Philly Love Note: West Philly’s beautiful and historic Woodlands Cemetery

    Dear Woodlands Cemetery:

    I’m so glad I found you. I spent years wandering in less lovely spots, and you were just lurking behind those gates across from the trolley portal.

    The first time I saw you was for work. I had to locate the grave of John A. McAllister, a Philadelphia optician who left an enormous collection of Civil War-era manuscripts and ephemera to the Library Company of Philadelphia. When I walked through your gates and up the hill to your run-down-but-beautiful mansion, I was blown away by your size.

    From some vantage points, I can’t even tell I’m in the city. Your trees screen out the Superblock high-rises and most sounds, except for trains on the tracks over the back fence. And yet, you’re far from empty, and I’m not just thinking of the century and a half of graves.

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    You’re my favorite place to run. The path around your perimeter is so pleasant and well-maintained, I’m able to swallow my ego as better runners overtake me. I like barreling down the driveway near the USP fields, turning a corner and feeling like I’m in another world.

    Your stone outbuildings remind me of the colonial farm we visited when I was in third grade, and any minute I expect some lady in a stomacher and mob cap to cross my path, with a butter churn, or a wool carder, or some other 18th-century implement under her arm. Instead it’s the grounds staff, or runners, or people walking well-behaved dogs, or a small child with wide eyes and a torrent of questions.

    Running my loops, I take in your variety of tombstones. Some are small and understated, while others are grandiose and maybe even a bit pretentious. Besides the famous names buried here, I notice some oddities, like a female doctor in the 1850s, or a Confederate flag, or a large monument to a man’s wife that says her name in letters a few inches tall, but his own in characters well over a foot.

    Sometimes there’s a fresh-dug grave, or newly placed flowers, and I remember you’re an active cemetery, and not a ruin like Mount Moriah. I sympathize with those families’ loss, but you’re not a sad place; you’re full of life and community. When the Go West! Craft Fair is on your grounds, your urban oasis is filled with DIY treasures, strumming guitars, and the antics of a tiny circus. At other moments, there’s a foot race, or a doggie meet-up, or Edgar Allen Poe-themed fright night.

    You’re fun, but you’ve got a brainy side. Scholars are using an excavation on your grounds to help them understand the role you played, long ago, as a center for botany. Your greenhouse contained thousand of specimens, and your proprietor, William Hamilton, corresponded with the budding scientists of his age.

    I like you so much because you’re a slice of Philly’s rich history, but you’re not behind glass, or locked away where only a select few can see you. When I’m within your walls, I feel so proud, not just of Philly’s past, but of our future and everything we can do together. Hang on, I’ll lace up my running shoes and see you in a few.

    Love,Edith Mulhern

    Edith Mulhern, born in the suburbs of Philadelphia, now lives in Walnut Hill in West Philly and works for an arts and culture non-profit.

    This essay was originally published on the blog Philly Love Notes.

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