Many people understandably regard cemeteries as uncomfortable and sometimes creepy places. For me, they have always been places that I can go to find deep peace and contemplation. There is something immensely comforting to me about visiting a “city of the dead” and being among the graves of those who have lived and struggled before me, with the assurance that with their headstones their lives are not forgotten but rather memorialized in stones that will withstand the test of time. Especially since the pandemic became our reality, many of Philadelphia’s historic cemeteries became a refuge for those who wished to be outside during such a terrible time. I am one of those people, and I want to celebrate the graveyards that have brought so much comfort to so many over the past two years. When most of these cemeteries were established, they were designed almost as parks for folks to visit, perhaps with a picnic lunch, enjoying their lives amongst beautiful trees and flowers while paying tribute to those who were gone. This is something that came unexpectedly into fashion again during the height of the pandemic, and for me, personally, it became a way for me to center myself and put current world events into context.
THE WOODLANDS (4000 Woodland Avenue)
The Woodlands began as the estate of William Hamilton, the great-grandson of Andrew Hamilton, who made the term “Philadelphia lawyer” famous. Aside from building a grand mansion, which still exists today, Hamilton was also a botanist who created landscaped gardens around his property that, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, were “the only rival I have known in America to what may be seen in England.” After William Hamilton died in 1813, his descendants sold off most of the estate, but in 1840 the Woodlands Cemetery Company purchased the remaining 92 acres with the intent of turning it into a rural cemetery so that “the beautiful landscape and scenery…may be perpetually preserved.” Victorians flocked to the Woodlands cemetery, as many thousands do every year in the twenty-first century. The Woodlands offers digital tours on its website, so that you can walk through this idyllic haven and learn about the lives of some of its most notable permanent residents. The Woodlands also has a Grave Gardeners program, where people can volunteer to “adopt a grave,” planting Victorian-era flowers and plants to beautify the cemetery and pay tribute to the dead. The Woodlands, open every day from dawn till dusk, is a West Philly paradise, the perfect place for you to exercise and also to rest among its stones and trees. www.woodlandsphila.org
LAUREL HILL CEMETERY (3822 Ridge Avenue)
Laurel Hill Cemetery is justifiably famous. It was the second “rural cemetery” constructed in the United States, preceded only by Mount Auburn Cemetery in Boston. Founded in 1836, Laurel Hill comprises 78 acres of land and is home to more than 33,000 graves. Unlike The Woodlands, which you can tour the entirety of within a few hours, you could spend a day walking through the beautiful landscape of Laurel Hill Cemetery and not come near to seeing it all. That is part of its immense historic appeal – it is a place that invites you to return to it again and again, and it is guaranteed that on each visit you will encounter pieces of this city of the dead you have never seen before.
Laurel Hill has always been a mecca for visitors seeking a peaceful respite from the outside world. As early as 1848, it was reported that nearly 30,000 people had visited within that year alone. By 1860, as many as 140,000 people were annual visitors. It is easy to see why. Laurel Hill Cemetery is an urban landscape of unqualified beauty and contains gravestones, monuments and mausoleums that are nothing less than great works of art. Buried here are numerous famous names from both Philadelphia and United States history, as well as more popular contemporary figures such as Harry Kalas, the radio broadcaster for the Philadelphia Phillies who boasts four seats from Veteran’s Stadium by his headstone. Laurel Hill Cemetery also offers a robust program of tours and special events throughout the year. Its gates are open to all visitors year-round, and more information can be found at www.thelaurelhillcemetery.org
MOUNT MORIAH CEMETERY (6201 Kingsessing Avenue)
Also located in West Philadelphia, Mount Moriah Cemetery is special. Established in 1855, Mount Moriah, encompassing 200 acres and 150,000 graves, is the largest cemetery in the city of Philadelphia. Unlike The Woodlands and Laurel Hill, Mount Moriah in its earliest history welcomed the burials of African Americans and Jewish Americans within its hallowed ground. In 1856, the remains of Betsy Ross and her third husband John Claypoole were moved to Mount Moriah, and then excavated again in 1976 to what is now known as the Betsy Ross House in Old City for the bicentennial celebrations in Philadelphia. In 2004, the last member of the Cemetery Association died, leaving Mount Moriah with no owner, and for nearly a decade this historic graveyard was abandoned, with nature beginning to reclaim the land and many of the graves falling into serious decay and neglect. Fortunately, in 2011 the Friends of Mount Moriah organization was formed. Their mission is “to make the grounds accessible for families to safely visit their loved ones while creating a place for people to connect with nature, take a walk, ride bikes, bird watch, and find serenity in the middle of a densely urban environment.” They have done extraordinary restoration work and welcome volunteers, and you can learn more at www.friendsofmountmoriahcemetery.org
If you are looking for a respite from Philly city life or the tumultuous events of the world at large, I highly recommend giving these places a visit. You’ll find serenity and beauty (and incredible history) that will surprise you. Best of all, you can enjoy all these places for free.