Imagine yourself a 19th century Philadelphian and a close member of your family has just died, perhaps a child—which was very common. Chances were that before the establishment of rural cemeteries, your loved one would be interred in one of the city’s notoriously sodden burial grounds or bone yards. As the itinerant Scottish observer Basil Hall commented, these yards where “mourners sink ankle deep in rank and offensive mould and fragments of coffins” offended 19th century Romantics’ new sense of funereal propriety.
The Philadelphia editor and publisher John Jay Smith was especially bothered by the sight of his daughter descending into an ignoble watery pit. Smith’s dismay at seeing his daughter’s memory profaned by her burial place reflects an attitudinal shift in the way people perceived the importance of death and spaces of death. As the historian Richard Morris has suggested, colonial gravescapes—their iconography, inscriptions (“time flies”), and their location close to the living—urged an awareness of the fragility of life and the prospect of judgment.
Yet, new aesthetic sensibilities in the 19th century were backgrounding the monitory aspects of graveyards. Instead, the new cemeteries, (from the Greek for “place for sleeping”), rejected the absolute divisions between death and life, the living and the dead. Ideologically, as places for sleeping they emphasized the temporary nature of death while artistically and structurally they were designed to physically engage the living. Though some dispute whether these cemeteries were intended for the public, most believe that the new rural cemeteries were designed to induce Romantic feelings—people literally enjoyed sitting next to a grave and pining over “Our only little daughter–Katie” or going through other melancholic commemorations. Yet the place was also didactic. Large graves inspired an interest in the social value of the deceased and details and inscriptions told stories, in cypher, of the dead’s guiding maxims and recipes for success. The slightly unkempt, ragged naturalistic design elements (all known to be created by man) instructed viewers in the harmonious balance of nature and civilization. Viewing these picturesque landscapes, in conjunction with the sorrowful remembrances, was considered “morally” edifying in an age of repressed feelings and garish “artificial” urban environments. Thus temporary retreats to these cemeteries were antidotes to the cold, buttoned-up urban capitalistic world.
Yet it was the fusion of public health with the new aesthetic values surrounding the Romantic cult of death that made the rural cemetery movement so popular and embraced by American cities like Rochester, Worcester, Albany, and Santa Rosa, among others. For much of the early 19th century, the miasma theory of disease propagation—that pestilence was spread through foul odors produced by rotting organic material—still held sway among the nation’s medical elite. As pointed out in a prior post, this theorizing on contagions was empirical but not epidemiological. Bad odors do tend to bode poorly for public health—but because of bacteria and not malaria or “foetid emanations.” Still the theory had traction for most of the 19th century and it was supposed that the stench of graveyards (pre-embalming) could and did cause diseases like cholera and yellow fever. Thus, as Thomas Keels notes, one of the early advertisements for Woodlands Cemetery assures family and patrons that “the decaying bodies of the dead may securely moulder into kindred dust, with an abundant vegetation and free winds to absorb and dissipate all noxious effluvia.”
What John Jay Smith wanted was to spare future Philadelphians from the disconcerting prospect of a watery grave—a statement that death was eternal, ghastly, and inalterable. In the 1830s, Smith and other notables—following the lead of Boston’s Mount Auburn Cemetery (1831) surveyed possible sites for a rural cemetery for Philadelphia. Smith’s party reviewed the grounds of William Hamilton’s Woodlands estate but ultimately decided on a patch of ground on the east bank of the Schuylkill, which would become Laurel Hill. By the late 1830s, another group of Philadelphians had secured Hamilton’s property in Blockley Township, on the west bank of the Schuylkill, with the first burial at Woodlands occurring in 1845. Both Laurel Hill and the Woodlands competed for new wealthy entrants and the honor of being the city’s premier rural cemetery, though both are now home to an amazing number of Philadelphia notables.
One such notable whose own life influenced both the design of Woodlands and the design of newer “lawn cemeteries” was Paul Phillipe Cret, who is located in the northeastern portion of the cemetery. Cret, who lived but a few hundred yards from his grave at 516 Woodland Terrace designed the main gates which sit opposite the 40th Street Portal. A set of more imposing gates were demolished in 1936. Yet Cret, who died in 1945, was slightly uneasy with 19th century monumentality, and his own grave is adorned by a small bronze plaque. It was Cret following the design ideal he had set with Whitemarsh Memorial Park in Montgomery County, which is characterized by long sweeping vistas, public buildings at central focal points, and rows upon rows of small in-ground memorial plaques.
Of Neafie and Levy Shipyard, Port Richmond.
Henry H. Moore + family. Manager of Woodlands and manufacturer of pre-made coffins.
Eli Kirk Price, architect of Philadelphia Consolidation in 1854.
Paul Phillipe Cret.
Thomas + Susan MacDowell Eakins. Ashes were buried in an unmarked grave until someone donated this one in 1983.
Wm. Hamilton’s Woodlands.
Inventor of chrome tannage. Immortalized forever.
Samuel D. Gross. Gross Clinic Gross.