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Credit: Kelsey Warren

Just beyond the edge of Penn’s campus lies the Woodlands Cemetery, a sprawling 54 acres of neatly kept landscape, neoclassical architecture, and over 32,000 dead bodies

The Woodlands, near Baltimore Avenue, is home to expansive burial grounds and a historical mansion that sits in its center. On Wednesday night, the Woodlands hosted a public tour of its grounds, which was lead by PennDesign assistant professor Aaron Wunsch, who also serves as the vice president of the Woodlands Board of Directors. During the tour, Wunsch discussed the cemetery's past as a funeral home and its significance in Philadelphia.

“Woodlands is really one of the two great rural cemeteries to survive in the 19th century in the city," Wunsch said. "I think it also increasingly adds a local value to the neighborhood. It’s a place people come for recreation, for jogging and walking their dogs, and for events."

The tour began with a lecture presentation about the Woodlands' history while visitors sat in the Hamilton's Mansion. Following the lecture, the approximately 20 visitors took a walking tour through the graveyard before returning to the mansion to examine historical artifacts, such as copies of old maps of the Woodlands estate dating back to the early 1800s. Wunsch also said the Woodlands played a significant role in the rural cemetery movement, which was the shift from private, in-home funerals to more institutionalized burial services.

Wunsch also described the Woodlands' close ties to Penn; the land's original owner, William Hamilton, was a Penn graduate and owned 600 acres of West Philadelphia property, which Wunsch said is “really the entire Penn campus of today.” The cemetery is also the burial grounds of Thomas W. Evans — who donated money to help create the Penn Dental School and was the former dentist of Napoleon III — and Paul Cret, former Penn professor and famous Philadelphia architect.

Credit: Kelsey Warren

Penn students can get involved with the Woodlands through PennDesign's Historic Preservation program. Emma Max, Woodlands Program and Operations manager, said the Woodlands offers internships and work-study opportunities, some of which are now filled by Penn students. She added that interns help with "site management, administration, and event planning."

In March, Penn and the Woodlands launched a collaboration with the greenhouse of the University's Carolyn Lynch Laboratory and volunteers from the program called Grave Gardeners. The volunteers aim to re-cultivate cradle graves — gravestones with allotted space for plants — in the cemetery.

Students in the freshman seminar THAR076, "Theatre in Philadelphia," also recently visited the Woodlands Mansion to watch a production of "Mary Rose." 

“It was a ghost story, so the location added a totally new layer to the story. You felt like there was history there as you walked through," said College freshman Daryn Naiburg-Smith, a student in the seminar. "Aside from being a cemetery, it is also a beautiful piece of land just to walk through."