Tales from the crypt

Its first church embodies New Haven's history

The crypt at Center Church, part of New Haven's first burial ground, contains grave markers ranging in date from 1687 to 1812.
The crypt at Center Church, part of New Haven's first burial ground, contains grave markers ranging in date from 1687 to 1812. (Dominic Chavez/Globe Staff)
By Diana Kuan
Globe Correspondent / April 29, 2007
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NEW HAVEN -- The founder of Yale University is buried here. So is Benedict Arnold's first wife and President Rutherford Hayes's relatives. They are among the 137 people whose remains are marked by gravestones in a crypt beneath historic New Haven Green.

This subterranean landmark, part of the city's first burial ground, draws genealogy buffs, preservationists, and others interested in exploring early New England through its tombstones. It is dimly lighted, and visitors must be careful not to bump their heads on the low ceilings or trip over the foot-tall headstones.

Center Church, formally the First Church of Christ in New Haven, was founded with New Haven by Puritans in 1638 and was the only church in the colony for 100 years. In 1814 , the church dedicated its present meeting house, the fourth on the site, which covered a small portion of the burial ground. The Upper Green's monuments and headstones had been moved in 1812 to nearby Grove Street Cemetery , while an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 remains were left undisturbed and unmarked. The portion covered by the church, however, left 137 graves with both tombstones and graves intact.

A layout of the graves is displayed inside the crypt. The markers range in date from 1687 to 1812 and in size from fully raised tombs to grave markers no bigger than a doorstop. A few tomb tables, box-like structures set above the ground, are scattered around the room. One next to the entrance, for a man who died in 1775, is said to represent the table used in the Last Supper.

The 6-foot ceilings are here to stay. About 10 years ago, architects examined the crypt to see if the floors could be lowered another 6 inches. When they dug down 3 inches, they found an outline of a child's grave. Further studies led to the conclusion that, instead of 137 bodies as originally thought, there were more than 1,000 buried beneath the church, in four, five, or six layers. So the ceilings remain low, with beams reducing the height significantly at some points.

Many of the larger headstones, for wealthier citizens, are remarkably well preserved. Some from the 1700s bear plain faces with somber expressions and wings on the sides. According to Lura Ellsworth, a church tour guide, these "death heads" are indicative of Puritanical style, teachings, and life at the time. Graves marked with death heads could also represent a lot of illness, scarcity of food, or severe weather during a particular period. Margaret Arnold, wife of Benedict, occupies one such grave.

Then there are the smiling skulls, which mark other large headstones from the mid-1700s. "When smiles appear on the tombstones, people may have had less illness or better growing seasons," said Ellsworth. "Also at this particular time they realized that if the soul went up to heaven , the only thing left is the skeleton." Only one grave is decorated with an angel: Sarah Whiting, described on the tombstone as the "painful mother of eight children . . . faithful, virtuous, and weary."

The biggest challenge facing the crypt is preservation. In 1879, a concrete floor was poured to protect the graves. It wasn't until 1985 that preservationists realized water was destroying the gravestones. The streets around the church have poor drainage during rainstorms, and water in the ground was getting trapped beneath the concrete. The gravestones acted as wicks, drawing the moisture out. Sandstone slowly became sand again, limestone flaked off, and marble bits fell when water crystallized on top.

In 1990, the concrete floor was removed and uncemented bricks were laid in its place. Moisture can escape between the bricks and a small amount of sand around the stone helps draw moisture out. There is a giant dehumidifier against one wall. The efforts, however, weren't enough to prevent deterioration.

Now preservationists have wrapped Japanese rice paper around some limestone bases to keep the flakings attached to the stones. They also wrapped lead sheets, which don't rust or corrode easily, around the base of larger gravestones to prevent moisture from seeping in. One sandpit shows the effects of the experimentation: A gravestone wrapped with lead is smooth and intact, while the one not wrapped is significantly darker and shows more disintegration. For now, some of the stones still appear as sharp as if they had been carved a few days ago, instead of 300 years.

Ellsworth recounted the school groups who have passed through the crypt doors in the name of research: architecture and preservation students, elementary and middle school students, journalism students researching Colonial history, and film students who wanted a dark place to practice lighting.

"Hopefully we can continue to stabilize the stones and prevent the water from doing more damage," she said. "There's a lot of history that should be preserved for educational groups and anyone curious enough to come in."

Diana Kuan, a freelance writer in New York, can be reached at

If You Go

Center Church Crypt

311 Temple St., New Haven


Free tours: Thursdays and Saturdays 11 a.m.-1 p.m, April through October. Larger groups must call for an appointment.

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