The Friendly Landscape of Laurel Hill Cemetery

By Tom Keels

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Photo:  Courtesy of Laurel Hill Cemetery

The truest end of life, is to know the life that never ends. He that makes this his care, will find it his crown at last. And he that lives to live ever, never fears dying: nor can the means be terrible to him that heartily believes the end.   (Wm. Penn)

THE FRIENDLY LANDSCAPE OF LAUREL HILL CEMETERY

By Thomas H. Keels

 Laurel Hill Cemetery, on the east bank of the Schuylkill River in the East Falls neighborhood of Philadelphia, is the city’s foremost nineteenth-century necropolis.  Founded in 1836, the 78-acre National Historic Landmark is the oldest rural cemetery in Philadelphia, and the second oldest in America.  Its estimated 100,000 residents include over forty Civil War generals (including George Gordon Meade, who defeated Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Gettysburg); a dozen Philadelphia mayors; industrialists like P.A.B. Widener and Henry Disston; and beloved Phillies announcer Harry Kalas, buried beneath a granite replica of his microphone.

Today, Laurel Hill is a revivified landscape, thanks in great part to the Friends of Laurel Hill Cemetery, founded in 1978.  Every year, tens of thousands of visitors enter its neoclassical gatehouse on Ridge Avenue.  Besides its popular Halloween Soul Crawls, they enjoy weekly tours on a variety of topics, theatrical and musical performances, poetry readings, nature walks, and 5K runs.  Some come simply to stroll through the beautiful grounds and enjoy the bucolic serenity in the midst of a bustling city.  Few visitors realize they are enjoying a landscape shaped by a Quaker sensibility, an attempt to soften the pain of death by placing it within a peaceful, soothing environment.

In November 1835, a Philadelphia gentleman named John Jay Smith (1798 – 1881) invited several associates to discuss the founding of a garden or rural cemetery, similar to Mount Auburn, established in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1831.  Smith was Librarian at the Library Company of Philadelphia (equivalent to its Executive Director today), an editor and author, and a talented horticulturist.  He was a member of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting at Arch Street Meeting House.  A descendant of James Logan, he was related by blood or marriage to every other old Quaker clan in Philadelphia.  Smith was also an entrepreneur struggling to support a large family.  As cities like Philadelphia grew congested and urban burial grounds were filled to capacity, the rural cemetery – an Arcadian landscape of elegant monuments set among beautiful plantings, outside the city yet accessible by train or steamboat – presented an enticing investment opportunity.

Smith’s interest in rural cemeteries went beyond profits.  He was unhappy with early Quakers’ simple burial rituals, and criticized Arch Street Meeting for losing “the location of the interment of their members by not permitting gravestones” and for “greatly neglecting the last resting-place of the people who were not without sensibility when alive.”  Recently, he had lost his young daughter Gulielma to disease.  Since Arch Street had no burial space, the child was interred at the Friends’ Western Burial Ground, a remote and barren site at Race and 16th Streets (today the location of Friends Select School).  Smith was distressed to see Gulielma’s small coffin lowered into a grave half-filled with water.  His despair increased when he returned later and was unable to locate his daughter’s grave.  This traumatic experience made Smith determined to establish “a suitable, neat and orderly location for a rural cemetery.”

Among those summoned by Smith was Quaker merchant Nathan Dunn (1782 – 1845).  After being disowned by the Philadelphia Monthly Meeting in 1816 for bankruptcy, Dunn had grown wealthy trading with China, earning acclaim as one of the few Western merchants who refused to participate in the opium trade.  When he returned to Philadelphia in 1832, he held a dinner at his home for his creditors, presenting each guest with a check for the total amount of the debt owed him.  Later in life, Dunn became a major supporter of Haverford College, donating $20,000 to the fledgling institution in 1840.

At the November 1835 meeting that established the Laurel Hill Cemetery Company, Dunn was elected president while Smith was named secretary and treasurer.  It was Dunn who paid $15,200 for a 32-acre estate in the Falls of Schuylkill for the cemetery site.  Smith hired a young Scottish architect named John Notman, who laid out Laurel Hill’s picturesque design and created an imposing gatehouse.  Nathan Dunn was also involved in design and construction, often clashing with Smith by suggesting improvements of “a very expensive kind.”  Smith made Laurel Hill a showplace for his horticultural skills by planting thousands of trees and shrubs, including such suitably funereal plants as rhododendron and Normandy poplars.

As Laurel Hill Cemetery took shape during 1836, Philadelphians rode out along the Ridge Road to the Falls of Schuylkill to wonder at this new Garden of Eden.  One commentator praised Laurel Hill’s founders for transforming the public image of a burial ground from “a charnel-house” to one “associated with grateful shades and fragrant foliage, amid zephyrs, and the carol of birds.  It is the place for rest to the soul – the place for serenity and meditation.”

A frequent visitor to Laurel Hill was a 72-year-old Quaker woman named Mercy Carlisle (1764 – 1836).  Carlisle, a member of Green Street Monthly Meeting, knew she was dying.  She selected a burial spot beneath a copse of five large pines in the central Medallion section of the cemetery.  On October 21, 1836, Mercy Carlisle became the first interment at Laurel Hill.  John Jay Smith noted with pride that this first funeral was “conducted in a very orderly manner.”  He was also pleased that “contrary to the opinion of numerous croakers opposed to our plan, we found the digging very good; the soil of the best kind for graves, and but very few stones.”

After a shaky start due to the financial panic of 1837, Laurel Hill Cemetery became the resting place of choice for upper-class Philadelphians.  Its managers promoted the graveyard by reinterring famous Philadelphians connected with the Revolutionary War, creating an American pantheon.  Several of the relocated patriots had Quaker connections.  David Rittenhouse (1732 – 1796), the famous astronomer and mathematician, was the son of a German Mennonite father and a Quaker mother (Elizabeth Williams).  Charles Thomson (1729 – 1824), secretary of the Continental Congress from 1774 to 1789, was a Presbyterian who married the Quaker Hannah Harrison, mistress of Harriton Plantation in Bryn Mawr.

John Jay Smith envisioned Laurel Hill Cemetery as non-sectarian, although limited to Protestant denominations.  He was frustrated by Quakers’ determination to stick together, noting that “No sect, probably, had a greater horror of mixing with others, and especially in the grave.”  When the managers acquired a second property south of Hunting Park Avenue in 1844 that became South Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia Friends selected a small plot in the new section for themselves.  Today, the “Quaker Enclave” is filled with small, simple stones bearing such names as Waln, Wistar, and Yarnall.

The “Quaker Enclave” is the final resting place of several Friends who were leading lights of the faith during the 19th and early 20th centuries.  Educator and reformer Mary Anna Longstreth (1811 – 1884) devoted much of her life to fighting slavery and caring for the poor.  Physician Thomas Story Kirkbride (1809 – 1883) revolutionized the humane treatment of those with mental disorders, and helped to found the American Psychiatric Association.  Richard Vaux (1816 – 1895), son of social reformer Roberts Vaux, was mayor of Philadelphia from 1856 until 1858.  To fight crime, he enlarged the police department and accompanied them on nighttime raids to battle street gangs like the Moyamensing Killers.  John Morris (1847 – 1915) and his sister Lydia Morris (1849 – 1932), heirs to an iron works fortune, created their own horticultural wonderland at their Chestnut Hill estate Compton, importing rare specimens from around the globe.  After Lydia’s death, Compton became the Morris Arboretum of the University of Philadelphia.

Other well-known Friends are scattered throughout Laurel Hill.  Hannah M. Bouvier Peterson (1811 – 1870) wrote numerous textbooks, including Bouvier’s Familiar Astronomy.  Joseph Wharton (1826 – 1909), co-founder of the Bethlehem Steel Company, donated $100,000 to the University of Pennsylvania in 1881 to create the School of Business that bears his name.  Joseph Pancoast (1805 – 1882) and his son, William Henry Pancoast (1835 – 1897), were renowned surgeons who both headed the Anatomy Department at Penn.

Today, much of Laurel Hill’s Quaker influence and presence are largely forgotten.  As a tour guide at Laurel Hill and an attender at Upper Dublin Monthly Meeting, I decided to help revive the Quaker tradition by creating a new tour, “Firebrands, Physicians, and Friends: the Quakers of Laurel Hill Cemetery,” from which the material for this article was drawn.  In October 2018, I had the pleasure of leading members of UDMM on a well-received test run of the tour.  “Firebrands, Physicians, and Friends” will be offered to the public in 2019, but we would also like to make it available to Philadelphia-area meetings interested in learning more about their heritage at this historic site.  If you would like to arrange a group tour, please email me at thkeels@gmail.com or contact the Laurel Hill office at https://thelaurelhillcemetery.org/contact or (215) 228-8200.

 

Thomas H. Keels is a local author, historian and lecturer.  To learn more about Tom’s seven books on Philadelphia history, visit his web site at www.thomaskeels.com or his Facebook page.