City of the Dead

Filed under: — Kate @ 8:42 am EST

Call me morbid, but I’ve always had a fascination with graveyards. The older the better. There’s just something that draws me in, as if time itself slows while I’m there.

When I was a child, I would spend hours wandering among the 200 year old headstones in the churchyard at the top of my street. I would look at the names and the dates, and think about who was buried there, wonder if they ever had a notion that a little red haired girl might be walking over their final resting place and reading their names more than two centuries after they died.

On Sunday, Edo and I found ourselves wandering through a much larger graveyard. A necropolis. A city of the dead. Philadelphia is home to Laurel Hill, the nation’s second rural “garden” cemetery, and the first to be named a National Historic Landmark. It’s nestled next to Fairmount Park, looking west over the Schuylkill River. And if you didn’t notice the sign on Kelly Drive, you might never know it was there at all.

When it was first built in 1836, Laurel Hill quickly became one of the most popular tourist attractions in Philadelphia. People came to stroll, to picnic, to bask in the sun. In fact, the early garden cemeteries were the predecessors to the city parks that we have today. Apparently, when New York’s Central Park opened, people commented how much it was like a garden cemetery without the tombstones.*

Now Laurel Hill is left almost completely to the dead. Few people visit. It is overlooked, crumbling, and endangered. We’d driven past it countless times before, when it was closed or we didn’t have the time. But something made us stop at Laurel Hill Cemetery that day. It was breathtakingly gloomy and spectacular, especially in the waning hours of daylight, hidden above a riverbank, the monuments to death reaching up to the sky.

It was a wonderful escape for a few hours on a Sunday afternoon. And it’s one of this city’s forgotten treasures.

More pictures after the jump.

*According to this great book I have called Extraordinary Endings of Practically Everything and Everybody.

4 Responses to “City of the Dead”

  1. Melissa Says:

    One of my classes in college was the history of the Monterey Bay area and we would do field studies in the local cemeteries because they reflect a lot about what’s going on in the local community at various times. It’s a little sad how most modern cemeteries are so sterile, just a little plaque set in the ground so as to not interfere with the lawn mower. Again though, it’s a sign of the social times.

  2. Kate Says:

    That’s so neat. Wish I had a class like that. We noticed several children were buried in Laurel Hill in 1857 and wondered what had happened that year.

  3. Melissa Says:

    I went to a little hippie school with lots of classes like that. But you had Big 10 football…trade offs I guess. = )

  4. Stan Says:

    Nothing like eating a nice lunch surrounded by corpses.