How a Cemetery Ends Up Underground - Atlas Obscura
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How a Cemetery Ends Up Underground

Crypt at Center Church on the Green (all photographs by the author)

There’s no shortage of churches with crypts. However, while these are on the whole designed with the building, there’s one place where something much more unusual happened: the church was built right over a cemetery which it consumed as its crypt.

The Crypt at Center Church on the Green in New Haven, Connecticut, is situated among three churches on the New Haven Green, a grassy area downtown that was part of colonist John Brockett’s Puritan city planning for an ideal spiritual city. The Green was given the right dimensions to hold 144,000 people — the number they believed would be saved in the Second Coming of Christ. Judgment Day still hasn’t arrived, and an economic downturn of recent years makes this area less divine and more downtrodden. But go back to the 17th century, and it was bustling, including as a burial ground.

Yet in true Poltergeist-fashion, when in the 1820s the graveyard was relocated to the new Grove Street Cemetery, only the headstones were moved. By some estimates there are between 5,000 to 10,000 souls still buried below the Green, although one was disturbed during 2012’s Hurricane Sandy when a tree was dislodged from the ground, and a skeleton was found coiled in the roots. Specifically, a skull was spotted just before Halloween with its jaw swung open as if in a silent howl, while a spine and rib cage remained attached.

This is all to say that the Center Church on the Green crypt is just a section of a secret necropolis that’s mostly forgotten. Recently the New York Obscura Society visited the crypt as part of our road trip to New Haven. Entering the church, you see a blazing white interior with fascinating historic details like the pew used by Eli Whitney. Marble engravings above the entrance hint at something more, reading: “this edifice covers the remains of the persons whose names are inscribed upon these tablets.”

Take a creaking, narrow staircase downstairs, and you’re suddenly in a colonial cemetery, the 137 gravestones still in their original places, the ceiling low above your head. In a curious decision, when the church was built around 1814, it was held up on pillars above this cemetery and then dirt packed in around it to make it even with the Green. Headstones carved with skulls and flying souls are embedded in a brick floor — added in 1990 to replace a concrete floor that was causing moisture issues, which had early in the 20th century been poured over the dirt. The oldest is from 1687, the latest is from 1812. There are a few wolf stones crowding the room, which are rectangular tombs flat on the ground for protecting shallow graves from disturbance (including wolves). And the cemetery does seem packed to its top soil with hundreds of remains. Reportedly, when in recent years the church tried to lower the floor a bit, it was just three inches down that a child’s grave was revealed.

The Center Church on the Green is believed to be the only church constructed right on top of a colonial cemetery, and remains a quiet reminder on the Green that this public space is also a mass grave. From April to October on Thursdays to Saturdays, there are free tours of the crypt. You can also find some of the stories of the graves at the Tales from the Crypt blog kept by the Center Church Crypt, which also offers morbid facts of the week on their Facebook.

All this month we’re celebrating 31 Days of Halloween with real tales of the macabre and strange. For even more, check out our spooky stories from 2011 and 2013.