Tales from the Crypt

The International Arts & Ideas Festival starts today, and before volunteering at the Made-in-Connecticut panel, I went on a tour of the crypts of Central Church.

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The church got its name because it’s the center church of three on the New Haven Green, and one of two United Churches of Christ there.  But it was the first and only for about 100 years of New Haven’s history.  Established in 1638, the first pastor John Davenport made his first sermon on “Temptation in the Wilderness.”  I can’t really imagine what those temptations would have been.  I think most would have been focused on staying warm through the winter.

The current church is new, only 190 years old, and is the fourth meeting house for Central Church, serving not only as a church, but also a location for lectures, concerts, forums, and other public meetings.  Daniel Webster was one of the first to hold a political meeting at the church, which has had its share of notables among the congregants like Eli Whitney, Samuel F.B. Morse, and Noah Webster.

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The chandelier and Tiffany stained glass were site specific to this new building.





But what makes this place creepy fun is that it was built over the original cemetery of more than 5000, all buried in The Green. With a big rain this spring, one old tree’s roots were washed up along with the bones of several bodies!

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2013-06-15 11.01.26The earliest date that I see for someone buried below the church is 1687.

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Some of those who died before were relocated to the large cemetery a few blocks away.  In 1812, Sarah the wife of the minister was last to be buried on The Green, now part of the crypt.






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Benedict Arnold’s first wife was buried here in 1775, before she had any reason to be embarrassed about her merchant husband turned soldier then traitor.




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The crypt offers a lesson in tombstone art.  The earliest tombstones were decorated with vicious looking sculls with wings, for returning the soul to God.



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Then the scull became less scary and was shown with a crown, as a king in heaven.

The inscriptions were often elaborate, as for the “painful mother of 8” with an angel on the tombstone.  I should say so!

Some had ‘vanitas’ sayings, such as the Latin for “as you now stand, so once did I”–worth remembering that people roved among these tombstones on The Green, so that reminder was to live well.

One of the founders of Yale in New Haven (where there was free land; Yale was moved after its formation in Old Saybrook, CT) lost several children as infants, as well as two wives before marrying the woman who would outlive him.  The infants are buried together 2013-06-15 11.37.00with headstones and footstones.  Tombstone size was not connected to age of the deceased, but rather to the purse.  Some children had the largest stones and even tabletop markers–the most expensive.






With the festival today, The Green is full of life–a one-man circus, a series of concerts, food vendors, buskers, sunshine, and lots and lots of living people.  They may not know who’s just below their feet…