Let’s face it: Cemeteries aren’t the first place you think of for fun. But in reality, cemeteries are actually pretty lively places. Deceptively quiet, they speak volumes about the history, social mores, politics, and culture of their eras. They tell the stories of the wealthy and the wanting, scholars and scoundrels, patriots and the poverty-stricken.
For generations, cemeteries have been places for families to come together and for solo visitors to wander and enjoy a peaceful environment.
In Philadelphia, there’s a wide range of burial grounds to explore. You can see the graves of famous people like Ben Franklin and Walt Whitman, take part in cleanup activities, attend themed performances, or go for long walks or runs in a peaceful space.
But, not all cemeteries in Philly announce themselves. “Up through the colonial era, many people were laid to rest in a burial ground owned by their church,” explains Adaeze Nwoko, an educator at Christ Church Burial Ground. “But many people without means were put in mass graves — [known as] potter’s fields.” In this area, some of our favorite parks and public spaces, including Washington Square and Franklin Square, are former potter’s fields.
Other cemeteries that are now surrounded by bustling Philly neighborhoods were once surrounded by peaceful countryside. By the mid-19th century, as city space became tighter, burials were pushed out further from the heart of the city to undeveloped, more rural areas. Ironically, many of those “rural” cemeteries are now in the middle of densely populated neighborhoods.
Stroll through a cemetery, and you can see how different eras imposed their aesthetics on people’s final resting places. The Victorian era laid the groundwork for modern burial practices, its fashionable swirls and flourishes easy to spot. Nobody loved an ornate flourish like the Victorians, and unlike the simpler headstones of the colonial era, graves at Laurel Hill along Kelly Drive and the Woodlands off of Baltimore Avenue are chockablock with elaborate embellishments and detailed symbolism.
“Victorians had a lot to say,” says Nancy Goldenberg, president and CEO of Laurel Hill Cemetery, which is renowned for its spectacular mausoleums and grave markers. “They just preferred not to say it out loud. They used symbols — obelisks, wreaths, urns, anchors, and other icons — to say what they didn’t speak.”
Crowds flocked to see the elaborate tombs and headstones, meeting up for Sunday picnics and to escape the chaos of city life. Others just wanted a quiet place to enjoy a peaceful walk and take in the lush horticulture.
And, today, they still do.
Cemeteries are still community gathering spaces, home to self-guided and guided tours, concerts, family events, genealogical research, and other community activities. And while COVID-19 wreaked havoc on many scheduled events and indoor gatherings, activity at cemeteries has been booming.
“Throughout all of this, we had kids who were learning to ride bikes, we had runners, walkers, and people who just wanted a peaceful place to enjoy nature,” says Jessica Baumert, the Woodlands’ executive director.
In other words, they’re full of life. Here are some cemeteries in the region worth checking out:
Don’t let the peaceful environment at Arlington Cemetery fool you, this place has a very dramatic past. Once owned by the abolitionist Garrett family, the former farmland was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Check out the cemetery office where you can learn about the family’s abolitionist activities. Throughout the grounds, which are popular among local runners, bikers, and walkers, you can see a mausoleum that is a scale model of Jefferson’s Monticello and the graves of a former Miss America, a Titanic survivor, and numerous Medal of Honor recipients. GreenHorn Gardens has taken over the cemetery’s unused greenhouse and hosts a farmers market and classes in sustainable farming. But you’ll have to leave the pup at home: No dogs are allowed. The cemetery also hosts many events, from movie nights to 5K runs and Halloween activities.
Yes, it is a popular tourist destination — it is Benjamin Franklin’s final resting place, after all — but Christ Church Burial Ground is also a must-see spot for locals. The burial ground packs enough 18th- and early-19th-century American history into its 2 acres to fill tomes. But skip the textbooks and opt for a guided tour. You’ll get the stories on the early American who’s who that are buried here, including five signers of the Declaration of Independence, several pioneers of medicine, numerous Revolutionary and Civil War heroes, even the lone Jewish soldier who was carried there for an honorable burial. Self-guided tours are an option but the guided tours are much more fun and informative. For a guided tour, you should call ahead to confirm your spot. Finally, just give in and bring a penny to toss on Franklin’s grave — it’s how people honor the man who famously stated “a penny saved is a penny earned.”
When the Collingdale community learned of the plan to develop Eden Cemetery — a Black cemetery — in 1902, the protests were loud and long, forcing the first burial to take place under cover of night. One of the nation’s oldest Black-owned cemeteries, Eden was originally created as a reinterment cemetery to give Black people, particularly those who had been cast into mass graves, a dignified final resting place.
“Eden is really like a museum that just happens to be a cemetery,” says Craig Stutman, a history professor at Delaware Valley University and chair of the Toni Morrison Society’s Bench by the Road Project. A memorial honoring the First Colored Troops is at the cemetery entrance, and Eden is home to a long list of notable folks from Black arts, culture, and business communities. Pick up a self-guided tour brochure at the office to find the graves of renowned opera singer Marian Anderson, abolitionist William Still, poet Frances Watkins Harper, and the Rev. Charles Tindley, who is credited with writing the song that was the basis for the anthem “We Shall Overcome.”. You’ll also find grave markers and headstones honoring activist Octavius Catto and the members of the First African Baptist Church whose bodies were discovered during the construction of I-676 and reinterred here. Wear comfy shoes: Eden has sweeping hills which make for beautiful pictures and a good aerobic walk. Dogs aren’t permitted. Call to schedule a guided tour or to do genealogical research.
On any given day, you might find a fellow poetry lover wandering Harleigh Cemetery’s grounds. Established in 1885, the Camden cemetery is the final resting place for the celebrated poet Walt Whitman who spent his final years in a small home nearby. Whitman himself designed the family’s granite mausoleum, which is notched into the hillside and surrounded by giant old trees, an ideal spot to sit and read from Leaves of Grass. The lakeside paths will lead you to another man of letters, the father of American haiku, poet Nick Virgilio. His grave marker is easy to spot: His poem Lily is carved into its face. Pick up a map to find their graves, as well as those of jazz drummer Charlie Rice, political activist Ella Reeve “Mother” Bloor, and others. The office is closed to the public but if you call, they’ll bring a map to you.
Laurel Hill is picturesque: The hilltop setting overlooking the Schuylkill, the ornate Victorian-era headstones, the elaborate mausoleums that make up Millionaire’s Row, where many of Philadelphia’s wealthy elite are entombed, and more than 620 species of trees (including several state champion trees), are great spots to photograph. “When John Smith created Laurel Hill in 1836, he advertised this as a place where the public could come to escape the city, breathe in the fresh air, have picnics, and enjoy the outdoors,” says Nancy Goldenberg, its president and CEO. “Basically, Laurel Hill is a precursor of public parks.” In keeping with Smith’s vision, Laurel Hill, which includes West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd, hosts a wide variety of activities including movie nights, concerts, and programs that range from the deeply serious to downright cheeky. The Hot Spots and Storied Plots tour will give you an overview of Laurel Hill while the Sinners and Scandals tour regales you with tales of some of the shadier folks who reside there. Laurel Hill keeps records of each of the more than 70,000 people buried on the premises. You can tour Laurel Hill on your own — fliers and maps are available at the office — or take one of the many themed guided tours.
📍3822 Ridge Ave., 📞 215-228-8200, 🌐 thelaurelhillcemetery.org, 🕑 April-October, 7 a.m.-7 p.m., November-March, 7 a.m.-5 p.m., 📷 @laurelhillcemetery, 🎫 Free for self-guided tours, prices vary for guided tours
There’s a lot of history behind the elaborate wrought-iron gates at the entrance to Mikveh Israel cemetery, the city’s oldest Jewish cemetery. “During the 18th century, Philadelphia was one of the rare places in the world where Jews and Christians intermingled freely, socialized freely, and worked hand-in-hand on civic projects,” says historian and Benjamin Franklin reenactor Mitchell Kramer. Many early Jewish leaders are buried here. One of the best-known: Haym Salomon who not only helped fund the Revolution, but also provided interest-free personal loans to Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and others. You can also find the grave of Rebecca Gratz, the philanthropist who was the muse for the character in Ivanhoe, and also helped establish the first secular charity. Also here: The Gratz family, who helped create the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and Col. Benjamin Nones, who was the highest-ranking Jewish officer in the Continental Army and an ally of Thomas Jefferson’s. Mikveh Israel’s walk-up tour program is on hiatus, but you can call and book a guided tour to get all the lesser-known stories.
Although Mother Bethel has been closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, keep it on your must-see list for the future. Built on the nation’s oldest Black-owned plot of land, Mother Bethel is not only the mother church for the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church, it is the final resting place for its founder, the Rev. Richard Allen and his wife, Sarah. According to church archivist Margaret Jerrido, Allen was originally buried in front of Mother Bethel but was reinterred at Eden Cemetery. Then, honoring the wishes of the Allen family, he and Sarah were moved back to their current location in the tombs on the church’s lower level. Adjacent to the crypts, you can tour the small museum that houses artifacts including Allen’s personal bible, the wooden pulpit from which he preached, candlesticks from his home, and wooden pews from the church’s second location. The church has not yet announced reopening dates, but check back as more pandemic restrictions lift.
📍419 S. Sixth St., 📞 215-925-0616, 🌐 motherbethel.org
Bring your camera and lace up some sturdy shoes. With more than 200 acres of rolling, swirling hills, and a diversity of foliage that makes it a level-one arboretum, Mount Moriah makes for a stunning photo backdrop, as well as a challenging place for walks and bike rides. Most cemeteries are sculpted flat, but Mount Moriah covers a vast topography that spills over from Kingsessing into neighboring Yeadon. “Philadelphia is a city of neighborhoods and Mount Moriah is a cemetery of neighborhoods,” says Bill Warwick, vice president of the board of directors. “Where Laurel Hill catered to the wealthy, this was an everyman’s burial ground. And it was unusual in that it welcomed all religions and races.” Book a tour — they are free but donations are welcomed — and find out about the “is she/was she buried there” Betsy Ross drama. And participate in the cemetery’s restoration at monthly cleanup and grass-cutting events held on the first Saturday of every month. Look for the annual Darksome Arts and Crafts Festival in October which benefits the restoration efforts.
Philly shoppers from back in the day will recognize the names of the retail royalty buried at Mt. Sinai: the Gimbel family, the Lit brothers, the Snellenburgs, the Tellers of Bonwit Teller. Even Manny, Moe, and Jack of the Pep Boys. “We are like a park in a densely populated neighborhood,” says Mitchell Kramer, historian and cemetery board member. “People come here to walk, run, or just look at the gardens. We’re a low-key but essential neighborhood asset, especially during COVID when people needed to connect with nature.” Founded in 1856, Mt. Sinai is still an active cemetery, which means you’ll see everything from simple grave markers carved with Yiddish and Old German script and the Frank Furness-designed mortuary to stylish mausoleums with Moorish and Egyptian design details and the new Tranquility Garden that has no grave markers at all. “Our mission here is to honor the past with an eye to the future,” says Kramer. Leashed dogs are permitted and cleanup bags are required. Call to book a guided tour of the cemetery or to access genealogical records.
When William Penn created Washington Square (originally known as Southeast Square) in his city plan, he couldn’t have foreseen its use as a public burial ground. And he certainly couldn’t have imagined a tree would grow there from seeds that were once taken to the moon. During the 18th century, it was nicknamed Congo Square and was one of the few places where enslaved Black people could gather to celebrate their African music, dance, and culture. There was also a darker, bleaker side to the Square: It became a potter’s field where soldiers, sailors, convicts, and enslaved people were buried in mass graves. Even more dead were buried there during the 1793 yellow fever epidemic. While thousands of people lie beneath the manicured lawns, the only marked grave is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which was installed when the square was restored in 1956. As for the “moon tree,” it has also, sadly, passed on.
At this historic Bucks County park, headstone after headstone reads “Unknown Soldier.” It isn’t certain exactly how many Colonial soldiers are buried beneath the grounds by the Thompson-Neely House at Washington Crossing Park. “The markers there are an approximation and representation of the number of bodies,” notes Gaetano Sava, park visitor services coordinator. “There may be as many as 60 unknown Colonial soldiers buried on the grounds.” During their encampment at the house while plotting the famous Christmas Day attack on Trenton in 1776, Gen. George Washington’s troops suffered crushing losses from disease and bitter-cold temperatures. After you’ve paid homage to the men who gave their lives in the cause of American independence, book a tour of the Thompson-Neely House and Gardens ($7). Then, cross the Delaware Canal path and hike or bike to heart of Washington’s Crossing Park to tour the historic village, enjoy a picnic, or tour Bowman’s Hill Tower.
One of the first things you’ll notice at the Woodlands are the trees. So. Many. Trees. Prior to becoming a cemetery in 1840, the West Philly estate was owned by William Hamilton (and the mansion still stands tall in the middle of the cemetery), an accomplished amateur horticulturist who brought the first ginkgo trees to America. “We have more than 1,000 trees here,” says Jessica Baumert, executive director of the Woodlands. “Our canopy is so dense, thermal readings have shown its impact on temperature and air quality extends to several surrounding blocks.” Utilize the Woodlands’ Tree Finder online tool to help you identify each tree’s species. And where there are trees, there are birds, so bring your binoculars. New to birding? Pick up the Woodlands bird guide at the cemetery office then stroll through the brick-lined paths.
Beyond nature, you’ll find some richly detailed headstones as well as the graves of notables such as artist Thomas Eakins, numerous members of the Drexel (as in Drexel University) family, journalist Anne Hampton Brewster, and Paul Philippe Cret, who designed the Rodin Museum and parts of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. COVID-19 has affected some of the Woodlands’ extensive programming, but there are still many family-oriented events, wellness programs, performances, gardening programs, and other activities on the books.