WEST LAUREL HILL CEMETERY
215 Belmont Avenue
Bala Cynwyd, PA 19004
Bella Morte Rating: 5 Tombstones
SISTE VIATOR. The words are chiseled into several pillars which once served as the main gate (off Belmont Avenue) leading into West Laurel Hill Cemetery. Centuries ago, the Latin message was commonly seen on roadside tombs in ancient Rome. They beckon, "Stop, Traveller." Indeed, if one happens to be a taphophile, there are few places in the Philadelphia area more inviting to pause and rest at than West Laurel Hill Cemetery, the lovely daughter of nearby Laurel Hill. (Note: These gates also contain the curious inclusion of two dates: 1871 & 1909. The former refers to the year the cemetery was officially incorporated. The latter reflects the date this set of gates, which are not original to the grounds, were added in order to create a grand and appealing entrance to the cemetery).
West Laurel Hill was born out of necessity when the older burial ground (Laurel Hill) found itself constrained by its own borders. The founders of the new cemetery sought acreage beyond the city limits. Eventually, they settled upon land at a considerable elevation above the Schuylkill River. One immediate problem was determining how to bring the bodies of the deceased into the cemetery. At Laurel Hill, steamboats served this purpose nicely; however, the aforementioned elevation made water delivery impossible. The solution was found in the railroad. Indeed, at Pencoyd Station, a dedicated rail was made exclusively for the purpose of carrying funeral trains to West Laurel Hill. Today, no trace of the railroad remains on cemetery grounds, but visitors may wish to step beyond the Chapel of Peace and the new Bringhurst Funeral Home and imagine the days when steam whistles would bellow, announcing the arrival of visitors and, of course, many new "residents.".
But enough of such things...
Upon entering through the Belmont Avenue gates, visitors will notice one of the cemetery's most striking features...its proliferation of mausoleums. Here, there are veritable neighbourhoods where the dead vie with each other for bragging rights over the most opulent eternal homes. Marble walls ascend skyward or bask in the cool shade afforded by impeccable landscaping. Curving paths invite exploration as they wind through trees and sweetly-scented bushes interspersed by the omnipresent mausoleums. Be certain to step up to each and every building and peer inside. Many are bathed in the multi-coloured light cast by breathtaking stained-glass windows. Some are lined with brilliant mosaics. Others are simple but elegant. All are worth a peek!
One of the largest mausoleums in the cemetery belongs to the Betz Family. John Betz, a devout Lutheran, undertook the construction of his final resting place while he was still young and strong. He hired the finest workmen and fed and sheltered them for many months as they strove to complete their monumental task. Today, taphophiles and others can glance inside where they will behold a large stained-glass window with a religious motif. Beneath the widow is a large altar in front of which stands a bust of Martin Luther. No tombs are visible and that is explained by the fact that a stairway (not visible from the front door) leads into the crypt where a handful of sarcophagi lie in the cool stillness, patiently bearing the remains of the Betz Family.
Another mausoleum of note is the Drake building. Resting on a premium corner lot, it is remarkable for the fact each of its topmost corners is guarded by a stone sphinx. Inside rest the bodies of Charlotte Drake and her son, Thomas. Charlotte was the daughter of a wealthy industrialist, also named Thomas. When Charlotte's father died, he left his daughter an extraordinarily wealthy woman...and Charlotte was not one who had a problem spending money. She bestowed millions to aid the poor and needy, while also spending a great deal on travel, clothing and entertainment. Adventurous and daring, Charlotte learned to shoot in her youth. Noted as an excellent marksman, she hunted big game in Africa, India and other exotic locales. She was also a collector of art and a lover of opera who, when in attendance, was accompanied by armed guards who were there to protect the woman and her jewels. Charlotte married James Warburton Martinez Cardeza in 1874. One year later, she gave birth to a son whom she named Thomas, after her father. Sadly, her husband took a mistress. Soon after, Charlotte left him and, with her son, embarked on travels around the globe on their yacht, The Eleanor.
In 1912, heading back to the United States after an African safari, the two boarded the Titanic. Between them, they carried the largest amount of luggage of anyone else aboard. This consisted of 14 steamer trunks, 4 suitcases and 3 crates loaded with various baggage. The suite they retained was one of two "Millionaire Suites." The cost for the suite was $3,300 which, in today's terms would be equivalent to approximately $80,000. Their possessions would be valued in excess of $4,000,000! Although all of these belongings were lost when the ship went down, both Charlotte and Thomas were saved...escaping in Lifeboat #3. Charlotte continued to enjoy life until her death from heart disease in 1939. Her son followed her in 1951. The Charlotte Drake Cardeza Foundation for Hemoglobin Research is one of his legacies.
There is also the curious mausoleum of one Algernon Sydney Logan (1849 - 1925). What makes the structure unique is not the building itself, which is of simple style with an Egyptian motif;rather, it is the large obelisk which stands in front as if meaning to guard the doors. Upon the four sides are a number of inscriptions. One is fairly conventional:
"All worthy effort is its own reward;
Who looks for more is out of tune with time;
Nature but bids our hearts to find accord,
With the wind-currents of her shifting clime."
Another depicts the face of a clock stopped at 3:00.
Yet another will leave its reader scratching his/her head in puzzlement:
The Last Crusade
The Mirror Of A Mind
The Image Of Air
Jesus In Modern Life
Not On The Chart
Vistas From The Stream
Fortunately, The Proprietors have solved this riddle. These are all titles of works penned by Mr. Logan himself. Known as a rebel in his own time, Algernon was a poet, writer, violinist, pianist and avid boater. He was known for his extraordinarily liberal bent which extended to his views of sex, politics and religion.
When visiting West Laurel Hill, be sure to travel to the back of the cemetery where the old receiving vaults now stand, abandoned and forlorn but still maintaining a quiet dignity. These vaults were once used to hold the bodies of the dead during the winter months when the ground was frozen fast and unwilling to be opened. At the height of the cemetery's fame, two additional vaults were added to accommodate all of the bodies.
Not all sections of West Laurel Hill are as heavily-populated by mausoleums, though it's difficult to stroll anywhere and find nothing but family vaults and traditional stone memorials. Indeed, West Laurel Hill is home to several remarkable sculptures. One of the most impressive is the mighty Rebmann angel who keeps silent watch near the cemetery's Conservatory. In her hands, she clasps a flame (suggestive of the soul she guards). With powerful wings outstretched, she appears ready to carry her precious cargo to the heavens towards which she gazes.
Nearby, the family of Charles W. Soulas (wealthy restaurateurs) claims a woman in a dramatically-draped gown as their sentinel. The family vault itself rests before the stone. Fifteen feet in depth, the vault is covered by a peaked roof inset with two glass windows. Visitors are invited to peer into the gloom and contemplate mortality. This curious burial practice, Victorian in origin, was often referred to as "A Look Into A Grave."
Those interested in baseball will want to stop by the bronze figure of Harry Wright which stands atop a column decorated with two crossed baseball bats at the center of which rests a baseball. Mr. Wright helped popularize the game of baseball by creating (in 1869) the first team to be paid for playing! They were the Cincinnati Red Stockings.
West Laurel Hill also has a columbarium housed inside the Chapel of Peace. Built in 1938, this Gothic-Revival building also contains a crematorium and a chapel for memorial services.
If one is interested in Green Burial, West Laurel Hill is also a pioneer in this realm. On 30 April, 2009 the first burial took place in the newly-established "Nature's Sanctuary" section of the grounds.
When visiting this truly phenomenal cemetery, plan to spend many hours and, if possible, travel on foot to get the best views inside the proliferation of mausoleums. Enjoy the stained-glass, the calming shade beneath myriad trees (the cemetery is also a noted arboretum) and, of course, the host of sculptures, vaults and stones. Also, be certain to visit nearby Laurel Hill. These are two 5-Tombstone treasures not to be missed!