Friday, April 22, 2011

Easter Egg Hunt in a Cemetery?

It's that time of year again! Join West Laurel Hill Cemetery for their most popular annual event. Search for over 3,000 prize-filled eggs, enter the raffle and have your picture taken with the Easter Bunny. A surprise guest (in addition to E. Bunny) awaits this year's attendees! For children 10 and under. Be sure to bring your own basket! The event is free and will take place at the Conservatory on the grounds of the Cemetery. −

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.

Once you pass through Mausoleum Town you get to the older side of the cemetery, where you see some amazing statues and monuments. In the center of it all is a large meeting hall/office/greenhouse − the conservatory. When we arrived, scores of cars were parked along all the roadways. Cemetery workers were guiding traffic. I didn’t see many visitors, just thousands of brightly colored plastic eggs all over the grass. The eggs certainly cheered up the place, lying all about the monuments and surrounding the mausoleums in that general area. I asked a worker where all the people were. He said, “Inside. They’ll start the egg hunt in about ten minutes.”

E. Bunny, Olivia, and Jill
So I did have the time wrong. The event began an hour before we arrived, but all we missed was the messy build-up to the hunt itself. We went inside to find hundreds of kids of all ages with their parents, carrying on with balloon animals and two dressed-up human Easter Bunnies. In those remaining minutes, we got Olivia’s picture with one of the Bunnies (not sure if this was the One, True, Easter Bunny), after which we were all ushered outside.

Start of the race to find the Easter Eggs
The master of ceremonies made a speech to the throng (had to have been five hundred people there), told the crowd what areas were designated for what ages, and turned us loose. I grabbed a few pictures of the pandemonium as Jill put Olivia down in the grass. Poor child had no idea what was going on, but Jill helped her scoop up a few eggs to but in her bag!

I only took about three photos before it all came to an end. Three thousand Easter Eggs scooped up in less than a minute! It was quite a sight. Hats off to the cemetery workers and event planners, this was really fun! They even beat the rain. Everyone appeared to be having a great time, even though many of the kids were probably wondering what this place was. It was interesting seeing them peering down through glass crypts covers, wondering what was below. Not Easter Eggs, little girl, but you’ll find that out soon enough.

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
I’d also like her to visit my grave after I’m gone. It’s one thing to have children when you’re in your twenties, it’s quite another when your fifty − you think more about mortality. You think about dying yourself, the danger of not seeing your child’s wedding day. But it makes you savor the beautiful moments available to you right now. I didn’t really do this with my older children, and I wish I had.

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.

Further Reading:

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