LAUREL HILL CEMETERY
3822 Ridge Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19132
Bella Morte Rating: 5 Tombstones
Located along the scenic banks of the Schuylkill River, Laurel Hill is a taphophile's heaven. Though relatively small in regard to acreage, the available space has been well-used and delights the visitor at every turn.
John Jay Smith, a Quaker librarian, founded the cemetery in 1836 after an unsettling experience he recorded in his diary:
“The City of Philadelphia has been increasing so rapidly of late years that the living population has multiplied beyond the means of accommodation for the dead. On recently visiting Friends Grave Yard in Cherry Street I found it impossible to designate the resting place of a darling daughter, determined me to endeavor to procure for the citizens a suitable, neat and orderly location for a rural cemetery.”
Following the failure of several planned land purchases, Smith, along with his partners, Frederick Brown, Nathan Dunn and Benjamin W. Richards, purchased what was formerly known as the Laurel Hill Estate. The Estate encompassed 32 acres about five miles north of Philadelphia but has since grown to 78 acres, divided into three distinct sections -- the North, South and Central. Each represents expansion in the cemetery's history.
Designed by Scottish architect John Notman, Laurel Hill was planned to take full advantage of the views of the Schuylkill River. In order to attract visitors and lot-purchasers, more was needed than a lovely riverside setting, however. A luminary burial was needed, yet the elite of the day were not likely to volunteer to be the first residents lest the "neighbours" turn out to be beneath their social standing. That being the case, it was determined to "import" a body. The agreed-upon resident was former Secretary of the Continental Congress, Charles Thomson, whose remains had been at rest in the Harriton Family Cemetery in Bryn Mawr since his death in 1824. Many stories and much controversy surrounds the details of the acquisition of the bodies of Charles Thomson and his wife, Hannah. That being said, the arrival of the Thomson's set the necessary precedent and other notables began choosing Laurel Hill as their permanent after-life address. The cemetery also became a desirable destination for visitors. At the height of its popularity, it is said that “nearly 30,000 persons entered the gates between April and December, 1848.” In those days, lot holders and visitors arrived by carriage and steamboat, filling what are today the nearly-deserted lanes of one of Philadelphia's finest burial grounds.
Individuals nowadays interested in visiting the grave sites of military and political leaders will find a wealth of such burials at Laurel Hill. The office offers several guides, including maps to assist in locating the final resting places of over two dozen Civil War Generals, Millionaire's Row, the Nurse's Monument (dedicated to the women who died during the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1855) and the cemetery's most famous sculptures. These sculptures include Old Mortality, a grouping of figures which greet visitors who enter the grounds through the historic Gatehouse on Ridge Avenue. The sculpture was closed for renovations at the time of our visit and was just barely visible behind scaffolds and plywood barriers. The grouping, crafted by Scottish stonemason James Thorn, includes a bust of novelist Sir Walter Scott and a figure depicting Old Mortality, a character from Scott's novel by the same title. In the novel, Old Mortality was a pilgrim who traveled throughout Scotland recutting the inscriptions on the tombs of Presbyterian martyrs.
Section U contains the Berwind Family monument...a replica of Harriot Frishmuth's gorgeous Aspiration. Carved from stone, this sculpture stuns the viewer with its lovely depiction of a robed woman looking expectantly to the sky. A bronze replica of Aspiration graces the Rogers' Family Plot in Buffalo's Forest Lawn Cemetery.
Laurel Hill's two most recognized sculptures are the Warner Memorial and the Mother and Infants. The Warner Memorial, sculpted by yet another Scottish craftsman, Alexander Milne Calder, shows a full-sized female figure opening a casket while the spirit of its male inhabitant slips free and takes wing. Sadly, the monument has been the target of vandalism over the years; both of the woman's arms are missing as is the nose of the rising male spirit.
The Mother and Infants sculpture overlooks Fairmount Park and the Schuylkill River. The poignant monument, depicting a mother holding two infants on her lap, was carved by Polish sculptor Henry Dmochowski-Saunders to memorialize his wife and children. Notoriously susceptible to the ravages of Mother Nature, marble is a very poor choice for memorialization if one desires permanence. The Saunders monument testifies strongly to this fact. Much weathered by time and the elements, the figures, particularly of the infants, have melted into somewhat grotesque approximations of the human form.
The mother in this touching sculpture is Helena Schaaff. She was a pianist who composed The Bavarian Polka. Legend has long held that mother and children perished by drowning following a tragic boating accident on the Schuylkill River. The truth is somewhat more mundane as the strongest evidence indicates that one child was stillborn in 1855 and that Helena and her second child both died as a result of a difficult birth in 1857. Speculation as to the mysteries of who and when and how, as well as the ravaged stone itself, however, only add to the fascination and intrigue of this tribute in stone over which we are told the bereft sculptor/father/husband laboured for a year and a half before returning to Europe, never to set foot on American soil again.
Panels on the pedestal supporting the monument read as follows:
To the memory of Helena Schaaff, Wife of Henry Dmochowski-Saunders.
Born Neustadt on the Rhine May 24, 1823. Died Philadelphia July 8, 1857.
Her children repose with her.
Another panel bears these words of English poet Philip James Bailey :
"We live in deeds - not years
In thoughts - not breath
In feelings - not in figures on the dial
We should count time by heart throbs
He most lives
who thinks most
Feels the Noblest
Acts the best"
Elsewhere on the pastoral grounds of Laurel Hill lies a Bella Morte favourite, namely, the mausoleum which has become the final resting place for the Saturday Evening Post's former Editor-In-Chief, George Horace Lorimer. Constructed on one of the cemeteries lower tiers, the mausoleum is only steps from Laurel Hill's Fairmount Park/Schuylkill River border. Fortress-like with steel bars guarding its windows and door, the mausoleum features an altar-like centerpiece inscribed, in part, with the words:
"His spirit lives in light, his body rests..."
Much to our frustration, we were not able to see the remainder of the inscription.
To the rear of the centerpiece, a marble vase glows softly with the light emitted by a single light bulb. Regrettably, the grounds closed before sunset, precluding the opportunity for us to observe the light from that bulb gently illuminating the crypt's interior and spilling softly over the cemetery grounds.
During our cemetery travels, The Proprietors have noted geographic variations in burial forms. Laurel Hill introduced us to yet another we have not encountered previously; namely, glass viewing panels in in-ground family vaults. The viewing panels allow one to peer into the vault below. Although interesting in concept and fascinating to behold, the execution of what we have learned was termed a "Look Into a Grave" by its creators, leaves much to be desired. As you might imagine, the glass creates a type of greenhouse effect, encouraging the growth of plant life within the crypt. In addition, the glass collects moisture, thereby obscuring the intended subterranean view from one's topside vantage point. Fortunately, we were blessed to encounter one of these crypts on which the glass was not secured. This allowed us to remove the glass and photograph the crypt's interior before replacing the panel. (See photos in our gallery).
Although we could write many pages concerning other notable highlights of Laurel Hill, including the astonishingly beautiful mausoleums of Millionaire's Row, we will close instead with the fascinating zinc memorial to one Mrs. Catharine Drinkhouse Smith and her husband, Mr. Levi F. Smith. This square pillar quite literally speaks for itself through the extensive inscriptions it bears. For your pleasure, we quote them in their entirety here:
An open book surmounts the four-sided pillar and bears the following inscription:
New revelations from the spirit world to the children of men through
the mediumship of Mr. and Mrs. Levi F. Smith.
Mrs. Catharine Drinkhouse Smith was born at Reading, Berks County, State of Pennsylvania, on Thursday, the Fifth day of August, 1824, at 15 minutes past 5 O'clock in the morning, and passed to spirit life 15 minutes before 12 O'clock the 27th day of March, 1893, from the residence of her husband, Professor Levi Franklin Smith, 2430 Thomson Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Mrs. Smith was a devoted Spiritualist, and one of the best mediums of her time, and accomplished great good, in spreading this beautiful truth, and in demonstrating a continuity of life.
Professor Levi Franklin Smith was born at Miltown, North Stonington, Connecticut, on Wednesday, the 31st day of March, 1824, at 10 minutes past 12 O'clock in the morning and passed to spirit life October 24th, 1901, from his residence, 2430 Thomson Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Professor Smith was a philosopher and inventor, and consistent and devoted Spiritualist, and passed to spirit life with a full knowledge of this beautiful philosophy.
Panel Three: (Surmounted by a Mason's Compass)
Hands 'round, ye faithful brotherhood, the bright fraternal chain. We part upon the square below, to meet in heaven again: What words of sacred meaning, these words Masonic are, we meet upon the level, and we part upon the square. Revised by Bro. Levi F. Smith.
God is the oldest of all things, has always existed, and the world is the most beautiful and perfect of all things, because it is the work of God. Hope is the most constant of all things, because it remains with men after everything is lost. And virtue is the best of all things, because it makes men face all the dangers of life. it is not what persons think, but what they say and do, that makes them good or bad persons in the community. LIFE is eternal; DEATH is merely a change of conditions.
While in the area, be certain to take time to explore Laurel Hill's sister cemetery, West Laurel Hill. You may also wish to explore Mount Vernon. Located directly adjacent to Laurel Hill, Mount Vernon is currently closed and in a state of dereliction. That being said, it appears efforts are being made to restore the cemetery to at least a measure of its former glory. A call to the office at least 24 hours in advance of your planned visit may secure entrance to the grounds.