Laurel Hill Cemetery unveils 175th anniversary mural

WHYY NewsWorks - October 24, 2011

By Lane Blackmer

A freshly painted mural on the historic grounds of Laurel Hill Cemetery in East Falls depicts the cycle of life.

Flowers in full bloom are juxtaposed with gravestones, flower buds, and a bird's nest under a pale yellow sky.  

The mural, called "Peace Like a River," was unveiled to the public on Sunday to commemorate the historic landmark's 175th anniversary. It's located on the side of a building that stands on land which first belonged to the cemetery, but was sold after the area became more developed. 

"We re-acquired the building [and] wanted to find a way to mark it as our own," said Gwen Kaminski, director of development and programs for the cemetery. "And what better way to do so [than a mural]."

Through the city's Mural Arts Program, artist Dennis Haugh was paired with the cemetery.

"From the time I was a small child, I often passed by Laurel Hill Cemetery and was curious," said Haugh. "Despite this intrigue, and driving by for decades, I never visited the cemetery."

Haugh said in the post-war period, fences with barbed wire were constructed around the cemetery, seemingly to keep out kids who might deface headstones.

But that mindset has since shifted, he said.

"Now the attitude is to connect with the community, rather than wall it off," said Haugh, who spent more than a year learning about the cemetery's history. Haugh incorporated this theme into the mural.

"[I wanted to] break through the wall to create this visual," he said. "And to give the illusion that it's not a flat wall and you can walk into it."

He said he created a ring of Mountain Laurel — the state flower — around the mural to show the cycle of life and death. The flowers were shown in different stages of development — as pods, blossoms and flowers — to show the stages of life.

The mural also depicted historic and famous elements of the graveyard, such as Phillies sportscaster Harry Kalas' grave and a headstone made by Alexander Milne Calder — the artist responsible for the statue of William Penn on top of City Hall.

"[The mural] almost reminds me of a Victorian postcard," said Amy Johnston, information and events specialist for the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program.

Engaging a community with art 

Harry Hasheinn, a fellow artist and friend of Haugh, said he thinks the mural will help engage community members more with the cemetery.

"Instead of it being a vacant lot, you could give [community members] a couple of places to sit, they could come and contemplate [the painting]," said Hasheinn. "You can't even get that in a museum."

Hasheinn grew up in Philadelphia and said about 60 years ago he remembers trolley tracks leading directly into the cemetery.

Loved ones would ride with the deceased in a hearse trolley directly to the cemetery.

"[Because of that,] I never learned to fear the passing of someone," said Hasheinn. 

In an initiative to generate revenue for site maintenance, the Friends of Laurel Hill Cemetery offer programs that encourage families to look past perceptions of burial places as spooky and see them as Philadelphians in the 1800s did — a place full of life.

One of the cemetery's founders, John Jay Smith, was inspired in 1836 to create a "beautiful space where the dead could rest in peace" after he was unable to find his 5-year-old daughter's grave in a mucky, unkempt city cemetery, said Kaminski.

After the cemetery was put in place, people could be found picnicking at the gravesite of loved ones.

Kaminski said more active cemeteries have hundreds of burials per year, but Laurel Hill Cemetery only has about 20. To generate revenue, the cemetery hosts about 65 public programs per year.

A "slice of history"

The mural dedication ceremony was immediately followed by a Fall Family Day, which included scavenger hunts, arts and crafts, and Halloween games for kids and adults.

Astra Thomas, who brought her four-year-old son to the festivities, said she believes that accepting death as a part of life is important.

"People tend to not think about death," she said. "And coming to a cemetery helps people to believe that death is not so scary."

Thomas said she takes her son to cemeteries — even on events not associated with Halloween — to have a larger space to run around, as well as to have picnics.

"[Cemeteries] are way underutilized," she said.

Elyssa Kane said her husband chose to picnic at the cemetery as a birthday celebration so they, as well as their children, could experience something they'd never seen in the city.

"It's a slice of history," said Kane. "Look at all these famous Philadelphians."

David Horwitz, Friends of Laurel Hill Cemetery board member, said he was glad to see families making use of the historic neighborhood space. 

"This is for the living and the dead," said David Horwitz. "They didn't leave this all behind not to be seen."

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