Laurel Hill Cemetery
3822 Ridge Avenue, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19132
Size: 78 acres
Number of interments: 75,000
Open: Weekdays 8 a.m to 4:30 p.m. Weekends 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Closed major holidays.
Admission: always free
THIS WEEKEND: Atlas Obscura’s Obscura Day focuses on “The Bizarre and Mysterious at Laurel Hill Cemetery” Saturday, April 28, 1 to 3 p.m. Tickets are $15 and can be ordered here. Hurry, as many Obscura Day events have already sold out.
Founded in 1836, Laurel Hill Cemetery is the second oldest garden cemetery in the United States, after Cambridge’s Mount Auburn. Architect John Notman designed Laurel Hill’s maze of roads to wind amidst terraces above the Schuykill River. His intention was to give the people of Philadelphia a park from which they could ponder their mortality and look forward to the glories of Heaven.
The cemetery’s driving tour explains that “Within a few months of its opening, Laurel Hill Cemetery was Philadelphia’s most popular attraction,” drawing more visitors than Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. The cemetery was so popular that in 1860 it received over 140,000 visitors. The cemetery office issued admission tickets to control the flood of visitors. These days, you can often have the lovely place nearly to yourself, which is a shame.
Permanent residents include Sarah Josepha Hale (whom we have to thank for “Mary Had a Little Lamb”), portrait painter Thomas Sully, and Union General George Gordon Meade (who was victorious at Gettysburg) and four other Major Generals as well as fifteen Brigadier Generals, both Union and Confederate. A signer of the Declaration of Independence is buried here, as well as a sailor who fought in the War of 1812.
The cemetery is a sea of obelisks and grand mausoleums, with its own Angels Row. In fact, Laurel Hill contains more than 33,000 monuments. The most striking monument in the graveyard remembers the William Warner family. Designed by Alexander Milne Calder, the sculpture embodies the Angel of Death as a stern woman whose gown is slipping from her shoulder. She has opened the granite sarcophagus to release the soul trapped inside. A winged face rises from the open tomb in a flame of stone.
Death’s arms were broken off as early as 1977, when a photograph of the Warner monument appeared in Famous and Curious Cemeteries. Hopefully, repairing her is on the schedule.
Unfortunately, the cemetery suffered years of neglect, but a Friends group formed in 1977 and continues to raise money to restore the sculptures. (When I visited in 2002, the cemetery office — housed in Notman’s ornate gate house — was selling a t-shirt that said “R.I.P. Restoration in Progress.”) Laurel Hill became a National Historic Landmark in 1998, one of the few American cemeteries to rate the distinction.
The cemetery continues to welcome guests to Laurel Hill for self-guided walking, driving, or audio tours. You need only stop by the office to pick up a map of the cemetery grounds, a brochure for the audio tour, or to purchase a $5 guide highlighting the graves and histories of some of the best-known residents. They offer a cell phone tour whose only cost is minutes on your cellphone plan. The grounds are also open for jogging, nature walks, dog-walking (on a leash), biking, and picnics.
In addition, the cemetery offers frequent tours. One in May will be led by Russ Dodge, the mastermind behind the venerable Findagrave. Money raised by the tours continues to fund preservation of the cemetery.
The official Laurel Hill Cemetery site
Monthly tours at Laurel Hill
A Laurel Hill love story
Books I’ve reviewed that reference Laurel Hill Cemetery:
The American Resting Place: 400 Years of History Through Our Cemeteries and Burial Grounds
The Last Great Necessity: Cemeteries in American History
Famous and Curious Cemeteries: A Pictorial, Historical, and Anecdotal View of American and European Cemeteries
Other garden cemeteries on Cemetery Travel:
Cemetery of the Week #12: Elmwood Cemetery in Detroit, Michigan
Cemetery of the Week #17: Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Sleepy Hollow, New York
Cemetery of the Week #28: Forest Hills Cemetery in Boston, Massachusetts
Cemetery of the Week #31: Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts
Cemetery of the Week #42: Lake View Cemetery, Cleveland, Ohio
Cemetery of the Week #53: Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York
Cemetery of the Week #55: Cypress Lawn Memorial Park, Colma, California
Cemetery of the Week #58: Swan Point Cemetery, Providence, Rhode Island
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