Laurel Hill continues Fourth Friday series with ‘Hot Spots and Storied Plots’ gravesite tour

Standing in front of the family plot of John Trenwith, Laurel Hill Cemetery tour guide Jeff Wiernik made an observation about Victorian-era morays, as evinced by the solitary presence of Mr. Trenwith’s likeness on his gravestone.

“Where’s his wife?” he asked. “Doesn’t she get a notice?”

Turning his attention to the side of the stone memorial, he spotted the name of Trenwith’s wife, and deadpanned, “We happen to mention Julia in passing…”

Wiernik then suggested that the offer of eternal rest within a noted family’s plot could be a tempting offer for the would-be bride in the 19th Century.

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“Marry me and we’ll bury you in the family plot,” he offered. “I don’t know if it’s true, but it’s a good story.”

‘Hot Spots and Storied Plots’

Wiernik’s observations and anecdotes are part of Laurel Hill Cemetery’s new “Hot Spots and Storied Plots,” a guided walking-tour and informative overview of Laurel Hill’s 11,000 family plots and the true stories – or colorful rumors – of the approximately 150,000 “residents” within.

It’s among the newest features of the cemetery’s Fourth Friday daytime tour series, which began in January 2012.

In the past, said Gwen Kaminski of Laurel Hill, resources were such that programming ventures were typically relegated to nights and weekends. However, in an effort to open up the cemetery to new audiences, Laurel Hill Cemetery is now offering guided, interpretive tours during the day. This augments a long-standing free admission policy on the grounds.

Since the program’s inception earlier this year, Kaminsky said attendance and the response of visitors exceeded their expectations, and that programming will continue to grow in coming years.

A tour guide’s quest for knowledge 

The backbone of the Hot Spots series consists of volunteer guides like Wiernik. The Center City-resident has led tours at the cemetery for almost three years and, while he admits that he can’t answer every question, his quest for knowledge continues to grow.

“Every time I go out,” he said, “I see something that sparks my curiosity to go back and do more research.”

Among the more enjoyable aspects of the work for Wiernik is discovering and interpreting the Victorian-era symbolism contained in many of the site’s 19th Century plots. There are anchors for bravery and ivy for everlasting life, and other small details worked into the depictions that relate the life of the interred.

Atop the marker of Robert Stewart is a broken vase, which can serve as an indicator of a life cut short said Wiernik, who also intimated that foul play may have been a factor in Stewart’s demise.

Or take the design details incorporated into the markers on the Warner family plot, which includes a coffin with a wing emerging from its partially-opened lid.

“It means he’s already on his way to heaven,” said Wiernik, who also pointed out that lion’s head and feet that adorn the coffin are indicative of a very powerful family.

Among latter day – and, perhaps, less subtle – symbols found on the site is the grave of legendary Phillies broadcaster Harry Kalas, who died in 2009.

His plot includes four blue bleachers from Veterans Stadium, turf from the field, and atop his marker – an oversized granite microphone.

“There was some debate that it wasn’t dignified,” said Wiernik of the memorial, “but it’s what his life was.”

In addition, it’s a draw for the cemetery. Wiernik observed that the internment of the famous is a long-standing marketing ploy for graveyards, noting that there remain 2,500 “active” plots on the site at present.

“Come and be buried with a signer of the Declaration of Independence,” remarked Wiernik, “and also be buried with the most famous Phillie!”

A community treasure 

It was Kalas’ grave that originally drew Rich Wilhelm, an editor for a tech magazine, to the cemetery from Phoenixville.

He liked it so much, that he signed on as a tour guide. As part of his training, he attended a one-day seminar in March, and apprentices on three additional tours – Friday marked his third and final such apprenticing. At the end of this process, guides take friends and family out on an invitation-only tour.

An aficionado of historical cemeteries and presidential burial sites, Wilhelm had driven past Laurel Hill on Kelly Drive plenty of times, but until this year, had never visited.

“I was kind of ashamed I hadn’t set foot in here,” he said.

Like many of the visitors, Wilhelm listened intently as Wiernik shared some of his favorite – and Laurel Hill Cemetery’s most unique – gravesites.

Tied for the Wiernik’s favor are two markers along the cemetery’s eastern boundary. The first is entitled “Aspiration,” and was designed by artist Harriet Whitney Frishmuth for the Berwind family. Its depiction of a woman reaching to the heavens is, incidentally, one of two bare-chested female figurines on the grounds.

The second, a less-heroic marker enclosed in a hedge, was designed for Conway Milgrim, who died in 1998. Wiernik noted that the map featured on the stone was designed to chronicle the emigration of Milgrim’s family from Poland, and includes tile work from Milanese artists who were brought over to design and install the graphic.

“It’s very unique and really quite pretty,” said Wiernik.

From the Tiffany glass of Millionaire’s Row to the natural simplicity of a gravestone around which a tree grew, there are plenty of hidden treasures to keep visitors like Mary Phalan of Roxborough coming time and time again.

As a genealogy buff, she said she does a lot of “poring-through” the Pennsylvania cemeteries of her ancestors – in fact, she too has family interred in a Laurel Hill mausoleum.

“I come at least once a month,” she said, whether it’s to hang out or ride her bike. And, even though she had a brand new membership card effective Friday, she maintained, “I’ve been coming for years.”

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