Cemetery of the Week #168: the New Haven Crypt

IMG_0181The New Haven Crypt
Center Church on the Green
250 Temple Street
New Haven, Connecticut 06511
Founded: late 1600s
Closed: 1821
Size: small
Number of interments: an estimated 1,000 people are buried here
Tours: can be scheduled at (203) 787-0121.

Originally people in New Haven, Connecticut were buried in the green in the center of town. The space started to be used as a burial ground by settlers of the New Haven Colony in the 1600s. Estimates range from 5-10,000 people were buried there before 1821, when the Grove Street Cemetery opened nearby.  At that point, headstones were moved to the new cemetery, but the bodies were left in place below the sod in the Green.

The original First Church of Christ in New Haven was built on a corner of the Green in 1639.  It was rebuilt twice in the same place, but when the congregation voted to expand their meeting house, there was no open space on the Green.  Instead, they decided to build on pilings above part of the graveyard on the Green. Construction of Center Church began in 1812 and was completed in 1814.

IMG_0137The graves beneath the church were left in their original places and enclosed in what’s called a crypt, even though it stands at ground level.  The surviving stones date from 1687 to 1812 and have been called the “last remaining evidence on the New Haven Green of the first colonists who settled here to establish a new life in America.”

IMG_0132An estimated 1000 people (or perhaps more) are buried beneath the church. Plaques inside the church’s foyer list names and death dates of people known to be buried in the crypt. In those days, it was common for a family to reuse the same name for a child over and over in the same generation until one of them finally survived to adulthood.

The first map of the crypt was made by Henry Trowbridge in 1880. 139 gravestones survive inside the crypt, some of which have been rendered illegible by time. The oldest stone marks the grave of Sarah Rutherford Trowbridge, who died in 1687.

Originally the floor of the crypt was dirt, which was replaced by concrete as a way to control the damp. In 1985, they (who?) realized that the concrete was too successful in trapping moisture beneath it. The gravestones were acting as wicks, pulling the moisture upward, which was leading to degradation of the stone.  In 1990, the concrete was broken up and removed by being passed though the little windows to the Green outside. Walkways of unmortared bricks were laid between the stones, allowing them to breathe.


The ceiling is low down there. At one point there was talk of lowering the floor so there would be more room, but the bodies are not actually buried very deeply.  In the end, the decision was made to leave the skeletons in place. The crypt is plenty bright enough, but it did make me feel slightly claustrophobic when all our tour group gathered in one area.

Among those buried here include Benedict Arnold’s first wife, Margaret; the family of President Rutherford B. Hayes; Reverend James Pierpont, a founder of Yale College, and many more. One of the stones remembers Sarah Whiting, “the painful mother of eight children, of whom six survive.” When she died in 1726, she was called “fruitful, virtuous, and weary.”

The New Haven Crypt Association preserves the site, trains volunteers as tour guides, and offers public tours most Saturdays from April to October from 11 am to 1 pm.

Outside the church is a cenotaph in honor of Theophilus Eaton, first governor of the New Haven Colony, who served for 19 years. He was also a founder of the First Church of Christ, from which Center Church derived, and is buried beneath the church’s foundation. The large marble plaque was placed on the church by the city when the gravestones were removed from the Green.

IMG_0179In what’s left of the churchyard, there are also plaques for General Edward Whalley and Goffe, two “regicides” who fled to New Haven to escape execution. Whalley and William Goffe signed the death warrant for King Charles I during the English Civil War. A tall monument remembers John Dixwell, one of the Regicide Judges, who settled in New Haven in 1665 under an assumed name.

Useful links:

A history of the Crypt on the Center Church site: http://centerchurchonthegreen.org/history/crypt/

Tales from the Crypt: https://ctcryptkeeper.wordpress.com/

Facebook page of the New Haven Crypt Association: https://www.facebook.com/newhavencrypt/

The Findagrave page: https://www.findagrave.com/cemetery/1069578/center-church-on-the-green-churchyard

I meant to say that I know of at least one other church built above an earlier graveyard in the US. The graveyard where Edgar Allan Poe is buried in Baltimore has a church up on piers above the graves:  https://cemeterytravel.com/2013/10/09/cemetery-of-the-week-110-westminster-hall-burying-ground/

About Loren Rhoads

I'm co-author of a series about a succubus and her angel. Angelus Rose, the final book, came out in February 2020. I am the editor of Tales for the Camp Fire: An Anthology Benefiting Wildfire Relief. I'm also author of 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die and Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel--and a space opera trilogy.
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13 Responses to Cemetery of the Week #168: the New Haven Crypt

  1. Caron Sullivan says:

    Hi Loren, Some if my ancestors are there. Any idea where there is a list of people there? Also, we were at Newgrange today!

    Best, Caron Sullivan


    • Loren Rhoads says:

      Hi Caron! I saw you’d gone to Ireland. So envious!

      You could check Findagrave, but it wasn’t complete as far as I could tell from my little poking around. I’d get in touch with the New Haven Crypt Association and ask if they have any information.

      Bon voyage!

  2. I can see why Sarah Whiting was weary!

  3. Rachelle M says:

    This is so cool and interesting! I was debating whether or not I could add New Haven to my trip next month, but I just don’t have the time. And even if I did I would not be there on the weekend for a tour. Still, definitely a place I would like to visit someday.

    • Loren Rhoads says:

      It was really fascinating. New Haven is worth making a trip to another time, if you get the chance. The Grove Street Cemetery is nearby. It’s full of beautiful artwork and unusual grave markers. That will be a Cemetery of the Week one of these days.

      • Rachelle M says:

        Oh, this is so difficult! I have 9 full days for Boston and New York and points in between (I was going to add Philadelphia too, but realized I had more than enough already). I had seriously contemplated driving from Boston to New York and stopping at interesting cemeteries along the way in RI and CT, but even then it would have been a rush. The other thing I had to remind myself of, was that even though I love visiting cemeteries, if that’s all I do on a trip, even I can get burned out on them. So I need time to visit other places too, just to have some balance. Hopefully I can get back to the States in the next year or two to visit some more iconic cemeteries there.

  4. J.P. Choquette says:

    Another informative post–thank you! I absolutely had no idea about this:
    “In those days, it was common for a family to reuse the same name for a child over and over in the same generation until one of them finally survived to adulthood.”
    That’s so sad! I would hate to be “J.P. #4.” Do you know why this was done? Great photos–I’ve never seen a crypt under a church so that too, was new for me.

    • Loren Rhoads says:

      My guess is that the sequential children were named for an ancestor, which is why the family was so set on using the name and would keep recycling it in the same generation. That’s opposed to some places in the US where death in infancy was so common that children weren’t named at all until their first birthdays, which is why you sometimes see graves that simply say “Infant child” but list lifetimes in months and days.

      • J.P. Choquette says:

        That makes sense. Thanks for clarifying, Lauren. I did know that about the infant/1st birthday but had forgotten.

  5. Pingback: Cemetery of the Week #169: Grove Street Cemetery | Cemetery Travel: Your Take-along Guide to Graves & Graveyards Around the World

  6. Oh my gosh, the first time I did an Arts & Ideas week tour of the crypt under the church on the green, I was stunned. It’s so unique and unexpected! Remember a few years ago when a storm toppled a tree on the green in New Haven, and they found skeletons tangled in the upturned roots? Such a rich history.

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