You 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.
The 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.
Experts 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.”
If 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.
The 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.
The 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.