Students unearth the past at The Laurel Hill Cemetery


Civil War Major General George Gordon Meade, best known for defeating Confederate General Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Gettysburg, resides at Laurel Hill Cemetery. Photo courtesy of Mike Schultz

By Shondalea Wollaston

If you think Laurel Hill Cemetery is just another cemetery well, you would be dead wrong.

Laurel Hill’s 78 acres of art, history and scenic landscapes have become a sanctuary for city dwellers looking for a peaceful retreat or escape from the hustle and bustle of the city.

According to Laurel Hill’s website, founded in 1836 as an alternative to the overcrowded churchyards of rapidly growing Philadelphia, Laurel Hill Cemetery was the first rural cemetery for the city and the second in the United States. With monuments designed by the era’s most prominent sculptors and architects, it served as elite Philadelphian’s preferred burial place for over a century.

Overlooking the Schuylkill River, visitors will find a wealth of history and culture, along with plenty of festive activities such as Love Stories Wintertime Walking Tour, which takes place in February, and was inspired by the story of a little-known woman whose heart – and only her heart, according to the website – now lies buried beneath the cemetery’s earth.

The Laurel Hill Cemetery project began when communications studies professor Tanya Gardner, inspired by an NPR broadcast that branded Laurel Hill as an educational institution, saw an opportunity to connect the cemetery with DCCC for the sake of offering a hands-on learning experience to students.

“It became an experimental project,” Gardner said.

In a collaborated effort between the Director of Education at Laurel Hill, Elizabeth Savastana, and other Professors from DCCC, the project offers students an opportunity to not only discover the historical significance of the cemetery, but a chance to come away with a reflection of life itself.

Gardner, realizing that most people shy away from the concept of death, hopes that students can overcome their fears and return with a meaningful learning experience.

“It has been said that life is a great teacher, so I think death is the ultimate professor,” Gardner said.

Several class trips were made to the grounds at Laurel Hill, each presenting different motivations, and each returning with different stories.

Professor Gardner feels that using a historical cemetery as a classroom will offer students an opportunity to intellectually focus on issues of life, death, and the grieving process, which ultimately celebrates life.

“We value youth and often avoid these fears associated with this issue and it can even become crippling,” Gardner said.

Her hope is that students will be able to explore their own beliefs and understandings of these issues.

History Professor Jeffery LaMonica’s history and global studies classes visited famous graves dating back to the Civil War, such as Major General George Gordon Meade, best known for defeating Confederate General Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Gettysburg.

According to LaMonica, the cemetery is filled with many graves from the civil war era.

“It was really kind of neat to see,” said LaMonica. “Getting to the archives to see the burial cards, especially Meade’s, was a priority. Students got to actually see that there are burial cards for every person buried in the cemetery.”

LaMonica also noted that the size of the cemetery and time constraints of the tour proved to be challenging for those who really wanted to see more.

“The cemetery is huge and there is just so much to see,” LaMonica said.

Professor David Robson’s English 112 classes visited Laurel Hill for a hands-on approach to learning. The intent was to educate students on the importance of being able to hold a primary source of research, such as an actual death record, as opposed to searching a digital database for information.

“It was a fact-finding mission,” Robson said.

Students were allowed to choose, at random, one name from a given list. They began by scouring through research sites such as and various digital databases, to gather as much information as possible to fill in the blanks as to the life and death of that person.

“You dig like an archeologist and often end up in a completely different direction than you expected,” Robson said.

The goal was for his students to come away with an understanding that there is so much more to research than pulling information from a digital database.

“It is about pulling out the puzzle pieces, hitting a brick wall, and deciding whether to stay there, banging your head, or find a way around,” Robson said.

The Laurel Hill website describes the cemetery as a horticultural gem, thanks in part to its amazing outdoor sculpture garden, and has been designated as a National Historical Landmark, as it is the final resting place for some of the area’s most well respected, prominent men and women.

According to the website, Sarah Joseph Hale, who died in 1879, credited with making Thanksgiving a national holiday, is a resident at Laurel Hill.

Harry Kalas, hall of fame sports broadcaster for the Philadelphia Phillies from 1971-2009, whose grave is marked by a large microphone monument, sod from Citizen’s Bank Park, and seats from Veteran’s stadium, is also buried there.

Others include Mercy Carlisle, the first to be buried at Laurel Hill and David Rittenhouse, astronomer, inventor, and first director of the U.S. Mint according to Encyclopedia Britannica.

More than a cemetery, Laurel Hill became an outdoor art museum and tourist attraction and provided a prototype for Fairmount Park, according to The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.

On Apr. 19, 2017, from 4:00- 7:00, Kaitlyn Flaherty will open the art gallery at Marple to showcase a multitude of works from classes taught by photography professor David Yox, English professors Adam Renchen and Stacy Cartledge, Professor of Music, Richard Belcastro, World Religions Professor Francesco Bellini, as well as Robeson and Lamonica’s students. The work will remain in the gallery until 6:00 on Apr. 20, 2017.

Contact Shondalea Wollaston at

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