“I would not bury the good, the beloved, upon the bleak and desolate sandplain, where no tree can cast its shade and no flower blossom: I would rather lay them beneath the boughs of the goodly cedar-trees, which of old were dedicated to a sacred use in building a temple to the Lord, and which speak a prayer for perpetual remembrance in their foliage of unfading green.” - Hiram Willey, New London mayor, from a speech delivered at the consecration of Cedar Grove Cemetery, 1851.
In her venerable and still often-consulted 1852 “History of New London,” Frances Manwaring Caulkins noted that a group of citizens formed a Cemetery Association in the city in 1850. The association’s purpose was to establish a rural cemetery where the remains of residents would be secure from ever being disturbed from their eternal resting places.
“This association purchased a tract of forty-five acres of land, about a mile west of the city, mostly covered with cedars,” Caulkins wrote.
Just a year after the cemetery association was formed, Cedar Grove Cemetery was consecrated in October 1851. Caulkins herself, along with numerous city notables, attended the event that officially grouped New London with other prosperous cities and towns in establishing a park-like, professionally planned and landscaped cemetery that not only provided a bucolic and scenic final resting place for its citizens, but also a green and peaceful oasis from which any resident could escape the noise and smells of urban life and enjoy some majestic sculpture in a natural setting.
The rural cemetery movement began earlier in the 19th century, as residents of increasingly industrialized cities became more concerned about the overcrowded and unsanitary nature of many churchyard burial grounds. Attitudes about death also were shifting as 19th century citizens aimed for messages of hope and peace in their burial traditions, even as pandemics, brutal wars and waves of diseases kept death a much more common occurrence than it would be for later generations. These citizens looked for suitable burial grounds far enough outside of city centers to remove health hazards, but close enough to be accessible.
Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which was consecrated in 1831, is generally recognized as the first American burial ground of the rural cemetery movement.
In the mid-19th century, New London was riding a wave of prosperity produced by the whaling industry. Whaling brought fabulous wealth to a number of New London’s whaling agents, ship owners and whaling captains. They built majestic homes, established public institutions such as the Public Library of New London, and developed parks that served as centerpieces for their ornate houses.
It was in this booming economic era that Cedar Grove Cemetery was established. The private, non-sectarian association hired Dr. Horatio Stone, a sculptor, physician and writer who also dabbled in landscape design, to design the cemetery. In 1849, Stone had designed Bridgeport’s Mountain Grove Cemetery on land purchased by the famous showman P.T. Barnum. Stone also laid out Pittsfield Cemetery in Pittsfield, Massachusetts in 1850, before turning his talents to New London’s Cedar Grove. Stone is best known today for three sculptures he created for the U.S. Capitol. They depict Alexander Hamilton, John Hancock and Edward Dickinson Baker.
On Oct. 8, 1851, Cedar Grove was consecrated in ceremonies that featured a procession starting at the courthouse downtown and proceeding up the new road to the cemetery. Led by the city’s mayor and the president of the cemetery association, the procession included firefighters, Masons, the Sons of Temperance, clergy, teachers, selectmen and others. The ceremony included speeches by local notables and a hymn sung by Frances Manwaring Caulkins.
“Never have we been called upon to celebrate an event of higher or more solemn interest to this community or one better calculated to enlist the feelings and excite the finer impulses of our nature,” the New London Daily Chronicle reported five days before the event.
A little more than a month after the cemetery was consecrated, the first burial there was conducted on Nov. 23 - that of Joseph C. Sistare. Many local families also began moving the remains of their loved ones from the crowded burial grounds at the Ye Antientist Burial Ground and a now-defunct cemetery that was at the site of Williams Memorial Park at Broad and Hempstead streets.
Enlarged through the years, the non-sectarian Cedar Grove Cemetery is overseen by an association of private citizens. It now encompasses some 78 acres of land and is the final resting place of thousands of local residents, including a governor, Civil War veterans, U.S. senators and representatives, business leaders and many other notables.