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The Basement Cemetery of The New Haven Green Church

The New Haven Green in downtown New Haven, a city in Connecticut, USA, is a small park of about 16 acres. Being surrounded by buildings of the Yale University, courthouses, the New Haven Free Public Library and numerous municipal and commercial structures, the park stays typically busy throughout the day. During public events such as classical music and jazz concerts, and art festivals, which the Green regularly holds, the crowd can swell to hundreds of thousands. For some who are aware of the park’s legacy, this is somewhat disturbingly morbid.

The Green was built in 1638 and was originally conceived as a trade center and town square, and was in fact known as "the marketplace". This common land at the heart of the thriving commercial port was used for various purposes. It was the site of the first meetinghouse. It contained the town's watch house, the jail, and the first school. The Green also held a succession of statehouses and was used as parade grounds for the New Haven militia. Unbelievably, there was still room left in the Green to bury people.

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Photo credit: centerchurchonthegreen.org

For the first 150 years of New Haven’s existence, the Green was used as the main burial grounds for the residents of the community. But when the grounds started to become much too cluttered with gravestones the practice was stopped and a new burial ground was established. The last burial took place in 1821.

Soon after, many of the headstones on the Green were removed and relocated to the new cemetery—the Grove Street Cemetery, located two blocks away adjacent to the Yale University campus—for preservation. But the remains themselves were not moved. In the mid-1800s, in an effort to reclaim the land, several feet of dirt was spread over the graves hiding nearly all evidence of the thousands of people buried there—except one little area.

Over this small portion of the town’s burial ground, The First Church of Christ, also known as the Center Church, was erected in 1812-14. In order not to disturb the graves of some of New Haven’s most historical figures, the church was elevated and a basement was created where the remains and gravestones could stay in their original positions. When the rest of the Green was filled with earth, the church’s basement was all that remained of the former cemetery.

A total of 137 graves have been identified inside this small enclosed space, but there is more down below in multiple layers. Some estimate that there could be up to 1,000 buried under the church in four, five, or six layers. Elsewhere, around the Green and underneath visitor’s feet, an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 people remain buried in unmarked graves.

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The New Haven Green. Photo credit: Journal Register Co.

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Photo credit: centerchurchonthegreen.org

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Photo credit: centerchurchonthegreen.org

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The Center Church on the Green. Photo credit: Robert Fulton III/Library of Congress

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