Swashbuckling hats, carnival masks and wizard hats pepper the ball room. On the dance floor skims the turquoise crinoline of Sarah Hale, who is being twirled around by Capt. Percival Drayton, dressed in his Civil War best. In the corner leaning against the grand pillars of the ballroom is a gravedigger’s shovel.
This unusual scene is no ordinary costume party. This is the Gravediggers’ Ball, a benefit held every October for Philly’s oldest and most unique green space, the Laurel Hill Cemetery.
“Historically, it was founded to be a very special place,” said Gwendolyn Kaminski, director of development and programs. Laurel Hill was “the public park of the time, and out of us Fairmount Park was soon established because we had so many visitors that our status as a burial ground was actually compromised.”
Laurel Hill was founded in 1836, and by the turn of the century, the cemetery received 30,000 visitors per season. Today, however, most Philadelphians forsake the East Falls cemetery and its sprawling 78-acre expanse of land for the more well-known Fairmount Park. But Laurel Hill is working hard to change that by promoting itself to more than just history buffs and death enthusiasts.
“Recently, you’ve seen the waterworks come back from derelict and abandoned to a mecca to eat and hang out,” said David Horowitz, board member of the Friends of Laurel Hill Cemetery. “We’d like to extend it a few miles up the river.”
Though Laurel Hill is a working cemetery with a rich history, it offers other ways to enjoy its space through themed, private and self-guided tours, genealogist and arborist workshops and outdoor activities like picnics and 5K runs.
The cemetery is open seven days. Admission is free. Members of Laurel Hill encourage its use as a park, and with views from 120 feet above the Schuylkill, it’s no wonder why.
“We invite you to come for a self-guided tour, to walk your dog, to have a picnic,” Kaminski said. “We’re a green space in the middle of the city. We have history, art, architecture, just beauty everywhere. And we welcome the public to come in and really take advantage of that.”
October is a particularly important month for Laurel Hill, because, after all, it is a cemetery and how could it not capitalize on the holiday with events like the Howl-O-Ween dog walk and “Dining Amongst the Dead” dinner and Halloween tour?
But its most important October event is the Gravediggers’ Ball, which raises money for Laurel Hill and gives its supporters an excuse to dress up formally or frightfully.
This year’s event was the cemetery’s fifth. Last year the ball raised $50,000. Despite the stumbling economy and slightly lower attendance this year, Kaminski still hopes for a similar result.
“The outcome tonight has just been tremendous and we couldn’t be happier,” Kaminski said. “Just to have this turnout, it proves what kind of support we have.”
The money raised goes to the Friends of Laurel Hill, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation, promotion and educational programs of the cemetery.
The ball is also an opportunity for Laurel Hill to get its name out to area residents. Many of the guests in attendance had heard of Laurel Hill but had never been there before.
“I drive under it on Kelly Drive all the time, and I look up at it, and I say I would really love to visit that place,” said Chris Brady, a guest at the ball whose friend told her about the event. “As a result of coming to this dance I looked at the Web site, and there’s so many great things happening there. I’m definitely going to go.”
Whether or not Brady eventually visits the cemetery may be irrelevant in the end. Simply getting people talking about it is just as important to supporters of Laurel Hill.
“We want people to know about Laurel Hill,” Horowitz said. “It’s not just a place to be buried; it’s a place to go when you’re alive, which is what they did in 1836.”
As the masks and hats came off while dinner was served, and as contemporary and Civil War-era couples continued to dance together on the ballroom floor, it didn’t mattered whether you were there to support Laurel Hill Cemetery for the first or the fifth time, whether you were dragged along by a crazy friend wearing a top hat and a cape or whether you were simply looking for a more unique Saturday night and the name stoked your curiosity.
What matters is that your presence helps preserve a National Historic Landmark, promote a unique Philly resource and encourage a nonprofit to do it all again next year. And who knows, maybe at the very end, you’ll call Laurel Hill Cemetery home.
“There’s a place not in Center City that’s beautiful…with greenery, that’s worth your while,” Horowitz said. “And when it’s all over, Laurel Hill is my next address.”