It's an actual cemetery, gravestones and all, in the basement of the church. That alone would make it worth the trip. But the historical caliber of folks buried there is impressive. Among them are Benedict Arnold's first wife, Margaret; New Haven Colony's first governor, Theophilus Eaton; and the family of the 19th president, Rutherford B. Hayes.
When the church (officially known as the First Church of Christ in New Haven) was built in 1813, it was over part of a burial ground on the area of the upper part of the New Haven Green. They left the remains and the gravestones in place. They're protected by the building's foundation, which serves as a crypt.
The earliest known of the 137 gravestones goes back to 1687, and the most recent is 1812. But these are only the identified remains. In the small area there are about 1,000 that have gone unmarked. Our tour guide on a recent trip, Blanche Baldwin, says some of those go back as early as the 1630s. The entire burial ground has between 5,000 to 10,000 unidentified remains.
The markers, emerging out of the brick floor, are sights in themselves. But then take a look at all the types of gravestones. Since they span a period of more that 100 years, some are easier to read than others (the church has undergone a number of restoration efforts).
Here's a grisly fact: The graves of some of the more well-off folks are marked with what's known as wolves' stones. They look like stone tables intended to keep dogs and wolves from digging up the corpses.
Although the crypt gives the church a certain cachet, Baldwin points out that it can be an inconvenience. For one thing, it doesn't leave any room in the building for an after-service coffee hour.
The tour also includes a walk-through of the church itself. Baldwin proved herself well versed not just on the people buried below but the history of the church, which can boast of such parishioners as Samuel Morse and Eli Whitney over the years.
No reason to wait until Halloween for a crypt tour; get out of the sun for an hour, and spend it with some history.
• Center Church is at 311 Temple St., New Haven. Tours are free (donations are accepted) and held Thursdays and Saturdays between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. For more information, call (203) 787-0121.