West Philly’s Woodlands provides unique oasis for residents during pandemic

Maggie Danna, 26, takes a selfie near a tree in bloom on the grounds of The Woodlands in Philadelphia on April 5.
DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Maggie Danna, 26, takes a selfie near a tree in bloom on the grounds of The Woodlands in Philadelphia on April 5.

As the coronavirus held Philadelphia in its grip this spring, people across the city turned to their neighborhood parks and river trails for a breath of fresh air and a needed break from feelings of isolation, fear, and uncertainty.

For West Philadelphians, the Woodlands provided a unique oasis. The 54-acre, 18th-century English garden, converted into a rural cemetery in 1840, sits tucked away in West Philadelphia, a short walk from the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. Rural cemeteries like the Woodlands were designed during the Victorian era for people to linger and enjoy the grounds while visiting the deceased.

The cemetery is the final resting place for many notables from the Philadelphia region, including artist Thomas Eakins, Campbell’s Soup founder Joseph A. Campbell, and Navy nurse Marie L. Hidell. Hidell is a reminder that Philadelphia — and the world — faced a similar situation a little more than a century ago. She treated hundreds of infected sailors at the Philadelphia Navy Hospital during the 1918 flu pandemic before contracting and succumbing to the virus in September that year. Hidell was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross for her selfless efforts.

The Woodlands is still active. There are about 30 burial plots available each year, according to Emma Max, program and operations manager. Max and executive director Jessica Baumert lead a five-person team in running the cemetery year-round. Early on during the pandemic they realized the importance of keeping the space open for the community to use in a safe manner. They displayed creative handmade signs at the entrance gate to ask for cooperation with CDC guidelines. One sign reads: 6 Feet Apart > 6 Feet Under.

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