Historic Sites

A Walk to Die For: Laurel Hill Cemetery


Remember me as you pass by
As you are now so once was I
As I am now you soon must be
Prepare for death and follow me.

–Jackson (56)

In the colonial period and for some time after that, the purpose of the cemetery for the living was to serve as a grim reminder of the fate that would one day befall every person. Traditionally, corpses were buried in churchyards. However, as the 18th century neared, beliefs about the nature of death began to change. This change was most evident on tombstones which began to reflect a more optimistic view of the afterlife than the one quoted above. Additionally, public health concerns surrounding cemeteries began to change. They were increasingly viewed as unsanitary and disease ridden. People were concerned about the unhealthy “miasmas” or fumes, which could emanate from the many bodies buried in these spots within the city. With the onset of the industrial revolution, the land housing the burial grounds were in demand. In the city “rapid industrialization and population growth commonly led to the disinterment of burial grounds to make way for roads and buildings” (“History” 1). These issues led to the rural cemetery movement in America.

The rural cemetery movement sought to ease the pain of death by providing a country landscape in which to experience an appreciation for history and a sense of community. At the same time, focusing the cemetery outside of the city would help, it was thought, to make life in the city healthier. A forerunner of urban parks such as New York City’s Central Park and Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park, Laurel Hill cemetery was founded by John J. Smith and approved by an act of Pennsylvania legislature in 1836.

Laurel Hill cemetery was the second major rural cemetery to be built in the United States. (Wikipedia) John J. Smith decided to open it after a bad experience in trying to bury his young daughter in one of the city’s churchyards. The first interment, that of 67 year-old Mercy Carlisle, occurred soon later on October 19, 1836 (Guide 15). The cemetery quickly became a popular recreation destination for Philadelphia residents. The trip to the cemetery, which was outside of the city at the time, took one and a half to two hours to complete. Because of its length, visitors were encouraged to see the trip as a sort of pilgrimage.


At the time “many early visitors and funeral-goers traveled to Laurel Hill in a steamboat; once the vehicles started plying the Schuylkill River on a regular basis in the 1840s. Steam boats Washington, Mount Vernon, and Frederick Graff embarked hourly on a descent between Fairmount and the Falls of Schuylkill, emptying a stream of lot holders and sightseers at Laurel Hill” (“History” 1). Once there, they could stroll, keeping to the walkways; admiring the plant life, statues and other parts of the scenery.

Laurel Hill, since its opening, has been the final resting place for a number of notable individuals. The people buried here include Thomas McKean (signer of the Declaration of Independence), David Rittenhouse, and Henry Disston. In addition, six Titanic passengers are buried here. The cemetery was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1998, one of the only cemeteries to be honored with the distinction. It continues to draw visitors today, for both the scenery and for the educational programs funded by the Friends of Laurel Hill Cemetery, which was founded in 1978.


  • Guide to Laurel Hill Cemetery, Near Philadelphia, With Illustrations. Philadelphia: C. Sherman, Printer, 1847.
  • “History.” The Laurel Hill Cemetery. (accessed 2 May 2007).
  • Jackson, Charles O. Passing: The Vision of Death in America. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1977.
  • Mc Dannell, Colleen. Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995.
  • “Laurel Hill Cemetery.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 22 April 2007. (accessed 2 May 2007).
  • “Laurel Hill Cemetery at Risk. ” Places. 11 April 2000.(accessed 2 May 2007).
  • Sloane, David C. The Last Great Necessity: Cemeteries in American History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.