Laurel Hill Cemetery records
Held at: Laurel Hill Cemetery [Contact Us]3822 Ridge Avenue, Philadelphia, PA, 19132
This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the Laurel Hill Cemetery. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in their reading room, and not digitally available through the web.
Overview and metadata sections
Laurel Hill Cemetery was founded in 1836 by John Jay Smith (1798-1881), a librarian and Quaker, who was appalled at the way his deceased daughter had been interred in a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania graveyard. Along with partners Nathan Dunn (1782-1845), Benjamin W. Richards (1797-1851), and Frederick Brown (1796-1864), Smith established Laurel Hill as an alternative to the crowded cemeteries of Philadelphia. Situated on a large plot outside of the city along the Schuylkill River in what is now the East Falls neighborhood of Philadelphia, Laurel Hill Cemetery was envisioned as a scenic landscape that had no religious affiliation and provided burial spaces for the dead in a restful and tranquil setting, safe from development.
The earliest section of Laurel Hill Cemetery, known as the North section, was designed by Architect John Notman (1810-1872). Notman designed the gatehouse through which visitors still enter the Cemetery today. In his design of the layout of the cemetery, Notman introduced landscape and burial concepts that would become a model for the rural cemetery movement and would gain Laurel Hill Cemetery notoriety as one of the first cemeteries of its kind. Curving paths, gardens, terraces, and sculptures created a romantic landscape that attracted both visitors and funeral-goers. Sightseeing, picnics, and strolls were popular activities at Laurel Hill Cemetery, and helped inspire the development of public recreational spaces such as New York’s Central Park and Philadelphia's Fairmount Park. The site continues to serve as a recreational space for tourists, joggers, and photographers, among others.
Today, Laurel Hill Cemetery has expanded from its original twenty acre site to an estimated 78 acres of land. The Cemetery is divided into three sections, reflecting the original site (North), the 1848 expansion (South), and the 1861 expansion (Central).The South section of Laurel Hill was formed when the Cemetery purchased Harleigh, the former estate of William Rawle in 1848. The Stoever Tract was purchased in 1855 and added to the North section of Laurel Hill, and the Pepper Estate was purchased in 1861 to link the North and South sections, creating the Central section.
In 1978, The Friends of Laurel Hill Cemetery was organized by Jane and Drayton Smith to raise funds for the historic preservation of Laurel Hill Cemetery. Laurel Hill Cemetery was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1998 and has the distinction of being one of the few cemeteries in the nation to hold that title. Numerous prominent local and national figures are interred at Laurel Hill Cemetery, some of whom died before Laurel Hill was established and were re-buried there to add to its prestige. Notable people interred there include members of the Widener, Elkins, Wistar, Wharton, and Strawbridge families, as well as individuals such as Henry Disston (1819-1878), Harry Kalas (1936-2009), David Rittenhouse (1732-1796), and Frank Furness (1839-1912). General George Meade (1815-1872) and other Civil War era generals are buried at Laurel Hill Cemetery, as well as six Titanic passengers.
Brooks, Michael and Anthony Waskie. "Guide to the Famous and Blameless in Laurel Hill Cemetery." Philadelphia, PA: Laurel Hill Cemetery, 2005.
The Laurel Hill Cemetery records, 1836-2015, consist of minute books, legal documents, administrative records, accounting and financial records, photographs, ephemera, prints, and other records of Laurel Hill Cemetery. In addition, there is a large collection of burial cards with corresponding lot books and interment records that document the sale of lots and burials at the Cemetery from 1836 to the present. The collection is arranged in seven groups:
I. Governance II. Administrative records III. Financial records IV. Lots V. Interments VI. Visual Materials VII. Publications, Ephemera
A more detailed finding aid is available on-site, as well as a partial list of photographs and ephemera. Although not included as part of this survey, there are several published books and objects associated with this collection available at Laurel Hill.
Summary descriptive information on this collection was compiled in 2014-2016 as part of a project conducted by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania to make better known and more accessible the largely hidden collections of small, primarily volunteer run repositories in the Philadelphia area. The Hidden Collections Initiative for Pennsylvania Small Archival Repositories (HCI-PSAR) was funded by a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
This is a preliminary finding aid. No physical processing, rehousing, reorganizing, or folder listing was accomplished during the HCI-PSAR project.
In some cases, more detailed inventories or finding aids may be available on-site at the repository where this collection is held; please contact Laurel Hill Cemetery directly for more information.
- Laurel Hill Cemetery
- Finding Aid Author
- Finding aid prepared by Sarah Leu and Anastasia Matijkiw. Container listing written by Linda Stanley and updated and encoded in EAD by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania's Hidden Collections Initiative for Pennsylvania Small Archival Repositories.
- This preliminary finding aid was created as part of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania's Hidden Collections Initiative for Pennsylvania Small Archival Repositories. The HCI-PSAR project was made possible by a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
- Access Restrictions
Contact Laurel Hill Cemetery for information about accessing this collection.
Laurel Hill Cemetery was governed by a web of three units: Laurel Hill Cemetery Company, Trustees of Laurel Hill Cemetery, and Managers of Laurel Hill Cemetery Company. In most cases, all three units were constituted by the same men. The minutes series provides uneven recording of transactions. George Farnam Brown's files relate to his service as a Cemetery Officer, 1928-1964. The Heckscher files reflect the records of two members of Trustees/Managers from 1940 into the 1990s. The last series contains the legal documents relating to the trusts for the North, South, and Central sections of Laurel Hill Cemetery.
This Series includes minutes of the Trustees and/or the Board of Managers. At times, the Trustees were the primary decision-making body, but at other times they merely confirmed the actions of the Board of Managers. The minutes reflect the irregularity of the meeting schedule and the different inclinations of the secretaries with respect to the amount of detail that is recorded.
Some of the early founding years' activity may be found in the minutes, but there is much that is not. As the January 2, 1840, minutes report "The Members of the Board of Managers being in daily habits of communication, but few regular Meetings were held." Much of what is recorded during the mid-1800s consists of elections of company officers, trustees, and managers. November 26, 1873, begins with "This being the first formal Meeting of the Trustees since 1864..." During the 1880s, there is a brief period of more carefully written minutes, but they then become sparse again until the 1920s.
Two useful entries are John Jay Smith's review of the history of the cemetery provided on April 21, 1864, and Frederick Brown's observations on the operations from Smith's stewardship before his 1874 resignation (not complimentary of Smith) to 1887. Other subjects considered during the later nineteenth century were Girard Trust's management of Laurel Hill's funds, greenhouse operations, management of buildings and grounds, legal opinions, and rules and regulations. There is a memorandum of important transactions to 1895, extracts on governance questions, and an index, through T, for the minutes to 1933 (see Addendum A, available in hard copy only).
Although the minutes starting in 1921 provide more information, after 1934, when regular monthly manager meetings take place, they record only summaries of actions. In 1938 the minutes again become more complete reports on discussions. Some of the concerns reflected in the minutes are: 1938-1940, union threat; 1944-1945, damage claims against the city as a result of the construction of the Hunting Park overpass; 1946, final settlement of sale of S. 17th St. property, once the Cemetery's city office; 1947, greenhouse dire financial circumstances (raised again in 1952); 1948, confirmation of sale restrictions to whites only; 1955, Howard A. Richards resignation; 1959, union threat.
Duplicates of minutes from 1945 to 1961 and continuing to the 1990s may be found in the Heckscher Files, Group I, Series 2, Subseries 1.
George Farnam Brown was a trustee from 1915 to his death in 1964. His alphabetical files as Secretary-Treasurer begin in 1928. They concern taxes, management of trusts and other finances, real estate, particularly the sale of the South 17th Street office and properties east of Ridge Avenue, and other concerns. A failed effort to unionize Laurel Hill's laborers in 1939 is documented here.
Maurice Heckscher was elected as a trustee and manager of the Laurel Hill Cemetery Company in 1940. His son, Martin A. Heckscher, served in similar capacities from his election in 1961. Their law firm Duane, Morris, and Heckscher provided legal advice to the cemetery during the years of their involvement. These are all of the Laurel Hill Cemetery files from the law offices. They are a mix of the Heckschers' work as cemetery officers together with correspondence and memoranda of the firm's lawyers on the cemetery’s legal issues.
The most frequent topics are the management of the various endowment funds (see particularly Subseries 7, Consolidation of Funds, 1973, and Mellon Bank Accounts Review, 1986), investment strategies, and the disposition of endowments for lots. Other subjects include racial restrictions, vandalism, and employee matters. More specific topics are given in the subseries descriptions. Many of the subjects are documented in more than one series, especially in Minutes (Subseries 1), Attorney Correspondence (Subseries 5), and Miscellaneous (Subseries 6).
The arrangement given here retains some of the original order, which included three series of records, but eliminates the duplication (such as the Managers minutes and financial statements) and overlapping documentation (for instance in two separate "Miscellaneous" series). Files that related to endowments for specific lots were transferred to the cemetery lot folders (see Appendix B), but endowment related correspondence and memoranda were retained within the series (most of this information is probably contained in the lot files). Monthly financial reports, billing for legal services and some other files were removed for discard.
Monthly and annual meeting minutes include at various times, financial reports, General Manager's and/or President's reports (1967-1983, describing more thoroughly Cemetery operations, grounds, vandalism, and employee matters), agenda (1980s), and other documents for meetings. The minutes record deliberations over investments and finances, operations, staff wages and benefits and other issues. The chronological gap, 1942-1944, reflects Maurice Hecksher’s war service in Washington, D. C., when he did not participate in the Managers meetings.
Annual reports, with some budget and periodic financial statements; monthly reports sampled.
Designation of Successor Trustees for North, South, Central, Stoever.
Mostly relating to investments, with Girard Trust reports for meetings.
This subseries is mostly Maurice Heckscher files and has more content than its file name would suggest. It consists largely of legal memoranda and complements the Attorney Correspondence, Subseries 6.
Legal opinions concerns endowments, lot ownership and rights, tax laws (deductibility of contributions to cemeteries, 1958, 1960), John A. Richards resignation (1959), legality of carrying guns on grounds (1990-1991). There are also Duane, Morris, & Heckscher Statements for Service, 1947-1988, 1991, 1993, with annual statements describing work performed with bill. The statements give a good review of the Cemetery's legal issues.
These are files established for specific issues addressed by the Duane, Morris, and Heckscher attorneys. They were created as the subjects were first taken up, and therefore appear in a roughly chronological order.
As each of the three properties were obtained for the Cemetery, deeds of trust were executed and then subsequent Designations of Successor Trustees. This series includes the property deeds for North, South, Central, and Stoever properties, with Briefs of Title, and the appointment of successor trustee deeds.
The major series of this group describes the office files that were irregularly maintained by a variety of individuals. There are also records of the Friends of Laurel Hill Cemetery, established in 1978. Series 3 lists the various studies and reports that have been undertaken since the Friends founding.
The office files are gathered from a random assortment of bundles and files of superintendent and other staff office files. These have somehow been spared destruction, but do not reflect any conscious effort at record retention. They have been arranged in subseries that reflect as best as possible original order when it existed and an established order when there was none. Informational value varies widely, and some files, such as routine correspondence, were removed for disposal. Below is a description of the general subjects documented by the archives.
The earliest records of the 1830s are sparse. There are a few items of Nathan Dunn, including some letters and agreements relating to the purchase, governance and financial management of Laurel Hill. There is a Visitor's Register, 1848-1849. From the 1850s to the early 1900s there are records that deal with Fairmount Park's acquisition of Cemetery lands, the management of the Permanent Fund, and real estate. There are some papers during this period relating to Nicetown Lane, which is an issue that returns in the 1930s. During the turn of the century there a great deal of attention to building and rebuilding walls for which there are letters and bills, together with some information on greenhouse and receiving tomb construction.
Beginning with 1910 there are a variety of different subseries that overlap and subjects of concern may appear in more than one place. There was an ongoing issue with control over the care of burial lots, and in 1913 the trustees voted to prohibit gardeners other than those employed by Laurel Hill from tending to the lots. The eventual result was a successful suit brought by Dale Benson and others against the prohibition. There are several files relating to this matter in Subseries 1, together with additional records that appear elsewhere (see and Subseries 2, P. J. Kelley, Subseries 3, Reilly).
In Subseries 3 there are files for correspondence among the trustees, including Howard Richards (d. 1921), Albanus L. Smith (d. 1938), and F. Zerban Brown (d. 1934). The correspondence concerns Cemetery administration, finances, and real estate. There are also files for Paul Reilly, who served as Laurel Hill's attorney from about 1911 to his death in 1946, with legal advice on financial and real estate matters.
A small flurry of visiting other cemeteries resulted in two diary accounts of those trips in 1921 and 1922. Another flurry of interest in some of the history of Laurel Hill in 1931 resulted in two investigations, one on the history of Nicetown Lane and another on the brief occupancy of a Catholic school on the Cemetery's grounds. Files for the 1930s relate to legal issues around the transfer of burial lots.
From the 1940s into the 1990s documentation consists of what appears to be office files (Subseries 4-6) kept by superintendents, assistant secretaries, and other staff. They chronicle more of the day-to-day operations, although it is apparent that these files are incomplete. Correspondence that related to specific lots was removed and placed in lot files. Letters and replies from individuals looking for family members who were found to not be buried at Laurel Hill and responses for lot availability were removed for discard. Records in these series include repairs to structures and grounds, lot improvements, employee accident reports, Metropolitan Life Insurance files concerning unemployment compensation, and trusts financial management.
In 1979 the Friends of Laurel Hill Cemetery was established. With this organization's support, there were renewed efforts for the restoration of Cemetery buildings and grounds, some of which is reflected in the files for the 1980s and 1990s (Subseries 6). The later 20th century files are largely the records of the General Manager Joe Direso which were maintained with varying filing systems. They were rearranged for consistency and some superintendent files were also incorporated into this subseries. Correspondence, bills, management minutes and memoranda have information on trusts, improvements to buildings and grounds, and lot care and restoration. Mary C. Lizzul was hired as a fund raising consultant in 2002 and her files are included here.
This subseries contains various items and small packs of documents that had no evident provenance. They are arranged roughly chronologically, but most folders have overlapping year spans because bundles were kept together.
These papers were given to Laurel Hill by a descendant and are not official Cemetery records. There are: signed petitions, circulated by grave keepers, against 1913 proposal to ban outside gardeners; correspondence (partial), much relating to Fidelity-Philadelphia Trust to remove Kelly from care in favor of Laurel Hill Cemetery, 1940-1941; documents concerning turnover of lot care to Edward Carroll, 1959.
This appears to be the routine office correspondence, alphabetically arranged. A-J is missing. There are large files for Lot Holders Endowment Fund, Laurel Hill attorney Paul Reilly, and trustees Howard Richards, and Albanus L. Smith.
This is routine correspondence relating to equipment, grounds, and administrative matters, alphabetically arranged.
Alphabetically arranged files of correspondence of the Superintendent, Assistant Secretary, and others.
Files gathered from various cabinets and storage boxes
The Friends were established in 1978 to support and raise funds for the restoration and preservation of the buildings, grounds and monuments, preparing educational material, and providing tours. The records are incomplete, but they do provide some documentation of the Friends efforts toward those purposes.
Formal record, 1978-1984, informal thereafter, some with packet information. The minutes report mostly on tours and events, and fundraising
With the founding of the Friends of Laurel Hill, the Cemetery started to undertake studies and planning for future needs. Funded either by the Friends or under their auspices, other funders, or supported by the Laurel Hill Cemetery Company, reports were made on master planning, fundraising, marketing, interpretation, and structural restoration projects. There were also reports prepared for a number of historical site designations. This series was compiled from files found in both the Office and Friends of Laurel Hill Series which included much duplication.
With the exception of the general series of cashbooks, ledgers, and receipt books, and the lot trusts, Laurel Hill Cemetery's financial records were inconsistently retained. The labor and work accounts provide a glimpse into the day to day cemetery operations. Property and investment fund accounts document the continuing challenges of financial management and, particularly for the latter, are also documented throughout the governance and administrative group records.
Laurel Hill kept its books in varying ways in several different periods: 1837-1858, 1858-1864, 1864-1915, 1916-most current. Books were kept both at the superintendents' offices as well as the city office. The accounts document the daily operations, management of trust funds, and real estate interests. There are cross-references from different series of cashbooks and journals to ledgers, as well as references from other record books.
These volumes of receipted bills record the amounts due for services, supplies, etc. with signatures for payment.
These accounts record income and expenses for work on burial lots. Lot owners could establish trusts for the perpetual care of the lot, pay annual fees for care, or pay for work as required.
Ledgers record expenses and income maintained through perpetual care trusts.
These records are mostly chronological by month and record the name of the lot holder, lot number, payments, and charges in later records for yearly and additional care. Some of the early records also include addresses, notes, and other information.
Work accounts document work done by men other than the cemetery's hired laborers. Labor/payroll accounts are for the cemetery's hired laborers.
Daily entries with description of work and the amount charged.
This series relates to management of shares from the sales of the Pepper and Stoever properties to Laurel Hill Cemetery and of property along Clearfield Street (previously Lamb Tavern Road), with a few accounts for 43 and 45 S. 17th Street in Philadelphia, and a Bucks County property.
The Permanent Fund, a 10 percent surcharge of the lot purchase, was established in 1839 for cemetery maintenance. The Girard Trust Company (under various other corporate names including Girard Life Insurance Annuity & Trust Co., Girard Trust Corn Exchange Bank) was appointed trustee of the three Permanent Funds (North, South, Central) in 1861, and subsequently was named the agent for its lot holders funds (Lot Holders Endowment Fund, established 1923, Lot Holders Endowment Fund Contingent Reserve, and Lot Holders Endowment Fund Income Account) for perpetual care of individual lots.
Mortgages were held by Girard Trust for Laurel Hill Cemetery Permanent Fund and Lot Holders Fund. These files provide a glimpse of real estate investments during the Great Depression and into World War II. They also include some descriptions and building plans of estates and large commercial properties as well as more modest holdings. The files are retained in their original folders with information on front.
Most information on the cemetery lots are assembled in the general files. Sales records are available chronologically in the sales books and alphabetically by purchaser in card indexes. Some miscellaneous material relating to lots are also included here.
These files are arranged by lot number and contain the burial permits. They may also include deeds, correspondence, photographs, orders for work and care, and biographical material.
Records of purchases and purchasers are available chronologically, by lot number, and by purchaser name.
The sale books are chronologically recorded, with name of purchaser, lot number, size of lot, purchase price, when paid, and additional notes relating to lot transactions. Early volumes are rough; later volumes include deeds of transfer pasted in (also in lot files).
The lot books for North, Central, and South record purchaser by section and lot number, size, purchaser name, and some annotations of transfers.
There are two indexes; the first has more information.
Information on interments may be found in chronological records, by lot number and alphabetical indexes. There are also burial permit records and biographical files on those buried at Laurel Hill.
Interment records were kept chronologically for each of North, South, and Central cemeteries to 1947, and thereafter for all cemeteries. There are name indexes for some of these records. The records include name, permit number, residence or where buried from, age, date of interment, lot number, undertaker, remarks on location, removals, and annual totals of interments, removals and reinterments to 1925.
Interment records kept according to lot number include permit number, name, age, residence, where buried from, date of burial, undertaker, remarks on location, removals, etc. Some of these records are available on microfilm.
This series contains Laurel Hill's permit record stubs. Permit record stubs include: permit number, name, address, age, lot number, undertaker, and date of interment. Permits are stored in the lot files.
This series consists of weekly reports to the Board of Health that included name, age, cause of death, and ward nativity of the deceased. Volume 1, 1882-1889, also includes letters on lot care, ownership, and interments.
This series consists of an alphabetical name card index, giving age, date of interment, lot number, lot owner, and space location. It does not include information about the receiving vault.
This series consists of biographies of those buried at Laurel Hill that are stored in binders and alphabetically arranged. Included are clippings, publications, computer print outs, and other sources of biographical material.
Available visual materials include oversize plot plans, surveys, architectural plans, and photographs (primarily early 20th century views made for advertising brochures). Also included are some prints and maps of, or relating to, Laurel Hill Cemetery.
Photographs include prints on paper (some with corresponding negatives), whole and half-sized glass plate negatives, labeled stereographs, and slides, and depict scenic images of Laurel Hill, specific lots, and other subject matter at or related to Laurel Hill and the people buried there. Some photographs are in a scrapbook format.
The drawings consist of general plot plans for the cemetery, plans for specific lots, surveys of cemetery real estate adjoining the grounds, some architectural drawings for buildings and other structures, and miscellaneous oversize planning and exhibit documents. The drawings are on paper, linen, blueprint, blueline, and other formats.
The general plot plans for the cemetery show the designs for the various parts and sections of the North, South, and Central sections of the Cemetery, with later plans produced for sales purposes showing specific lot numbers. There are also plans relating to Fairmount Park's claim on some of the cemetery property.
These are plans of specific lots, including the Evangelical Lutheran Congregation of St. Johns Church lot changes.
The property surveys include drawings of real estate held north of Ridge Avenue and zoning and utility surveys.
There are drawings for a few cemetery buildings and restoration plans for the gatehouse and shrubbery section.
These are drawings for made for strategic planning and exhibitions.
The photographs consist primarily of early 20th century views made for advertising brochures. There are prints, negatives, glass plate negatives, stereographs, and slides included in the photographic materials. There are also some prints and maps of, or relating to, Laurel Hill Cemetery.
This subseries of photographs is arranged according to categories that would allow for easy reference when compiling images for Laurel Hill's various advertising booklets, brochures, and blotters between 1909 and 1931. There are some photographs by B. R. Snyder taken before 1900, several of which were reproduced as phototypes by Gutekunst. The bulk of the photographs are from: 1909-1910, 1916-1917, 1926-1928, and 1930-1931, with some later photographs integrated into the category scheme. Included in the collection are stereographs, slides, and photographic prints stored with original negatives. The prints have notes on the backs that indicate category cross-filings. They are stored by size in small binders, large photo boxes, and a few in oversize flat drawers.
This photograph subseries consists of images that were kept according to the advertising brochures and blotters. The last of these, 1930, does not appear to have been published.
This subseries consists of photographs that were filed according to lot number. Many are pasted on pages and include snapshots from 1925. Most of these, as well as all other identified lot shots, are also found in the lot files (Group IV, Series 1).
This subseries consists of miscellaneous snapshots of events, many of which are modern and in color, including the Historical Marker dedication, various Gravediggers Balls, General Meade birthdays, tours, and cemetery views. There are a few older miscellaneous photographs featured on memorial cards.
This subseries includes prints of early views of the cemetery, portraits of John Jay Smith, maps, illustrations for the 2009 cell phone tour, and other images.
This group consists of publications printed by Laurel Hill Cemetery such as guidebooks and rulebooks, published advertising materials that feature ads for Laurel Hill Cemetery, newspaper clippings about Laurel Hill events and activities and those buried there, ephemera from the Friends of Laurel Hill Cemetery, and various materials used for education and exhibition purposes.
As part of its early promotional activities, Laurel Hill periodically published small volumes as guides, rules and regulations, and lists of lot holders.
Included in this series are a variety of booklets, blotters, brochures and other items issued by Laurel Hill or featuring ads from Laurel Hill published between 1909 and 1929 to advertise for the purchase of lots, perpetual and special care of lots, decorations for Christmas, Easter, and Memorial Day.
This series also includes several binders with newspaper clippings and computer print outs as well as some whole newspapers with articles that relate to Laurel Hill's events and activities and the people buried there, circa 1838-2012.
These files include newsletters (1984-2014), member brochures, invitations to the Gravediggers Ball and other events, tour booklets, rack handouts and sale items. DVDs and CDs of recordings of tours of Laurel Hill Cemetery are also included.
This series includes several duplicates of materials in the collection to be used for educational and exhibition purposes.