Laurel Hill Cemetery

As a caretaker and tour guide of an historic home in Fairmount Park along the Schuylkill River, we’re often reminded about where famous Philadelphians were born, lived and made history. In the colonial period of Philadelphia, a majority of these events would likely have happened along the Delaware River in what is now called Old City Philadlephia. Of course an exception to this is the country home for those had the means, and these were often properties purchased in the later half of  a person’s career. And when these famous Philadelphians such as John Bartram, Benjamin Franklin and David Rittenhouse died, they had to be buried somewhere, and this piece of history often seems to take a backseat over the other biographical facts. Back at Fairmount Park where the Schuylkill divides the park into East and West, another historic outdoor space addressing this occurrence lies upriver on the east banks: Laurel Hill Cemetery. So yes, this post is about Laurel Hill Cemetery, but its also import to explain how cemeteries have evolved in American over the past centuries.

Cemeteries have a rather odd history in their relationship to living humans and how they interact with the landscape. Its amazing to think that cemeteries built as part of the rural cemetery movement or City Beautiful movement were designed as a pleasure park for people to receive clean air and escape the urban dangers of the the impending industrial revolution. But somehow along the way, whether to due to wars, patterns of development, or changes in perception to death, we now view cemeteries [at least in American] as quiet places that should only be visited to pay respects to loved ones. Memorial Park cemeteries designed in the 20th century became more purpose built as a response to these sentiments, with boring grid systems, cookie cutter blocks of stone, and segregated neighborhoods dividing the Jews, Catholics, and other groups.  These spaces were suddenly not an attractive place to stroll without the undulating paths and desirable topography and horticulture beauty seen in previous properties. The good news is that cemeteries are “cool” again all over the country as citizens are starting to value all forms open space, bring their hobbies into the spaces [community gardening, beekeeping, sugaring etc], honor local history, and break [or at least celebrate] the sinister stigma of cemeteries for the better. This new age of cemeteries can likely be tied to the need for fundraising of these properties to repair and maintain facilities and to pursue capital projects. In Philadelphia, Laurel Hill speaks to this trend, and I’ll also mention The Woodlands Cemetery in West Philadelphia as another champion of this movement.

Now, Back to Laurel Hill. Yes, famous Philadelphians are buried here. The list includes David Ritenhouse, Frank Furness, Gen. George Gordon Meade, Titian Peale, and tons of other famous people who likely have a street named after them somewhere. But to me, the interesting history here is how Laurel Hill is one of the founders of the rural cemetery movement. Founded in 1836 by John Jay Smith, he was a librarian and editor with interests in horticulture and real estate. Until then the best burial option was Philadelphia churchyards and along with other wealthy citizens they decided to create a rural garden cemetery.  It was to be built as a haven from urban expansion and a respite from the increasingly industrialized city center. The space was designed by Scottish-American architect John Notman, and he brought forth new landscape ideas and burial concepts that became a model for the rural cemetery movement.

Now for a few of my site visit observations and highlights:

  1. I learned on the self guided tour that to increase its cachet, the cemetery had the remains of several famous Revolutionary War heroes moved to Laurel Hill. This included Continental Congress secretary Charles Thomson; Declaration of Independence signer Thomas McKean; Philadelphia war veteran and shipbuilder Jehu Eyre; Hugh Mercer, hero of the Battle of Princeton; and David Rittenhouse, first director of the U.S. Mint.
  2. The views are excellent! The undulating landscape, in concert with the mature trees, river backdrop and clean stone lines of the tombstone sculpture creates excellent visual compositions. I enjoyed this space as a sculpture park alone.
  3. An arboretum is in the works. This site has many heritage trees and significant specimen trees and they are currently working toward labeling and tagging these assets.
  4. Did i mention Frank Furness is buried here? I have not been able to find his grave yet, but i’ll add that i’m trying to find without the help of maps to make for a nice surprise in the future. If you don’t know Furness, he had a major impact in PA and regionally for architecture in the Victorian era.
  5. A cool grave that i did stumble upon by accident was the Bok family site. Many of Edward Bok’s [Bok Tower Gardens in Florida] relatives are buried here.

I’ll add that the cemetery has a healthy friends group and recently completed a fine entrance from Kelly Drive for those who are running the Schuylkill Trail. Also great events included haunted tours and other themed tours. Worth a visit!

Check out my site photos here


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