.)

IMG_5868.JPGExperts such as architectural eminence Vincent Scully, Yale archivist Judith Schiff, and New Haven Museum executive director Bill Hosley make the case for Grove Street’s landscape beauties and innovations, its power as a contemplative destination, as well as its architectural wonders, such as the Egyptian Revival front gate. Next to Yale, the cemetery is the city’s biggest tourist draw. In the words of Hosley, it should be appreciated less as a cemetery and more as a living museum that chronicles the social and artistic history of the city and the country.

Equally strong in the film are the interviews with regular people. One woman is brought to tears as she says she returns each year because her dad blew the trumpet in the annual July 4th Declaration of Independence celebration at the graveside of signer extraordinaire Roger Sherman.

And then there are the visiting students in the class of the nearby Wexler Grant School’s remarkable third-grade teacher Huwerl Thornton, Jr.

For him Grove Street is a teachable moment down every one of its streets, not just in front of the Amistad cenotaph or the marker of Cortlandt van Rensalaeer Creed, the first black physician to graduate from Yale or any Ivy League school. One of Thornton’s students leans over a worn marble marker and says, “There are lots of names on the stones that are the same as mine. I wonder if they’re my relatives.”

IMG_5870.JPGIf the film has a fault, it is that it comes across a little too much like a marketing piece and video encomium. It is, for example, a little short on contextualizing how Grove Street fit into to the general cemetery and urban sanitation movement of the 1840s. That’s when Grove Street as we know it got its walls and current look. There’s some critical perspective here and there in the remarks of a number of the experts, such as Peter Dobkin Hall, a history professor. He reminds us that the origins and layout of the cemetery were to reflect the social order of society, then being threatened, and to help maintain it.

The redoubtable dead were to inspire the living visitors, and indeed they do. Yale professor Curtis Patton calls Grove Street Cemetery “the Westminster Abbey for Connecticut and Yale.”

But what does “inspire” mean precisely? When other cemeteries, modeled on Grove Street, multiplied in the mid 19th century, including Gettysburg, the cemeteries were seen as parks where the dead could encounter the living, particularly at twilight.

IMG_5872.JPGThe cemetery movement coincided with the newfangled art of photography, especially its capacity for the eerie dissolve and a national appetite for s√©ances, mysticism, shock at the carnage of the Civil War, and a desire to reach the beyond. Gary Wills’ book, Lincoln at Gettysburg, makes moving sense of all this.

While the film is decidedly non-reverential, personally, I also miss the casual and quirky uses people who know the city make of Grove Street like the morning joggers and the afternoon walkers and the tree identifiers and bird watchers. Perhaps the funders did not want to advertise that Grove Street easily embraces such activities as well.

IMG_5874.JPGThe film confidently, deftly, and democratically conveys lots of info about Grove Street’s 18 acres and 14,000 dead, reflecting the wide ranging social spectrum. But I also miss the lore and obituary humor of the place, of which there’s much. Remarking on the front gate’s quotation from Corinthians that “. . . and the dead shall be raised,” some wag has said: Yes, especially if Yale wants the property.

The film is beautifully shot, well lit, no spooky graveside happenings, and no burials, that is, no cemetery in action, although some 15 to 20 burials take place there every year. We learn from tombstone experts how stones of the early settlers, many dating from the 1680s, were carried from the Green’s original burying ground to Grove Street. They now lean, alphabetically, against the perimeter walls.

Filmmaker Evans is based in North Haven. Her previous films include a documentary on the colonial Newgate Prison and several addressing African-American subjects such as the Amistad and Connecticut’s Freedom Trail.

“For me,” Evans said in a telephone interview, “the most moving aspect was to encounter the family of Courtland Creed at the memorial ceremony at Grove Street. He had had a white wife and a black wife. The white wife did not want her descendants to know her husband was black, and at the event at Grove Street, I was filming the families, some members meeting for the first time.”

Such surprises, Evans said, are what a documentarian dreams of. She hopes one day to make a movie of the Creed family. More information on City of the Dead/City of the Living is available through CPTV.

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posted by: sidney on December 31, 2008  11:28am

CTV, not CPTV, did a much better program, and it cost nothing but time to create.  CPTV does a nice job, don’t get me wrong, but it makes me angry the true local tv station never gets the respect it deserves.

posted by: Chris Gray on January 1, 2009  3:45pm

While I lived, and probably still went to school in Boston, a friend led another friend and I to Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, which is a marvel of grounds keeping design and contains Longfellow’s grave, upon which I danced.  This was not at all a sign of disrespect but a conscious celebration of his “Song of Hiawatha”, one of the wellsprings of my young imagination!

Grove Street will never compare to it and just this week, on the website for WNYC’s “On the Media” program, I referred to Eli Whitney as “one of the worst of New Haven’s hometown heroes” for his devising of the use of interchangeable parts in the production of guns, which continues to lower our quality of life here and elsewhere.

My father always said that, when I die, my ashes should be spread on the New Haven Green for that is where he took me on our earliest forays about town on his lunch breaks from Miller’s Dept.  Store, across from Clark’s Dairy, where he placed me in the lap of one of the statues in front of the courthouse at Elm and Church during a parade, where I spent many cool autumn, cold winter, refreshing spring and hot summer days and nights, awake or asleep.

I do not belong with those rotting in their coffins under Grove Street Cemetery, or even under the churches on the Green, but with the living enjoying our city.  I pity those others their loneliness.

posted by: robn on January 2, 2009  12:02pm

Rumor had it last year that Jim Morrison’s plot lease at P√®re Lachaise was expiring…too bad we can’t get him reinterred at Grove Street…to kind-of make up for arresting him.

posted by: Cap on January 2, 2009  12:30pm

Chris Gray disrepects Eli Whitney as the “worst” hero for having innovated in the area of interchangeble parts used in the production of guns, guns which, he claims, have lowered our “quality of life”.  Er, Mr. Gray, it was guns that permitted us to break from the British, guns that permitted the North to overwhelm the South in the Civil War, guns that police officers use to protect your sorry ass from criminals.  Would you condemn Ford for innovating in the area of automobiles just because some people mis-use the vehicle and harm and kill others by negligent driving? And, oh, let’s pan whoever invented the switchblade because some criminals use it to kill their wives. Better still, let’s ban the like of Chris Gray who has the lack of class to refer to America’s greatest over at Grove Street cemetary as just people “rotting in their graves” whom Gray would rather not think about…

posted by: Chris Gray on January 2, 2009  3:46pm

Cap, people have been trying to ban me for many years, without much success.

I acknowledge Whitney’s genius and even basically support the 2nd Amendment but things have gotten way out of hand with guns in the hands of people too irresponsible and too young to have access to them and little seems to be able to be done to control the situation.

I have yet to experience police using their guns to “protect (my) sorry ass from criminals” with perhaps the one exception of a day, in the ‘70s, when a number of them surrounded an armed man on the Green with their own guns drawn and I worried that we were about to experience a circular firing squad, with many innocent victims.  (I have experienced many occasions of appropriate use of police authority, without drawn weapons, where they did save my sorry ass.)

You’re correct in assuming that I am no fan of Ford and his motorcars, being a big advocate of mass transit; buses (of which my grandfather was a driver), trolleys (which the tire, oil and auto industries conspired to eliminate, as proved by Sacramento in a law suit years ago), trains and, even, airplanes.

If you had read many of my posts over the years, here, you would know that I am quite capable of cognitive dissonance; holding two opposing opinions simultaneously; in this case, admiring Whitney and his innovation and cursing the more unfortunate unintended consequences of it.

posted by: Chris Gray on January 4, 2009  11:10am

Oops!  It was San Diego that sued and, either from the judgment or settlement, funded a new light rail system; a singular example of a government using its rewards from a court case to actually attempt to remedy the injury it sued over.  That, as opposed to the screw job governments gave us over the tobacco settlements.

posted by: Fedupwithliberals on January 5, 2009  7:12am


You ought to know better than to waste your time engaging an idealogue in rational thought.

posted by: Chris Gray on January 5, 2009  1:38pm

Uh, Fed Up, you may not have noticed but Cap, like yourself, did not engage with me.  He just carped about me.

As for theorizing (the definition of an idealogue), I have quite a history of direct engagement and not merely standing aside and observing.

Ideas which I have promoted, such as the now dead jazz festivals and the less than perfect recycling program, have been embraced, even by political opponents. to the benefit of our community.

posted by: Josiah Brown on January 5, 2009  4:25pm

The article mentions Huwerl Thornton Jr., who teaches at Wexler-Grant School and is his school’s Representative for the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute.  He developed a curriculum unit related to the Grove Street Cemetery in a 2008 Institute seminar on New Haven history through its art and material culture.

That seminar, led by Edward S. “Ned” Cooke Jr. of the Yale faculty, resulted in the following collection of curriculum units called “Pride of Place: New Haven Material and Visual Culture”:

Huwerl Thornton is among the Institute Fellows from the elementary, middle, and high-school grades whose units may be found in that volume.

These and other curricular resources that New Haven Public School teachers have prepared as Fellows are available for non-commercial, educational purposes.