Laurel Hill tour mixes tales of true love with scandal

Everyone appreciates a good love story—but most people think of “The Notebook” or “Romeo and Juliet” as a good source for romance, not necessarily a cemetery. 

But Laurel Hill’s director of development and programs Gwen Kaminski thought otherwise when she heard the love story of one “resident” of the East Falls burial ground. 

Kaminski said she was inspired to create the “Til Death Do Us Part” tour for Valentine’s Day about five years ago when she learned the unusual story of Mary Peterson.

When Peterson died in 1912, she requested that her heart be removed and buried at Laurel Hill beside her first husband, Thomas Howard Peterson. Thomas died young after he drowned in 1881. The rest of Mary Peterson’s remains were buried at a different cemetery next to her second husband.

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“It was a very telling gesture,” said Kaminski. “I found her story so moving that she would make this request.”

75,000 stories 

Kaminski said Peterson’s odd burial request got her thinking about how love carries through after death. So she looked into the personal lives of others buried at Laurel Hill.

“There are 75,000 people [buried at Laurel Hill] and 75,000 stories,” she said. “[Most tours are typically] very much about the history, facts and figures and the accomplishments of the notable men and women that are buried here.”

Laurel Hill’s Valentine’s tour, Kaminski said, is the only tour that showcases the private lives of those buried at Laurel Hill.

But the tour isn’t just head-over-heels, undying love stories, like that of Peterson. There are also scandals involving infidelity which results in a divorce and a pregnancy, a murder as penalty for a man who took the virginity of another man’s sister and a belittling relationship that resulted in the publishing of several embarrassing love letters.

“My whole point wasn’t to only tell that classic love story,” Kaminski said. “Not all love stories end happily. But that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to be told and that they’re not entertaining.”

She added: “Love is a complicated thing.”

Reaction and response 

Kristin Fluehr, who was one of about 30 attending the tour Saturday, said she felt the variation in love stories made the tour more interesting.

Fluehr has been on other Laurel Hill tours before, but said the Valentine’s tour is her favorite.

“[Laurel Hill] is my favorite place in Philadelphia,” she said. “I thought [the tour included] really cool stories about the whole undying love concept.”

Tim Capella, Fluehr’s boyfriend of a year and a half, said that although he doesn’t have the fascination with cemeteries that Fluehr does, he was pleasantly surprised by the tour.

“There’s a lot more of Philadelphia history than it being just about love,” he said. “We try to plan our trips around history.”

Capella said he was particularly interested by the love story between Harry Kalas and the city of Philadelphia.

Meanwhile, Kristy Detwiler and Kailee Day, who drove 45 minutes to spend their first Valentine’s Day together at Laurel Hill, said their favorite love story was that of Peterson.

“It’s a way of saying your heart always belongs to your first love,” said Day.

Keeping the stories alive 

When asked whether the tour was a rather morbid take on Valentine’s Day, the couple disagreed.

“It’s not morbid, it’s about events and history,” she said.

East Falls residents Ted and Patty Cheek said the same.

“It’s amazing,” said Ted. “It’s just like a book. There are so many stories.”

When asked whether stories pry too much into the lives of the dead, Kaminski said she thinks that should be expected when one is buried in Laurel Hill. Because to the cemetery, it’s all about history.

“Here at Laurel Hill the point is just to keep the stories of people who are buried here alive,” she said.

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