If you recall my rant about the utterly sterile, sad graveyard I noticed in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, in this post I’m raving about the exact opposite cemetery. Its founder envisioned “cemeteries that were also horticultural marvels,” and this one, an accredited arboretum, succeeds big-time.
I’ll start our tour of The Arboretum at Laurel Hill, just outside Philadelphia, with the very showy entrance gardens like the one above. (But DO scroll down to see the stunning green burial site, and how Laurel Hill is enjoyed by the community.)
Established in 1836 as the second major rural cemetery in the United States, Laurel Hill East, influenced by European landscape design and gardening trends, is the nation’s first National Historic Landmark Cemetery and one of “World’s Greatest Cemeteries” on PBS. (Passport holders can watch it here.)
Some of the stunning plantings around the main building for services, the Laurel Hill Funeral Home, where I met up with my tour guide…Here he is! It’s Gregg Tepper, on the right, who invited me for a visit and is seen here with Ernie Barile, funeral assistant. Gregg has been the senior horticulturist at Laurel Hill for five years now, having previously been the Director of Horticulture at the Delaware Botanic Gardens, where I first interviewed him. (My 2015 post about that garden is here, and an update from the fall of 2022 is here.)
Laurel Hill’s 265-acre site easily qualifies as an arboretum, with over 6,000 trees and shrubs representing more than 850 distinct species and cultivars, including five state champion trees.
Gregg stopped his pick-up to show me this “cradle grave,” with open tops for planting.
This entrance landscape was requested by the family of the person buried at the top, specifically asking for evergreens and a “welcoming appearance.” If you walk up to the black marker you discover the family name and the sole inscription “Cocktails at Six.”
Another entrance garden for a burial site looked inviting in September when I visited but in spring it’s even showier with daffodils and blooms of the espaliered ‘Kiefer’ pear.
Services of any religious type can be held in this beautiful chapel, surrounded by gardens that Gregg is expanding every year.
Above, a summer view, from the Laurel Hill website.
There are private spots like this one throughout, and two of them have been designated as “scattering sites” for cremated remains.
Nature’s Sanctuary, my Ideal Green Burial Site
And here’s Gregg happily showing me the really innovative site he may be most proud of, as well he should be. (It’s getting national attention, having earned Sustainable Sites Gold – the only cemetery landscape in the world to be awarded that honor. See also this review.)
How it Works
After each section of Nature’s Sanctuary is filled, it’s planted with U.S. natives and maintained as a meadow, like the stunning one you see here in its October glory. Then it’s gradually planted with shrubs and trees as the site transitions into a successional forest. “All graves are hand-dug for minimal environmental impact; no gas-powered equipment is used. Only biodegradable or environmentally friendly caskets, shrouds, and urns are allowed. Nature’s Sanctuary is a regenerative landscape that offers families a tranquil environment and connection to the earth.” Source.
Volunteers and staff planting perennials in Nature’s Sanctuary.
Above, Nature’s Sanctuary Expansion
Placing stones on gravestones is a Jewish tradition, and people of all faiths leave mementoes made of natural materials at Nature’s Sanctuary. Above, active burial part of Nature’s Sanctuary. Paths through Nature’s Sanctuary.
A More Typical Green Burial Site?
Nature’s Sanctuary sure compares well with a green burial site in Maryland that I visited this summer. It’s a new site, with just a handful of burials so far, but the landscape around them is and will always be (I was told) lawn. What a shame! Maybe they’ll hear about how much greener it COULD be.
Of course Laurel Hill has a cremation facility on the grounds, but there’s an alternative to cremation that available there soon – aquamation, or flameless cremation. The process releases no greenhouse gases and has only 10 percent of the carbon footprint of cremation, with no mercury emissions into the atmosphere.” (Source.) While legal in many states, it hasn’t yet been approved in Pennsylvania for use with humans, so Laurel Hill’s aquamation facility is currently used for pets only. (Aquamation IS approved for my state of Maryland, but as yet we have no facilities that can provide it.)
Btw, Google tells us that aquamation was requested by Desmond Tutu.
A Cemetery for the Living
Besides the overall beauty and environmental stewardship of its 265 acres, what surprised me even more about Laurel Hill? The apparent FUN that people are having there! Examples of their events include: Goat Walk, Nelson Mandela Day, Woof Wag and Walk, the Death Cafe, a Book Club, a Circus and the super-fun-looking Gravedigger’s Ball. Weddings and many other private events are held in the chapel, the gardens, and elsewhere on the grounds.
And every day, neighbors use the Arboretum for walking (it’s connected to the Cynwyd Heritage Trail), dog-walking, cycling and even picnicking. During the covid shutdown the Arboretum remained open for the public, who must have treasured it even more than ever.
I always wonder what happens when cemeteries are full, with no more spots for burials. Unlike the sad Delaware graveyard that sparked my interest in this subject, Laurel Hill will live on as a beloved, much-used park and urban forest.
Who Else to Credit?
Gregg made sure I met Laurel Hill’s President and CEO Nancy Goldenberg, whom he credits for her support for what I saw and admired there on my too-short visit. Surprisingly (to me, though probably not to Laurel Hill regulars), Nancy’s background isn’t in mortuary science – far from it. Her jobs have been with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and Center City District, the planning organization for downtown Philadelphia. She’s the first woman to lead Laurel Hill.