In the fall, bikers in Halloween costume ride through Woodlands Cemetery. In spring, gardeners adopt graves, turning them into flower plots. In summer, runners take the one-mile trail around the perimeter. And this winter, as in the past, folks will don snow shoes to traverse through the cemetery, to the 250-year old stone mansion overlooking the oasis in West Philly. Outside Woodlands’ large iron gates is the city; inside, an oasis full of trees, architectural wonders of an elite past, and never-ending stories of over 30,000 buried Philadelphians.
“When people come in they understand we are a cemetery,” says Jessica Baumert, executive director of The Woodlands, “but we are also more than a cemetery.”
The Woodlands, like other Philly historic cemeteries, is an almost secret trove of history and community. In the early 1800s, William Hamilton—the grandson of Andrew Hamilton, the “Philadelphia lawyer” who is known for winning the case that established that truth is a defense to an accusation of libel—inherited the land from his family and turned it into a grand English estate. (If you have ever heard the phrase, “It would take a Philadelphia lawyer to get him off!”, they are talking about Hamilton.) At its largest, the estate encompassed 600 acres extending from Woodland Avenue between 43rd and 44th streets, all the way along the river up to 30th Street Station, covering where the University of Pennsylvania and much of Drexel University are today. Within these grounds, William created his “Park Garden”—a core 90-acre plot of land with hundreds of species of plants and trees from all over the world. He welcomed guests to his Park Garden to sit under the trees, meander along the winding roadways, view his art collection and exotic greenhouse, and admire the Federal-style architecture.
The Grave Gardeners are there to give old plots love; some go so far as to do extensive research on the buried person so they can plant flowers he or she would appreciate. “Putting love into someone else’s grave can spiritually connect you to those you have lost in your life,” says Baumert.
William died, as we do, and in 1840, Eli K. Price, another altruistic lawyer known for strengthening married women’s rights to property, purchased what remained of the Park Garden and started the Woodland Cemetery Company drawing inspiration from the rural cemetery movement in Europe at the time. The rural cemetery movement instigated park-like burial grounds featuring landscaped lawns, monuments, and sculptures. Families used the cemeteries for outdoor leisure activities both to be with their lost loves and because public parks didn’t exist yet.
That’s the vision Baumert has pushed since joining the Woodlands in 2011. “The Woodlands is an active cemetery with space available for burials if you need it,” Baumert says, “but our priority is now on creating a cultural community oriented space.”
One of Woodlands’ most exciting programs is the Grave Gardeners, a group of volunteers who each adopt a grave and commit to taking care of it for the growing season. (Applications for next season’s Grave Gardeners are due January 20.) Many abandoned or old plots are “cradle graves,” which are intended to be planters. The Grave Gardeners are there to give them love; some go so far as to do extensive research on the buried person so they can plant flowers he or she would appreciate. “Putting love into someone else’s grave can spiritually connect you to those you have lost in your life,” says Baumert, describing a gardener who reported feeling closer to her late grandfather through her work as a Grave Gardener.
With so many people buried in the Woodlands, Grave Gardeners are constantly discovering lost or forgotten histories, like feminist Mary Grew, a 19th-century activist who fought for women’s suffrage and the abolition of slavery. With Trump in the foreground, Baumert plans to initiate social-justice driven public programs that connect the histories of activists buried in the cemetery with current social and political issues.
The Woodlands already offers family programming, with scientists who offer nature education related to animals in the cemetery or history lessons about the science-minded folk buried there. Last year’s Firefly Night, for example, featured educators from The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University to share how animals communicate and attract mates (including fireflies). Over 350 people picnicked on the lawn while children ran around catching fireflies.
An ongoing movies series, HollyWoodlands, featured Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. Movie-goers were encouraged to dress up for an 18th-century croquet game and picnic complete with tea sandwiches provided by PB&Jams and goods from Lil’ Pop Shop, both neighborhood businesses. “We try to partner with as many people as we can to bring more resources to the table”, says Baumert.
All this hearkens back to the 19th century, when it was normal to picnic on and near the gravesites of your loved ones. Now we rarely visit the graves of those we’ve lost. Death is scary. It’s unknown. We avoid it. The Woodlands is a perfect place to grapple with that fear. “There’s a role we can play in changing our perceptions of death,” Baumert states, “By utilizing the Woodlands as a peaceful escape, I think we are psychologically finding a better perspective on death. It helps us remember that we are not going to be here forever but that that is ok.”
Philly’s better known Laurel Hill cemetery was also a leading purveyor in the rural cemetery movement and still houses movie nights, walking tours, and ghost hunts. In Germany, cemeteries are being turned into playgrounds and parks that even allow children to climb on the headstones encouraging exploration. The Evergreen Cemetery in Portland, Maine is a 236-acre municipally owned park that is larger than the “regular” park in the city. People go there to run, hike, bike, picnic, snowshoe, and cross country ski. The Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles hosts movie nights through their program Cinespia, a festival for Dia de los Muertos, and serves as a concert venue.
“There’s this man who lives in the neighborhood who comes to the center circle nearly every day to practice his saxophone,” says Baumert. “I love that we can be that kind of place for him.”
Woodlands is part of this movement, with a distinctly Philly flair, as with Baumert’s favorite regular occurrence: “There’s this man who lives in the neighborhood who comes to the center circle nearly every day to practice his saxophone. I love that we can be that kind of place for him.”
Avoiding cemeteries because they are only left for the dead seems like a dark lonely future for all of us. Rather than being alone in a dark box with nothing but the cool winds blowing above me, I’d love to have people picnicking on top of me catching fireflies and watching the Halloween Bike Parade go by.
To experience The Woodlands this winter, check out their Facebook page for announcements of Spontaneous Snowshoeing events, where you can also get information about applying to be a Grave Gardener.Header photo by Ryan Collerd