Similarly, Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill and its sister cemetery West Laurel Hill were founded in the 19th century as alternatives to the churchyards. In his diary in 1835, Laurel Hill’s founder John Jay Smith described how “on recently visiting Friends grave yard in Cherry Street I found it impossible to designate the resting place of a darling daughter”. It led him to “procure for the citizens a suitable, neat and orderly location for a rural cemetery”. He picked a picturesque spot overlooking the Schuylkill River.
Of the rural cemeteries, Nancy Goldenberg, President and CEO of Laurel Hill and West Laurel Hill says, “There were no parks: these were the parks. These were places where people could escape the din and dirt of a city and pack their picnic baskets and hop on a mule or a boat and go upriver and spend a day in a beautiful setting.”
The cemetery has stayed open through COVID-19, still offering that escape. “I think it’s really critical to balance this need to provide safe outdoor space to help a community maintain its wellness during particularly stressful times with the need for social distancing,” Goldenberg says.
She adds that the pace of a cemetery visit tends to be different from one to a park. A cemetery offers something meditative, with the decades of family history, love, friendship and loss recorded on its monuments. “It’s really important for people to connect to what’s meaningful to them right now,” she says. “And much of what’s meaningful can be found in a cemetery.”