Local cemetery is full of history
Today many use Woodlands Cemetery as a park
October 30, 2013, 6:26 pm · Updated October 30, 2013, 11:08 pm·
Patrick Hulce | DP
Jessica Baumert led a tour through the Woodlands Cemetery with a plastic femur in her hand.
She found it resting on the Receiving Vault, a large metal room in the ground where bodies were kept. This metal room was used to store bodies “in the winter months … [when] it was too cold to dig,” Baumert, who is the executive director of the Woodlands Cemetery, said.
The vault, according to Baumert, is one of the many things that makes the cemetery a unique piece of Philadelphia history — and a spooky place to visit around Halloween.
Today, the Woodlands Cemetery is 54 acres of green space nestled between the Schuykill River, University of the Sciences and the edge of Penn’s campus near Baltimore Avenue. The cemetery has 3,191 people buried on site, each with grave markers with messages which vary from poetry to bars of music with a morbid musical pun: “only resting.”
The cemetery’s permanent residents include Penn Dental School founder Thomas Wiltberger Evans, who was a dentist for Napoleon III. His tomb is marked by a towering obelisk monument, the largest funeral monument in the United States. The Drexel family, who is also buried there, has a white marble mausoleum by the mansion house. In contrast, Thomas Eakins, a famous realist painter, has a final resting place labeled only by a small gravemarker lying flush to the ground — a humble tombstone installed more than 50 years after his death.
Some monuments leave clues to the lives they mark, like an anchor that marks the death of a sailor, or a tree stump that signifies a life cut too short.
“I still see new things every time I walk around,” Baumert said.
The towering monuments are dwarfed by even larger trees.
“We have seven state champion trees,” Baumert said, adding that a tree can win such a title by ranking in the top three in the state based on measurements of height and width. Since once owner of the Woodlands estate, William Hamilton collected over 9,000 species of plants on his estate, the cemetery today still overflows with plant life.
A grove of seven ancient elms, which might date back to the 18th century, is a destination for many visitors.
“It’s like a cathedral for tree people,” Baumert joked.
For animal fans, the cemetery boasts many living residents, from hawks to red foxes.
The Woodlands Cemetery, Hamilton’s estate, once covered more than 300 acres, including all of what is today Penn’s campus. At the center of the property, the central mansion from the 18th century still stands and is now an office for those who work at Woodlands.
When Hamilton died without any direct descendants, his nieces and nephews split up the land, keeping a core 96 acres that, in 1840, became the Woodlands Cemetery.
At the time, cemeteries weren’t just a place for burials and mourning, they were also “a precursor to public parks, and people used them like parks,” Baumert said.
Although people have a different concept of cemeteries today, Baumert hopes that the Woodlands can still be used as a public green space.
“We encourage people to use it like a park, picnic here [and] use it like the Victorians did,” she said. “We let people run here, walk their dogs here… It gets a ton of use.”
Even though many use the cemetery as a park, it is still in use today for burying the dead.
“It’s still an active cemetery,” Baumert said, adding that there are between 20 and 30 internments every year.
In addition to burials, the cemetery can also be rented out for private parities.
Penn Design student Joe Huennekens works at the Woodlands Cemetery and helps with hosting events at the cemetery, including weddings held at the mansion house — as strange as a wedding in a cemetery may sound.
“I think of it as normal,” he said when this was suggested, “but I guess it’s a little macabre.”
Huennekens is also working on a project to help the cemetery become more of a part of West Philadelphia. They are currently working on “transitioning into having this be used as a community green space,” he said.
Huennekens did not find his workplace to be scary — until the other night when he was walking around after dark and couldn’t find a friend who had been there for a Halloween party.
“During the day, it’s not spooky — it’s beautiful,” he said.
Baumert agrees. For her, the Woodlands Cemetery is an “overlooked place that’s really beautiful.”
“We’re trying to get it back on the map,” she said.