Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Strange Adventures of a Cemetery Superintendent

Rocky Balboa at Laurel Hill Cemetery
Last week I attended a tour at Philadelphia’s Historic Laurel Hill Cemetery called ”Dishing Out the Dirt: The Strange Adventures of a Cemetery Superintendent.”(Laurel Hill is historic for two reasons, by the way: 1) it was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1998 and; 2) it is America’s second Victorian garden cemetery, established in 1836 – five years after Mount Auburn Cemetery near Boston, Massachusetts.)

Bill Doran, Laurel Hill’s maintenance superintendent has not been at his job since 1836, but he gives the impression that he has. Bill gave members of the Friends of Laurel Hill Cemetery an hour-and-a-half long guided tour of the cemetery, pointing out some of the strange aspects of the death-care industry that only a Cemetery Superintendent would know. (That's not Bill in the image above, by the way, that's Sly Stallone at Laurel Hill in a scene from the movie, Rocky Balboa (2006), but more on that later. Bill is the better-looking chap in the center of the image below)

Cemetery Superintendent Dill Doran addressing crowd
Let’s first look at what Laurel Hill itself says about Dishing Out the Dirt (from its website) before I get into my own experience:
 “Not everyone is cut out for cemetery work... It can be a strange, emotional and unnerving venture. But, it also has its bizarre and often comical surprises. At a cemetery like Laurel Hill – a provocative historic site that works daily to put the rave back into graveyard – those surprises become ever more frequent. Encounters with the living – human and animal – are often as memorable as encounters with the dying and the dead."
I kind of thought, then hoped, this would be an indoor lecture. It was a hundred degrees on the Saturday afternoon of the presentation, and I was looking forward to sitting in a cool air-conditioned room. However, I was informed upon my arrival that it was a guided tour of the cemetery grounds, led by Bill Doran.

McDowell monument, 1891
About thirty people showed up and actually trudged through the graveyard with Bill for an hour and a half in the blazing heat –diehards! Worth the effort? Absolutely! Bill is riveting with his good-natured Irish brogue and workingman language. His knowledge of the business is vast, and he is quite effective as a public speaker. Obviously proud of his heritage, he was quick to point out that many of the fabulous statues and monuments at Laurel Hill were actually sculpted by Irish artisans, not Italians, as one might expect. Case in point is the enormous granite McDowell monument you see at left. Mr. Doran commented on the cost at the time to build various pieces, as Laurel Hill maintains these records. The McDowell monument, for example, cost $12,000 to make in 1891!

Headstone in tree!
Having access to all the cemetery’s records dating back to 1836 is rather fascinating. Our guide pointed out that lot sketches exist for a one-hundred foot-high pyramid that was planned for construction right near Laurel Hill’s gatehouse on Ridge Avenue! The structure, with underground mausoleums, was never built. Imagine the tourist attraction this would have been! For now, we must settle for subtler novelties, like this grave marker that was found to be embedded inside a tree when the tree fell down!

"Millionaires' Row"
Bill and his maintenance crew dig graves, move graves, and maintain graves. They plan the placement of monuments, shore them up, and maintain the mausoleums – both above ground and underground. I wondered if the rest of the audience was as surprised as I was years ago when I first found out that many cemetery monuments actually mark the spot of an underground mausoleum. These are accessed either through a door in the monument or by digging down to the roof of the underground structure. Bill said some families have their funeral services below ground, in the mausoleum, necessitating family members to scale a ladder down sixteen feet into a hole. Imagine that.

Vacant mausoleum at right
There were a number of interesting stories imparted to us by our host, but my favorite had to be the one about the father who came to the office complaining that his young son (I think maybe eight years old) was frightened by what he saw in a mausoleum on “Millionaire’s Row.” The father had peeked into the decorative holes in the door (as we all do, admit it!) and then invited his son to do the same. I’m guessing he said something like, “See, there’s nothing to be afraid of!” As his son peered into the building, the door opened from the inside and a man came out! The man proceeded to walk up the road. After vehement complaints to the office personnel by the man, the management apologized and told the visitors that homeless people sometimes take refuge in the mausoleums.

There is a vacant mausoleum here, by the way, which is for sale. Odd.  I suppose that if you can’t afford to buy, maybe you can get it on a thirty-year lease …? Picture a “VACANCY” sign on the door...!

Tour of portion of Laurel Hill Cemetery overlooking Schuylkill River
Mausoleums were the subject of a number of Bill’s stories. One bizarre one was how he saw a raccoon jump down an air vent into a mausoleum built into the side of a hill (they need air vents to allow for the escape for gases caused by the decomposition of bodies). Knowing there was no way out, Bill went and got the key, then opened the door to let the raccoon out. On opening the solid granite door, He was shocked to find the structure filled with the skeletons of all the other animals that had jumped in over time! Some had starved to death, probably, but some may have been baked to death. As Bill said, the temperature inside these structures can reach 300 degrees in summer. Subsequent to the raccoon episode, a screen was placed over the mausoleum’s vent to keep animals out. Strange adventures, indeed.

If you’re a bit put off by the stories so far, I am writing about a CEMETERY, after all, which has as its primary focus, death. Sometimes we cemetery fans forget that, in all our exuberance to learn about odd burial practices and photograph the beautiful statuary.  For others, a cemetery might have a more fleeting, yet final meaning for them. Some years ago, a man’s suicide note said “You can find me at Laurel Hill.” Police found his body lying on his family plot where he had shot himself. Another time, one of Bill’s workers found a small lifeless form, wrapped in a blanket behind one of the mausoleums. He poked at it and saw blonde hair. He panicked and went to get Bill. Upon closer examination, the bundled form turned out to be a dead poodle. Someone had cared enough about their dead animal to wrap it up and reverently deposit it inside a cemetery.

Cemeteries will do just about anything these days to generate income. This is especially true at Laurel Hill, which has a very minimal amount of space left in its 78 acres for new burials. You have to give the management credit for being so creative as to negotiate with film companies to use the cemetery as a destination location for making motion pictures. Laurel Hill has been host to a variety of big-budget Hollywood films over the last six years, including Rocky Balboa (2006) and Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen (2009) (and yes, cemetery personnel do get to meet the stars!).

Transformer at Laurel Hill Cemetery (ref.)
Rocky's chair at Adrian's grave
Rocky’s wooden folding chair from the movie stands vigil at Adrian’s headstone (near the gatehouse) and some of the cemetery’s asphalt roadways were a gift from Transformers 2 producer Michael Bay. Why? Because all the staged explosions in the film melted the original roadway! The film company told Laurel Hill this in advance and that the options were: protect the roadway with steel sheets or repave the roads afterwards. In keeping with Laurel Hill Cemetery’s drive to improve, it chose the latter.

Revenue generated by movies and tours, along with donations by the Friends of Laurel Hill Cemetery, is used to continually improve and restore this National Historic Landmark. Bill Doran showed us another example of this on our final stop of tour. When little or no trust fund money exists for such large projects as the restoration of this Egyptian style mausoleum, the money needs to come from somewhere. This mid-1800s marble mausoleum was falling apart. Most of the individual pieces of the structure had shifted over the years so that both the outside and the inside were falling apart. One of the surprising finds inside the structure was the absence of wall vaults, into which coffins are typically placed. For all its grandeur, this particular family had an unfinished basement! Built into the hillside, the interior had a simple wooden floor where about sixteen wooden coffins were just stacked on top of each other!

If you have the opportunity to attend any of the Laurel Hill tours, they are fascinating, The cemetery people are great hosts. As is their usual practice after an event such as this, we were presented with an area in which to relax and socialize, completing the tour with complementary wine, beer, and crudités. Thankfully, this relaxing wind-down at the conclusion of Bill’s “Strange Adventures of a Cemetery Superintendent” tour was not held in a 300-degree mausoleum – it was held in the air-conditioned gatehouse.

References and Further Reading:

Source of Transformer image in Laurel Hill Cemetery
See Laurel Hill scenes in the trailer for Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen

Source of Rocky Balboa image at Laurel Hill Cemetery
Rocky Balboa filming locations

Thanks to Bob Reinhardt, member of the Friends of Laurel Hill Cemetery, for inviting me along as his guest.