Laurel Hill Cemetery is a 78 acre garden located in the East Falls section of Philadelphia. It was first developed in the late 1830’s, and, by the 1840’s, it was one of Philadelphia’s most popular attractions -- picnics, strolls, carriage rides and sightseeing were common pastimes at the cemetery. Philadelphia residents even took steamboat rides up the Schuylkill River on Sunday afternoons to visit.
This behavior may seem unlikely in modern times, but, in an era when the city of Philadelphia suffered from overcrowding, disease and scarcity of public space, Laurel Hill Cemetery offered an escape, and an alternative.
Laurel Hill’s founding is deeply rooted in the cultural history of Philadelphia’s urbanization. It offers a unique window into the history of not only the city of Philadelphia and its residents of yesterday, but of our nation, as well.
The cemetery is a time capsule. It is not just the remains of our forefathers that are buried there, but a way of life. Designated as a National Historic Landmark, countless prominent people are buried there. While names such as Rittenhouse, Widener, and Strawbridge pique local interest, Laurel Hill also appeals to a national audience. General George Meade and 39 other Civil War generals reside there, as well six Titanic passengers.
But, what of the less than “pure spirits” in residence? It is the final resting place of a South Philly gangster, and a Civil War hero who later came to be known as “a slayer of innocence and a robber of chastity.”
Laurel Hill Cemetery is very much a product of the Victorian era. The monuments and garden reflect the art and architecture of those times. Who were the people who built them? What life did they pursue? Hopefully, my photographs conjure up these questions and make us wonder what traces we will leave behind.
The cemetery is a community on to itself. The monuments, their relationship to one another, and their location within the garden reflect the status of its citizens in death -- just as surely as the cut of one’s new suit mirrors one’s rank among the living.
I am delighted that The Historical Society of Pennsylvania has accepted three of my Laurel Hill photographs for its collection.
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