When I told people that my wife and I were taking our 18-month-old daughter to an Easter Egg Hunt at a local cemetery they thought I was nuts. And those were our Christian friends and relatives. Who knows what my wife’s Jewish side of the family thought. Truth be told, I really wasn’t sure what to expect myself − kids tripping and smacking their heads on tombstones?
"SISTE VIATOR" − The words are chiseled into the pillars that once served as the main gate leading into Philadelphia’s West Laurel Hill Cemetery. Centuries ago (as stated on the Bella Morte website), this Latin message was commonly seen on roadside tombs in ancient Rome. They beckon, "Stop, Traveler." West Laurel is a wonderful place for a cemetery traveler to stop, and I’ve been photographing there countless times over the years. I know cemeteries are doing everything they can to be destination spots for visitors and tourists, but, an Easter Egg Hunt? (“Put that down, Johnny! That’s NOT an Easter egg!”)
After we decided to go, I heard it might rain on the appointed day. I inquired about a rain date. I was told that indoor accommodations were planned in that event. “Indoor accommodations?” Where, in the viewing rooms? I imagined caskets full of Easter grass, brimming with colorful plastic eggs, another with the Easter Bunny hiding inside. Kids would be scarred for life! West Laurel, however, did a fabulous job! I was unprepared for how popular this second annual event would be.
Driving through the main entrance gate on Belmont Avenue, my wife, daughter, and I headed for the Bringhurst Funeral Home, where I assumed the festivities would be held. It’s a stately modern facility with a vintage horsedrawn hearse parked alongside, which you can rent for your funeral procession. Lots of grassy area around here, but not many cars. Hmmm. Was it over? Did I have the time wrong? The DAY?
As I slowly drove by the building's front entrance, my wife said it looked like a funeral was going on inside. Hmm, what the… ? Wait! The ad said it was being held at the conservatory. That must be the building on the other side of the cemetery! So we drove over the gently rolling hills past the stately mausoleums (West Laurel has over two hundred of them, clustered on its 187 acres). Truly an enchanting place. Here’s a description of our drive excerpted from the Bella Morte website; the writer truly captures the sense of wonderment that I get when driving through West Laurel Hill:
"Upon entering through the Belmont Avenue gates, visitors will notice one of the cemetery's most striking features...its proliferation of mausoleums. Here, there are veritable neighbourhoods where the dead vie with each other for bragging rights over the most opulent eternal homes. Marble walls ascend skyward or bask in the cool shade afforded by impeccable landscaping. Curving paths invite exploration as they wind through trees and sweetly-scented bushes interspersed by the omnipresent mausoleums. Be certain to step up to each and every building and peer inside. Many are bathed in the multi-coloured light cast by breathtaking stained-glass windows. Some are lined with brilliant mosaics. Others are simple but elegant. − www.bellamorte.com
|E. Bunny, Olivia, and Jill|
|Start of the race to find the Easter Eggs|
For many of them, it may have been their first visit to a cemetery. Not so with 18-month-old Olivia. Here’s a photo of her at 12 months of age at the Old Mortality re-dedication ceremony (post-restoration) at Historic Laurel Hill Cemetery (West Laurel's companion cemetery across the Schuylkill River) in the fall of 2010. I want her to have a healthy perspective on cemeteries in general, to appreciate the history and art, so we’ll spend time in them.
|"Old Mortality" sculpture, c. 1836|
Writer Salman Rushdie echoed the same thought in his recently published children’s novel, Luka and the Fire of Life, which he wrote for his young son who was born when Rushdie was fifty. The book explores, in Rushdie’s words, “the relationships between the world of imagination and the "real" world, between authoritarianism and liberty, between what is true and what is phony, and between ourselves and the gods that we create.” To paraphrase Rushdie, happy endings are things in which I've become very interested.
Bella Morte Website
West Laurel Hill Easter Egg Hunt announcement
West Laurel Hill Cemetery and Historic Laurel Hill Website
Building a City of the Dead - The Creation and Expansion of Philadelphia's Laurel Hill Cemetery