Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill Cemetery was blanketed by snow on a recent Friday afternoon, but executive director Nick McAllister could already envision the events that would take place among the mossy headstones in the coming months: outdoor movies, group dog walks, stargazing, yoga. All in front of the crypts of some of the city’s wealthiest families of the last century.
Come spring, local bands will take a stage by the steps of the mausoleum, where the historic cemetery once stored bodies when the ground was too frozen for gravediggers to penetrate.
It’s not that McAllister and his team don’t respect the dead. The bustling events calendar is an effort to draw new visitors, especially younger ones, to Laurel Hill’s expansive grounds. And while this programming may seem trendy — like the wave of boozy museum events — the underlying thinking actually aligns with Victorian beliefs held when the cemetery was built in 1836.
“People used this place as an escape from the city and as a park before the park system existed,” McAllister says. “They came to look at the trees, to look at the art, visit famous people and their loved ones. It was a tourist destination.”
Other Victorian-era cemeteries around the country are taking the same approach, in hopes of fostering community within their spaces rather than languishing into forgotten, weed-ridden sites.
In New York City, Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery hosts a number of events in the stunning Gothic graveyard, including birding classes, workshops on condolence letter writing, and Victorian-style circuses with fire eaters and contortionists. Woodland Cemetery in Dayton, Ohio — one of the oldest garden cemeteries in the country — organizes a “Free Your Sole” 5K each year. And Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery, which survived the city’s burning in 1864, is staging Illumine, a festival of sorts, with craft cocktails, live music, and a mile-long light display designed by local artists and designers.
In Philadelphia, the trend is spreading. Laurel Hill’s sister cemetery in Bala Cynwyd, West Laurel Hill, will hold an Easter egg Hunt in April. West Philly cemetery the Woodlands hosts summer evening nature walks; guests are armed with just a flashlight as they roam the 1840s-era graveyard.
Not only do these events help raise the cemeteries’ profiles, they help raise funds, too — for landscaping, cleaning, and recovering dilapidated headstones and monuments. They also help protect the cemeteries from vandalism, says Laurel Hill Cemetery CEO Nancy Goldenberg. “A cemetery with no living people in it is much less secure than one that is activated and full of people,” she says.
McAllister adds that event attendees are also mindful of the nature of the space. A “cinema in the cemetery” event might attract a thousand people, but the debris they leave behind might not amount to more than a bagful of trash.
“People are enjoying themselves while also paying homage to the history that they’re in,” Goldenberg says.
Emma Max, the programs and operations manager at the Woodlands, sees these events in the same light — as part of a return to the cemeteries’ roots.
“When we started doing programs here, we did encounter people who did have reservations about what we were doing,” Max says. “But we would fall back on history in a really nice way. We would tell them about how families would come to garden, picnic, and even learn how to ride bicycles.”
American cities rapidly expanded during the 19th century, thanks to the Industrial Revolution. But living conditions were often harsh, and the mortality rate in cities was high. Urban burial grounds grew cramped and overcrowded — graves were stacked or sometimes emptied and reused. Mourners sometimes couldn’t find their departed loved ones’ graves. Even worse, many graves were entirely displaced (or built over) to make way for buildings and railroads.
Enter the garden cemetery, sprawling burial grounds that were often elaborately landscaped. Cambridge, Massachusetts’ Mount Auburn Cemetery was the first in the United States, opening in the early 1830s. Several more followed in the same decade, including Laurel Hill — founded in 1836 by John Jay Smith, a grieving father, and four others.
With their scenic vistas and shady groves, garden cemeteries offered families an attractive alternative to plots in urban graveyards. “They gave people the opportunity to own a piece of land forever that they could decorate however they wanted to,” McAllister says.
But in its earliest days, Laurel Hill was more than a cemetery. City residents used it for picnics, strolls, and carriage rides. It was a haven from the unsanitary, industrial conditions in the growing city in the time before public parks and botanical gardens. Between April and December of 1848, the riverside cemetery welcomed nearly 30,000 visitors. They would take a steamboat up the Schuylkill, leaving from the Fairmount Water Works and arriving at the Laurel Hill landing.
Two factors coincided to shift the public perception of cemeteries. First, urban parks began proliferating. The Fairmount Park Commission was founded in 1867, less than a decade after Central Park was first opened to the public. Around the same time, in the 1870s, the urban mortality rate began steadily declining. Death — and cemeteries along with it — became less centralized and more taboo.
Laurel Hill fell on hard times when the Great Depression hit, and staff struggled to keep the grounds pristine. Headstones fell over as the land shifted beneath them, and there was no one to pick them up. (Staff members today still find toppled headstones, which they clean and reinstall.)
In 1978, Laurel Hill created the Friends of Laurel Hill Cemetery, a nonprofit dedicated to community engagement and preservation. At the time, the only community activity offered at the cemetery was a historic walking tour.
Today, Laurel Hill offers more than 100 events a year, almost all of which are open to the public. Some of them are regular occurrences, like yoga and its “hot spots and storied plots” walking tour; others are one-offs, such as next weekend’s St. Patrick’s Day tour, complete with Irish food, beer, and whiskey. For the last five summers, the cemetery has also hosted the Ghostly Circus, an extravaganza with acrobats, aerial artists, and jugglers. Most events are pitched by Laurel Hill’s creative staffers, who craft programming that they themselves would like to go to.
In 2016, the Woodlands cemetery launched a grave gardening program to allow people to “adopt” a cradle grave for planting. Cradle graves, which mimic the appearance of a bed by using a headstone and a footstone, were popular during the 19th century; the space in between was filled with lush flower bushes, giving it the appearance of a bedspread. Now, the Woodlands receives 200 applications a year for about 30 to 40 available graves.
Like Laurel Hill, the Woodlands offers a membership program that accommodates joggers, dog owners, and families. Their members currently range in age from the late 20s to 50-something.
Other cemeteries have taken note of the successes. Last fall, Germantown’s historic Hood Cemetery invited guests to explore its ancient gravestones in the company of adorable goats — thanks to a collaboration with the Philadelphia Goat Project. The event brought more guests to the cemetery on a single day than ever before, according to Hood Cemetery board president Claudia Levy.
“There were visitors from the neighborhood who had never before been inside the cemetery, visitors from other parts of the city and the suburbs who heard about the event on social media, and even descendants of William Hood, the cemetery's namesake,” Levy says. (Hood will host the goats again in April.)
And at Mount Moriah Cemetery in West Philly, a group of volunteers has been working for years to transform the dilapidated graveyard into a community green space. (The Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery recently lost one of their leading advocates, president Paulette Rhone, who dreamed of finding institutional support for the nonprofit.)
Even as these cemeteries attempt to reframe themselves as more than memorial parks, they’ve received more interest in their business. In the last two years, the Woodlands has seen an uptick in younger families purchasing lots because they have good memories there, Max says.
“We are still an active cemetery,” she adds. “We tell people that when they’re here purchasing lots, that this is not a place to be sad — because it’s a place that’s happy for a lot of people.”
Laurel Hill also deals with balancing their active cemetery status with their events. Goldenberg says that it’s important to be mindful and conscientious of the fact that they are, first and foremost, a cemetery. Family members who come through need to be able to mourn their loved ones.
“We’re not going to put on a hot-air balloon race in the middle of the day when there are two funerals going on,” Goldenberg says.
McAllister says that a handful of families who have recently buried loved ones at Laurel Hill have become involved in their community events, using them as a way to foster family connections.
“It’s really important for us, for the future of the cemetery, to have young people build favorable memories and positive experiences here,” Goldenberg says. “If a young child learns how to ride their tricycle here for the first time, that’s going to stick with them.”
The positive associations and increased interest play into a larger goal of Laurel Hill’s caretakers, according to McAllister: to give people a safe space to just talk about death.
In 2013, West Laurel Hill began hosting “death cafés,” allowing people to have candid conversations about mortality. People want to talk about death when they show up, McAllister says, leading the group into conversations that are often thoughtful and interesting.
“We have a playful gift shop downstairs that sells stuff like skull magnets and death mints,” he says. “And someone had come in here and said, ‘How could you put something like this in your store?’ There was this gut reaction that you can’t make jokes about death in a space that’s dedicated to it, but I don’t think that’s true. The more we try to bring new people in and keep them interested, the more likely we are to save this place and keep it going.”
St. Patrick’s Day Tour, Toasts and Tastes, 11 a.m. Saturday, March 16, Laurel Hill Cemetery, 3822 Ridge Ave., $20 regular admission, $18 for students and seniors, $17 for members, 215-228-8200, laurelhillcemetery.org
West Philly Star Party, 7 to 10 p.m. Friday, April 26, the Woodlands, 4000 Woodland Ave., free, 215-386-2181, woodlandsphila.org