Laurel Hill Cemetery Hosts Many Macabre Events Each Year
Laurel Hill Cemetery is located in the East Falls section of Philadelphia, northwest of Center City. Its history is fascinating, as it was one of the first cemeteries of its kind in America. The Victorian ideas about death and cemeteries, that were responsible for its creation, remain interesting to this day. In addition, Laurel Hill Cemetery was a major factor in Philadelphia’s 19th-century geographical expansion, beyond the borders of what we know today as simply Center City.
So, let’s take a look at its remarkable history:
Prior to Laurel Hill Cemetery, the only places in Philadelphia, where bodies could be buried were churchyards (if you were lucky), or (if you were unlucky) the mass graves in the public squares of what is now Logan Circle and Washington Square, in Center City. This was highly unsanitary, naturally.
There was another problem, as well – as the city continued to build and expand, it often required that bodies be exhumed, during the construction process.
John Jay Smith Spearheads An Effort To Bring A Rural Cemetery to Philadelphia
In 1835, a Quaker named John Jay Smith was understandably troubled, by his inability to locate the grave of his daughter in a churchyard, due to overcrowding. He resolved that a cemetery ought to be created in a bucolic area outside of the densely populated city. He felt that it should not be limited to any specific religious denomination.
But most importantly, Smith also wanted it to be beautifully landscaped, providing a tranquil and placid environment for both the deceased and bereaved loved ones. It would be a place where bodies could be permanently interred, with no possibility of being disinterred, due to the need for construction of additional structures.
To make this vision a reality, Smith and his partners ultimately decided to acquire a 32-acre site along the Schuylkill River - namely, an estate known as Laurel Hill. From 1797 to 1824, the property had been the country retreat of Joseph Simms, a wealthy merchant, who used it to escape the heat and unsanitary conditions of the city. Between 1824 and 1836, the estate had been used for diverse purposes – a tavern, school, and a farm.
The estate’s location along the Schuylkill River, was probably the single most important factor in the decision to located the new cemetery there. In addition to its distance from Center City, it also was desirable due to the scenic river setting, for the loved ones who were grieving.
In February 1836, Smith and his partners formed a Cemetery Company, and formally purchased Laurel Hill. On November 14 of that year, the first burial took place, that of a Quaker woman named Mercy Carlisle.
Today, as a result of the vision of Smith and three partners, Laurel Hill Cemetery has expanded drastically, and now sits on a 78-acre site in East Falls- more than twice the size of the original, 32-acre estate purchased by Smith and his partners back in 1836.
Although the city has now expanded to engulf even the much larger Laurel Hill Cemetery, its idyllic setting remains to this day. (Ironically, though, the very isolation from Center City that Smith sought, makes it virtually impossible to visit, for out-of-town visitors to Philadelphia, who don’t have a car – which we’ll discuss below.)
That having been said, we were very impressed with our personal experience, just for the self-guided daytime tour. If you are from the region, and you’d like to visit somewhere new, outside Center City, it is a superb choice. It’s particularly eerie during the autumn months – especially October, of course. During that month, if you’re also looking for a fun, family-appropriate, Halloween-themed setting, we’d recommend it.
Famous Residents of Laurel Hill Cemetery
No fewer than forty Civil War generals, on the Union side, are buried there, most notably General George Meade - a native Pennsylvanian, nicknamed "The Snapping Turtle" for his cranky demeanor. Meade was the Union commander who won the most critical battle of the Civil War at Gettysburg, in south-central Pennsylvania, during the three days of July 1-3, 1863.
Meade's birthday is December 31. Accordingly, on the final day of each year, during the afternoon, there is a very popular ceremony, social event, and reception, honoring Meade's memory, and his contributions to the preservation of the Union, prior to observing the entrance of the New Year that evening.
It is also home to half a dozen passengers from the doomed SS Titanic, the passenger liner which famously struck an iceberg in the Atlantic Ocean in 1912.
Prominent Philadelphia names such as Strawbridge, Widener, Elkins, and Rittenhouse, are also scattered throughout.
Taking the Tours of Laurel Hill Cemetery
The tours, for the most part, are self-guided. You can pick up a map of the grounds for free, along with a brochure for the audio / cell phone tour. If you'd like more detail, you can purchase a $5.00 book- which gives you all of the information about its rich history, and the location of the graves of some of its many famous, permanent residents.
You can also try the free cell phone tour (it only will cost you minutes on your own plan; there's no additional charge), with the brochure that you pick up at the office. The office will also have an exhibit designed for the cell phone tour, maps to get your bearings, etc.
Special Event Tours, Twice A Month, For A Price
Twice a month, on the weekends, Laurel Hill Cemetery offers guided, special event tours, each with a different, often seasonal, theme. The overwhelming majority of them cost $15/person.
Additional, Halloween-Themed Events, Every October
On October 15, 2010, Laurel Hill will be staging its 6th Annual Gravediggers' Ball, at Macy's in Center City. However, the other events are all at Laurel Hill-
Fall Family Day - Sunday, October 24
Dining with the Dead - Thursday, October 28
Halloween Flashlight Tours - Friday, October 29, and Saturday, October 30
For more details on these events, please take a look at our October 2010 Things to Do in Philadelphia page.
If I'm Visiting Philadelphia From Out of Town, Is It Worth My Time To Visit Laurel Hill Cemetery?
No, unless you are attending one of the special events. If you just want to visit an old, historic graveyard, you can visit others in Society Hill, which are far more convenient. It's just too difficult to get up there, without a car - and your time would be better spent, elsewhere.
Visiting Laurel Hill Cemetery - Location, Hours and Admission
3822 Ridge Avenue
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19132
Phone - 215.228.8200
Hours of Operation
Monday - Friday - 8:00 AM - 4:30 PM
Saturday - Sunday - 9:30 AM - 4:30 PM
It is closed on major holidays.
Free Admission, Except for Special Events
Admission is free, although the special events and tours do require an admission fee.
Traveling to Laurel Hill Cemetery - We Strongly Recommend Driving There
Driving to Laurel Hill Cemetery and Parking There
Laurel Hill Cemetery is conveniently located near many major Philadelphia roads. Although there is limited parking within Laurel Hill Cemetery itself, there is a large parking lot, located across the street, so you should have no trouble parking there.
Traveling to Laurel Hill Cemetery via SEPTA
SEPTA is a very poor choice, for traveling to Laurel Hill Cemetery. There is only one way to go - the Route 61 SEPTA bus, which runs from Center City up Ridge Avenue. This will be a very long bus ride, and much of it goes through a potentially dangerous neighborhood.
Accordingly, the bus route is absolutely not recommended for out-of-town visitors, and/or locals, who aren't very familiar with SEPTA and the surrounding neighborhood.
However, if you're very familiar with SEPTA, and you still want to try it-
You should get on the bus at Market East Station - located at 11th and Market Streets. It will take you northbound on 11th Street, and go all the way up Ridge Avenue.
Finally - under no circumstances - should you try taking the 61 to Laurel Hill, after dark, for a special nighttime event.
What About Taking a Cab? We Don't Recommend It, As Laurel Hill Cemetery Is Over 3 Miles From the Art Museum
A cab ride would be expensive from Center City. Even from the Philadelphia Museum of Art (the closest major Philadelphia tourist attraction), it would be a cab ride of over three miles, to get all the way up to Laurel Hill Cemetery.
However, if you really want to travel there, via cab, get yourself to the Art Museum, and take one from there, to cut down on the distance.
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