Laurel Hill Cemetery: A Walk Through Philadelphia’s Past

When Laurel Hill Cemetery was founded in the 19th century, cemeteries were places where visitors would come to enjoy the grounds and the scenery. With elaborate monuments and attractive surroundings, Laurel Hill is among the unique spots to visit in Philadelphia.  

We love exploring the cemetery’s 78-acre park-like setting, and the sweeping views of the Schuylkill River don’t hurt either. It is full of places to walk, bike, and enjoy nature. There are more than 30,000 monuments to peruse, some of which are featured on regular, expert-led tours of the grounds.

Overhead view of a river crossed by a bridge in the distance.
View of the Schuylkill River

We navigate our way through Laurel Hill using their app which has paths among notable monuments starting either from the gatehouse or the pedestrian entrance. (We recommend downloading it before your visit.) Alternatively, the website has themed routes, including baseball players, famous brewers, Medal of Honor recipients, and much more.

History

After struggling to find a final resting place for his daughter, Quaker and librarian John Jay Smith went on a personal mission to open a different kind of cemetery on land of the former Laurel Hill estate. When it opened in 1836, Laurel Hill Cemetery was one of the first of its kind—architecturally designed, non-denominational, and a major rural cemetery in a peaceful setting. It was an answer to the city whose population had increased so significantly that space for the dead was limited.

For 25 years after its founding, the site continued to grow. Not only were there thousands of burials, but the cemetery regularly drew thousands of visitors to its grounds. In 1869, West Laurel Hill Cemetery opened across the Schuylkill River in Bala Cynwyd to provide even more room.

Tombs topped with sculptures of a lion and a woman.
Tombs throughout the cemetery are distinctive

Seeing notable burials and monuments

We love walking around the grounds because it’s a look at the people who helped make Philadelphia—and even the US—great. There are graves and monuments for city leaders, pioneers across industries and social movements, and even a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Probably the most well-known grave at Laurel Hill belongs to Adrian Balboa of Rocky fame. Since Adrian is a fictional character, there is no burial here, but you can find her headstone on display on the left just inside the front gate. Her brother Paulie Pennino’s headstone is nearby.

The first person buried here was Mercy Carlisle, a Quaker woman, in 1836. Her original marble grave marker deteriorated over time, but it was replaced with a larger stone funded by the Friends of Laurel Hill. Interestingly, the new marker is in line with Quaker tradition in which everyone—no matter their status—has the same simple marker.

Headstone for Adrian Balboa.
Prop headstone for Adrian Balboa
Angel sculpture on a gray tomb at Laurel Hill Cemetery.
Tombs among the trees

One of the interesting things we noticed walking around Laurel Hill is that some markers have dates of death earlier than that of Ms. Carlisle. The cemetery’s owners wanted to ensure that it was a sought-after place, so they had some remains re-interred here. They include David Rittenhouse, the first director of the U.S. Mint (died 1796), Thomas McKean, the second governor of Pennsylvania and a signer of the Declaration of Independence (died 1817), and other notable Revolutionary War figures.

Others with less recognizable names are Sarah Josepha Hale who established Thanksgiving as a national holiday and wrote “Mary Had A Little Lamb” and Civil War generals such as George Meade, who led the Union to victory at Gettysburg just 120 miles from Philadelphia. There are also six passengers from the Titanic—three who survived the accident and three who did not. Their graves are featured on one of the website’s walking tours.

Tomb with a sculpture of a woman opening the lid to let the spirit out.
The William Warner tomb

Around the grounds, there are numerous mausoleums and monuments, some designed by notable architects and artists. The William Warner tomb designed by Alexander Milne Calder (the sculptor of the William Penn statue that tops Philadelphia’s City Hall) is one of our favorites. It’s an elaborate monument showing the soul emerging from the tomb in a puff of smoke and looks like it could be displayed in a museum. There is also the 55-foot-tall Edwin Fitler obelisk and the Henry Disston family mausoleum which spans an amazing 625 square feet.

One of the most unique gravesites belongs to Philadelphia Phillies broadcaster Harry Kalas. His resting place is marked by a large microphone, seats from Veterans Stadium, and sod from Citizens Bank Park. It’s very Philly, in the very best way.

Headstone for Joseph Reed and family decorated with photos and a Colonial flag.
Headstone for Joseph Reed, a signer of the Articles of Confederation

The best thing about visiting the cemetery is you can explore as much or as little as you want. Have a picnic, walk for hours, and escape the world for a day, or just spend a few minutes appreciating the history and the trees, and come back again another day. There’s no bad option.

Visiting information

Laurel Hill is in the East Falls neighborhood. It is located at 3822 Ridge Avenue in Philadelphia. Admission is free.

There are several parking spaces inside the Ridge Avenue entrance to the left. Since driving is allowed around the grounds, that is often the easiest option.

Gray mausoleum with columns next to a road in Laurel Hill Cemetery.
R. J. Dobbins mausoleum along one of the roads through the cemetery

The cemetery offers regular guided tours (tickets required) with themes ranging from notable women to military figures to people who caused scandals and rumors in their day. There’s always something new to learn.

For a unique experience check out Cinema in the Cemetery during the summer. Not only are there movies, but there are food and beverage vendors and activities matching the theme of the movie. Market of the Macabre, which is held each September, is also a good time. Around 70 vendors bring vintage items, art, and handmade creations to the cemetery.

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