Walking with the Dead – Philly’s Finest Cemeteries
Our blogs are written by our actual, real-life tour guides. This post is brought to you by our living guide and funnyman Owen.
My job is to make honest human connections between us Philadelphians and our guests. Common themes dominate like food and music, but there is one connection we all uncomfortably share…an expiration.
Despite all the great things about history, no one ever survives. Everyone who ever lived, if not presently living, is an ex-liver. This situation makes for a lot of cemeteries, and cemeteries – unless you’re put off by death – are great to visit. Unlike most gated spaces, cemeteries are (depending on your definition) seldom crowded.
Grave exploration is, ironically, less of a grave experience than you might think. The dead don’t seem to mind and might even enjoy the company. As an added benefit, these are some of the most beautiful and walkable places in the city. Cemeteries, by the way, are “freestanding”, whereas graveyards are usually attached to a church. That’s one to grow on.
One of the best spots is the Woodlands at 4000 Woodland Avenue. On the west bank of the Schuylkill, Woodlands estate was originally owned by the Philadelphia Lawyer Andrew Hamilton. His grandson William was a renowned botanist who introduced the Gingko biloba tree to America. While walking the Woodlands, you can also catch a great view of the Schuylkill River.
Some of your more famous dead people here are Thomas Eakins, Philadelphia’s preeminent artist; Architect Paul Philippe Cret, who designed the Benjamin Franklin Bridge; and Joseph Campbell, who perfected tomato soup. (Grilled Cheese has been around since Roman times — who knows where that guy’s buried?)
A creative way that Woodlands has found to preserve these sites is the Grave Gardeners program. Volunteers “adopt” and cultivate one of the many cradle graves with Victorian flowers. This program along with many others has brought new life to dozens of these previously forgotten burials.
A landmark that started around the same time as the Woodlands, Laurel Hill Cemetery is just a sculls row away at 3822 Ridge Avenue. Back in the early 19th century, the race to open pastoral death parks was pretty competitive. Designed by John Notman, who was the landscape artist of the time, Laurel Hill has a stunning view of the river and is, from personal experience, one of the best places to walk your dog (please curb any desecration). Historic polymath David Rittenhouse (Rittenhouse Square) is here, along with George Gordon Meade, hero of Gettysburg, and Harry Kalas, legendary baseball announcer. His grave is the one with the sculpted microphone and stadium seats.
Laurel Hill hosts a series of events that aim to incorporate all six senses. What better way to feel alive than a yoga stretch or fire show…in the middle of a cemetery.
Mount Moriah (6201 Kingsessing Avenue) is 200 acres or so of what was once one of the great cemeteries in America. You may remember it as the everlasting resting place of Betsy Ross…’til she was moved to a new everlasting resting place in ’76. Due to a lack of lawn mowers and living owners, Mount Moriah is in some places engulfed by foliage. A casual drive through often ends up on a patch of ground with no discernible entrance or exit. Very cool in a twilight-zone way but scary for the same reason. I imagine management wouldn’t fuss if you came to pay your respects…and did some weed whacking.
Edwin Adams, who you can visit in section 230, was an actor in theatre’s Edwinian age (including the likes of Edwin Booth and Edwin Forrest). His big break came in the same theatre where Lincoln was shot two nights before. Timing on stage and in life, is everything. There’s also a bunch of old-time baseball players with great old-time baseball player names like Jocko Milligan, Rube Bressler, Stew Thornley, and Babe Adams.
If you want to visit Mount Moriah, help in its restoration, and go home with something weird and spooky, time your visit to be at the Darksome Art and Craft Market, a one of a kind event that features over 85 artists specializing in the wonderfully dark and the darkly wonderful. In any case, you’ll get something that’s sure to make you the envy of the coven.
These are just some of the more well-known of Philadelphia cemeteries. As you can see, they are not just for collecting our dead but bringing together the not-so-dead. A walk through doesn’t necessarily mean stopping by uncle Charley (though, would it kill you to visit?). There are some very dedicated, creative, and energetic teams making sure that your connection with these green and granite spaces is engaging, rewarding, and as lively an experience as you can have when you’re walking with the dead.