When you’re driving by, Laurel Hill looks every bit the cemetery. The 78-acre National Historical Landmark looms above East Falls with elaborate, crumbling monuments, the 179-year-old resting place of everyone from Civil War generals to unlucky Titanic passengers. Even as an adult, you’re tempted to hold your breath while passing, just in case the urban legend is true.
But once inside the gates, Laurel Hill is a decidedly different story. During the summer’s popular Cinema in the Cemetery screenings, families sprawled out with picnics, couples cuddled up among the tombstones and dogs sniffed out rogue popcorn. Many arrived early to watch the sun drop over the Schuylkill River, and then lingered late to enjoy the cricket concert.
Far from trendy, the cemetery’s ambitious programming — which includes everything from movie nights to yoga classes to cabaret — is a return to form of sorts.
“The cemetery was meant to be not only a sacred burial ground for the dead, but a place for the living to enjoy,” says Emma Stern, Laurel Hill’s director of programs.
“Victorians had a very different view on death than we do today. They traveled to Laurel Hill by way of steamboat in the hundreds, just to picnic, tour and enjoy the stunning scenery,” she says.
“Today, people are surprised to learn that they can bike, dog walk, take pictures, attend a program and use the grounds as a recreational site — just as the founders intended.”
As scenic and peaceful as the cemetery is, once the sun goes down, you tend to remember where you are. But according to Stern, you shouldn’t be afraid to take the long, dark walk to the bathrooms should you attend an after-hours event this fall. “Our resident group of paranormal investigators tell me that they’ve only detected ‘benevolent spirits’ out on the grounds,” she assures us. “I like to keep that in the back of mind when I’m walking alone.”
The lead-up to Halloween:
With only about 30 new burials per year, Laurel Hill’s programming helps to support the cemetery while educating and entertaining visitors. Here are just a few of October’s highlights.
Edgar Allan Poe: Deep Into That Darkness
BYO flashlight for this walking tour focusing on Poe’s time in Philadelphia and his associates, many of whom now call Laurel Hill home. Oct. 6, $18-$20; reservations suggested
True Tales From the Tombs: Mischief Night by Firelight
The night before Halloween, this candlelight tour through the mausoleums and tombstones highlights notable residents. Oct. 30, $20
Halloween Picnic and Parade
This family-friendly Saturday afternoon includes arts and crafts, storytelling, a pumpkin patch and sweet treats. Costumes encouraged! Oct. 31, $5
Laurel Hill Cemetery is located at 3822 Ridge Ave. Go to www.thelaurelhillcemetery.org for more details on upcoming events.