Celebrating 175 years at Laurel Hill Cemetery

Just after dusk, men and women dressed in black scurried past graves and monuments, traveling deeper into the West Laurel Hill Cemetery in East Falls. They were guided inward to the Conservatory, following trails of balloons festively floating above headstones and mausoleums.

Clearly, this was no funeral.

It was a “birthday party”, celebrating 175 years since Laurel Hill Cemetery was founded.

Seventy thousand people, who were once alive, rested beneath partygoers, employees and friends of Laurel Hill, some of whom wore “period attire” dating back to 1836.

Howard Serlick, a Captain in the US Navy, wore an authentic formal uniform that was issued between 1881-1921 (what the military calls “service dress blue”) while catching up with another guest, Kerry Bryan.

After researching her role in historical archives and the cemetery’s online burial records, Bryan came dressed as Elizabeth Hutter, a Philadelphia activist who was interred June 20, 1895.

“She died of old age,” Bryan explains.

“Yeah, real old age,” Serlick reminds everyone.

More than a hundred people attended the anniversary celebration, which featured a slideshow of historical maps and drawings of the cemetery, a raffle, a birthday cake, and a champagne toast.

Wilson Smith, a descendent of co-founder John Jay Smith and current chairman of the board, addressed the crowd with pride.

“We are all stewards of the Laurel Hill Legacy,” Smith said. 

Gwen Kaminski has worked at the cemetery for five years and is the Director of Development and Programs. In her toast, she focused on her commitment to passing on a Philadelphia legacy. “We spend our days at Laurel Hill working to fulfill the mission that was passed on by our founders, to preserve our past and to perpetuate the memory of our dead.”

Honoring a National Historic Landmark 

Laurel Hill Cemetery is the second oldest rural cemetery in the nation, and in 1998 it became the first to be recognized as a National Historical Landmark.

Founded in 1838, it preceded most large urban parks such as Fairmount Park, and was a popular destination for Philadelphians getting away from the city. It has expanded to 78-acres since then, and extends into East Falls as the East Laurel Hill Cemetery.

Bill Doran has worked for Laurel Hill over the last quarter century and describes his job as “an honor.”

“I get a sense of pleasure helping families that come through the gates at they’re time of need,” Doran said. 

“When we were built we were three and a half miles outside the city. Now we’re in the city,” he added.

The cemetery has grown considerably over 175 years and constant upkeep is required to preserve its landmark status.

Renovations and remodeling

Laurel Hill has big plans for restoration in 2011.

In addition to the daily task of burying newcomers and restoring 500 antique headstones per year, the cemetery plans to plant 175 new trees, build two new benches overlooking the Schuylkill River, fix original fences and remodel the Medallion garden, which is the oldest part of the property.

The Medallion garden is the center of the cemetery, where the first burial took place on Oct. 21, 1836.

This autumn, the cemetery will host a “Day of the Dead” party, on the exact day that Mrs Carlisle was buried. The annual “Gravedigger’s Ball” is planned for the end of October.

Gwen Kaminski hopes the cemetery will regain the same popularity it had in the 19th century.

In the days before urban parks, cemeteries were considered the ideal place for an outdoor day trip.

“In 1836 and in decades after, we were one of the top tourist attractions in the United States,” she said. 

Today, Kaminski encourages guests to ride bikes, picnic, or walk their dogs throughout the grounds.

With 65 tours and workshops led throughout the year by local historians and professors, there is still much to discover. Titles of events include “Til Death Do Us Part: The Love Stories of Laurel Hill” and “From Able-Bodied to Disembodied: The Athletes at Rest in Laurel Hill”. They get spookier as Halloween approaches with “Sinners, Scandals, and Suicides” in October.

A place for the dead and the living

Kaminski explains one of her goals as redefining what a cemetery is and what it can be for people of the twenty first century, “for not only the dead, but for the living.”

The most popular grave, Kaminski says, is of General George Meade, who won the Battle of Gettysburg altering the course of the Civil War.

In more recent memory, Phillies’ announcer Harry Kalas, was buried beneath a stone carving of a microphone and four seats from Veteran Stadium. The cemetery has also set up a museum of several of Kalas’ famed possessions.

Laurel Hill seeks to be (in the words of their pamphlet) “a place of mourning and recreation.” At first, this mission seems contradictory, until one understands that the cemetery caters to the needs of all visitors and residents, both dead and alive. 

Many of those living guests could relate to another pamphlet that read “In 2011, as in 1836, there exist few better places to enjoy life – or death – than Laurel Hill Cemetery.”

It’s a motto that was reason enough for celebration and planning for the next 175 years. 

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