Learning from the Dead: Laurel Hill Cemetery

Cemetery tours include information about those buried at Laurel Hill on Ridge Avenue.
Laurel Hill Cemetery on Ridge Avenue brings the dead to life--or at least their stories.

On Ridge Avenue—right before Strawberry Mansion hastily transforms into East Falls—on 78 acres of lush, tree-filled and flower-spotted land, sits the home of many important men and women. Their names aren’t always easily recognizable, but what they’ve done is. The founder of Breyers Ice Cream, the first American ballerina, the man who invented denim, the creator of Ladies’ Home Journal—they’re all here. Not all of them are good: rapists, murderers and Nazis, complete with their flagrant swastikas, are here. They’re all on Ridge Avenue together, on pieces of land that cost some of them millions of dollars, for all of eternity.

But they all have someting in common: they’re all dead.

Their communal home is Laurel Hill Cemetery, a swath of green that’s decked out in stone statuettes that rise 10 feet high, graves with stained glass windows by Tiffany and landscaping that would make the living blush. Some of them have been here for two years and others have been underground for almost 200 years. The Philadelphia dead have been coming here since 1836, and Joseph Edgette knows more about them than he does about the living.

He’s a tour guide at Laurel Hill, and one of his specialties is escorting attendants on a visit to six burial sites of Titanic passengers. At today’s particular tour, he has many sunspots dotting his face, wears a baggy sweater and is balding. All in all, he doesn’t look too commanding as he attempts to shout into a barely working wireless microphone at the beginning of the tour, introducing himself as “Doctor Edgette.”

This is the site of the Widener family, but only Peter Widener's name is on the building. “He paid the bills; he got top billing!” said tour guide Joseph Edgette.
This is the site of the Widener family, but only Peter Widener's name is on the building. “He paid the bills; he got top billing!” said tour guide Joseph Edgette.

But he knows his stuff. He’s got the nitty-gritty details of the Titanic down — the Astor Hotel in New York gave first- (but not second- or third-) class passengers a free night’s stay after the ship went down, the Pennsylavnia Railroad provided free trips for survivors, Harry Widener saved dozens of children on that fateful night — and he’s also as knowledgeable of the passengers’ everyday lives. With the skill of a true storyteller, he tells the crowd of 30 about Lilly Olive’s bitter divorce, William Crothers Dulles’ vehement refusal to be buried with his ex-wife, and the number of minutes between the time that Eleanor Widener finally conceded to get on a lifeboat and the time that the Titanic sunk.

The crowd is entranced.

“This is fascinating, isn’t it?” asks one elderly woman to another.

“So interesting!” says Susan Fine. “I’m learning things I didn’t even think I cared about, like the life of Peter Widener.”

Learning isn’t something most people would expect to do inside a cemetery, but the Friends of Laurel Hill, the nonprofit branch of the company that puts on events, considers it the most vital duty to the community. “We believe preserving our own history is preserving Philadelphia’s history,” says Gwendolyn Kaminski, director of development and programming. But Laurel Hill’s role as an alternative education center goes beyond the mere retelling of history. “What sets us apart is that we are leading the way the public views what a cemetery is. When we were founded in 1836, we looked at death very differently. It was so common then that you had to accept it just to cope. Now we’ve formalized death and shipped it off. Laurel Hill wants to remind people that cemeteries aren’t morbid, sad places — they can be fun, should celebrate the living and can help us to come to terms with death.”

Cemetery tours include information about those buried at Laurel Hill on Ridge Avenue.
Cemetery tours include information about those buried at Laurel Hill on Ridge Avenue.

In fact, Laurel Hill is so committed to showing Philadelphians how to rethink the concept of death that it even gets the kids involved. Carol Yaster, Laurel Hill Cemetery’s program associate, has been interested in cemeteries since she was a little girl, but she kept her interest “under wraps for a long time” for obvious reasons. Now, she’s teaching children from the Friends Select Middle School in Fairmount about iconography. In case you’re not a cemetery know-it-all, iconographics are the flowers, symbols and animals that often decorate gravestones. They are rich with history and can tell a lot about a person, including their interests, social class and family members. As you might expect, though, topics other than iconography come up during the class.

“The kids asked how I’d like to be remembered after I was dead, and I told them I wanted a New Orleans funeral — with the music, the dancing, the partying,” Yaster says. “At first, they thought that was awful. ‘Celebrate the fact that somebody died!’ they said. ‘That’s just terrible!’ But I explained to them that life was for the living, and they eventually caught on.”

The Friends of Laurel Hill are moving forward with their plans to educate both the young and old at a genealogy workshop for children, which will show attendees how to research family history and how helpful cemeteries can be in this process. The nonprofit is serious about reaching out to typically under-represented groups, like women and blacks, too.

“When I started working here, all of the tours were about men and military figures,” Yaster says. “which is fine, of course, but I was like, ‘Where the ladies at?’ So then I started giving tours about the women at Laurel Hill — the mother of refrigerated shipping, the inventor of the egg carton and many others.”

The cemetery also puts on a yearly June event, which celebrates African-American emancipation and argues that July 4 was not “Independence Day” for much of the nation. Additionally, Laurel Hill Cemetery puts on a party for the anniversary of John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry in Virginia, which underlined racial differences before the Civil War. Historians find a friend in the — ahem — Friends of Laurel Hill as well. The company keeps a detailed record of past burials, maps, minute books, photographs, contracts, financial documents, biographies and newspaper clippings.

Lucy Bregman, a professor of a course, entitled “Death & Dying,” at Temple University, commends Laurel Hill for its offbeat education techniques.

“Our culture has, for some reason, shielded itself from death completely. It’s not a part of everyday life anymore,” she says. “It’s great that Laurel Hill is integrating it back into our lives.”

For information about other cemeteries in Pennsylvania, visit this Web site.

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