They are grassy, shady, pretty – and many famous people are buried there. It’s time for an educational day trip to the cemetery!
Back when my kids were little and we lived in South Philly, my dad would come from the suburbs once a week and take them away from me for a few hours. He would have taken them to a playground, but the only one near us was covered in concrete and littered with broken glass. So instead he would take them in the stroller to the cemetery at Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Trinity at the 18th and Wolf, where at least there was grass. Today, cemeteries are still natural refuges filled with majestic trees, lush green lawns and wild flowers. (Better not think too much about what fertilized them.) Here are six famous local cemeteries where you can smell the fresh air, bask in the sun, enjoy the shade, and even learn a bit of history.
5th and Arch streets, old town
This Episcopal Church at 20 North American Street, founded in 1695 by William Penn’s charter, buried its dead on its grounds before establishing this two-acre cemetery in 1719. Man, it’s old. More than 4,000 early Philadelphians are buried here, including several signatories of the Declaration of Independence and star residents Ben Franklin and his common-law wife Deborah. The current church, built between 1727 and 1744, was for almost six decades the tallest building in what has become the United States. His baptismal font, sent here from England, is the one in which Penn was baptized. Entrance to the cemetery is chargeable; tours are available for a few dollars more.
Famous residents: Colonial doctor Benjamin rush; “Father of modern surgery” Philip Syng Physics; founder of the Philadelphia Zoo Guillaume Camac; Major General of the Civil War George cadwalader; “Old Ironsides” commander commodore William Bainbridge … Damn, so many people with the same names as the streets!
3822 Ridge Avenue, Fairmount Park
Laurel Hill was founded in the 1830s after one of the city’s prominent Quakers, John Jay Smith, could not find space to bury a beloved girl in the overcrowded Cherry Street cemetery in his church. Not affiliated with any religion and located on a hill above the Schuylkill – the river, not the highway that was not yet born – he was at the forefront of a new type of cemetery intended to provide a peaceful respite from the urban press. Scottish architect Jean Notman conceived the design as a kind of “Domain garden” meant to hang out, with winding trails, scenic views, and lush landscaping. Steamboats plied the river filled with city dwellers coming to Laurel Hill to bask in nature, picnic and enjoy carriage rides.
Famous residents: They have your Biddles, your Bouviers, your Furnesses, your Leas, Whartons, Wideners, Wisters …
1434 Springfield Road, Darby
The oldest black-owned cemetery in the country, Eden was opened in 1902 as Philadelphia’s response to a funeral crisis in the black community of Philadelphia. created by “Segregation, urban expansion, public works projects, vandalism, condemnation and closure of old cemeteries and black cemeteries. At the time, the opening of the cemetery was controversial, as racist white residents of Collingsdale blocked the entrance to protest the addition of a “colored cemetery” in the area. Nonetheless, the first burial took place two days later, and the 53-acre property now serves as the final resting place for more than 90,000 people. The cemetery is also now listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is part of the Pennsylvania Hallowed Grounds Project and the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.
Famous residents: the abolitionist Octavius Valentine Catto; Underground Railroad Driver (and author of The Underground Railroad Archives) Guillaume again; architect Julian Abele; opera singer Marian Anderson; doctor of medicine Rebecca J. Cole; conductor James DePreist; poet and abolitionist Frances Harper; John Taylor, the first African-American to win Olympic gold in 1908; and Henrietta Duterte, owner of a funeral home that was a stop on the Underground Railroad.
Don’t miss: The GoFundMe organized by the cemetery to support their efforts to preserve and digitize their archives.
6201 Kingsessing Avenue, Southwest Philly
This cemetery, the largest in Pennsylvania, straddles Cobbs Creek, with half in Yeadon and half in Philly. Begun in the 1850s, it was open to Christians, Jews and Muslims as well as African Americans and was accessible by streetcar. The last living member of its board of directors died in 2004, and the cemetery closed in 2011, after years of neglect on the ground. A non-profit Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery organized to maintain the grounds and graves, and the orphans court has appointed a receivership, which executes a renewal plan.
Famous residents: Flag seamstress Betsy Ross (although she was reburied At her place in the old town in 1976); military fabulist Auguste Buell; circus artist Richard Risley Carlisle; the fourth Gale ballet flats, English sisters burned alive in a tragic fire at the National Theater in 1861; musician John whitehead, by McFadden and Whitehead (as in “Ain’t No Stoppin ‘Us Now”).
Don’t miss: What remains of the splendid guard house; the thousands of graves of veterans Naval plot and soldiers’ lot, a separate section of the cemetery maintained by the Federal Department of Veterans Affairs.
822 Spruce Street, Washington Square West
Jewish traders from North America flocked to Philadelphia as it became the most vibrant city in the colonies. An ex-New Yorker, Nathan Levy, arrived in town in 1737; barely a year later, when his young child died, he bought land to establish the oldest Jewish cemetery in the country. The series of synagogues eventually built nearby became the center of Jewish life in the city. In 1956, the site became part of the Independence National Historical Park.
Famous residents: Founder Nathan Levy; Revolutionary and financial war spy Haym Solomon; brothers Simon and Hyman Gratz, for whom Thomas Jefferson wrote the first draft of the Declaration of Independence (Simon was one of the founders of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts); Jewish soldiers of the War of Independence, War of 1812 and Civil War, including Phillip moses russell, commended by George Washington for his service to Valley Forge.
Don’t miss: The tomb of Rebecca Gratz, a philanthropist and of great beauty who would have inspired the character of Rebecca, heroine of the novel by Sir Walter Scott Ivanhoe.
4000 Woodland Avenue, Southwest Philly
This 54-acre oasis was once the home of William Hamilton (1745-1813), a wealthy botanist who modeled his mansion and grounds on those he saw on a visit to England. After his death, a company of investors bought him and turned it into a cemetery. The winding trails are always packed with walkers and joggers in good weather, and there are a number of state champion trees in this National Historic District.
Famous residents: Husband and wife artists Thomas and Susan McDowell Eakins; architect Paul Philippe Crêt; Founder of Campbell Soup Joseph campbell; abolitionist Marie grew up; sculptor Guillaume Rush; illustrator Jessie Willcox Smith; surgeon Samuel david gross (of The Brute Clinic Eakins painting); members of Drexel and Biddle (and Drexel biddle) families.
Don’t miss: The “Cradle tombs”, decorative mini-gardens atop plots planted by volunteers today with flowers and shrubs popular in Victorian times.