Monday, August 7, 2017

Woodlands Cemetery in Philadelphia

Last month, my friend Sharon, the Goth Gardener, sent me a link to an article about a program at Woodlands, a garden cemetery in West Philadelphia.  (more about this in a minute)  Later that week, I came across another mention of Woodlands as I was reading a fascinating article in the Southern Garden History Society Newsletter.  That article referenced another article about Woodlands ... this definitely appeared to be a very significant place, and in all of my research about garden cemeteries I had NEVER before come across any mention of Woodlands.

Entrance to Woodlands Cemetery

William Hamilton (1745-1813) inherited 300 acres of land near on the Schuylkill River west of Philadelphia.  The Woodlands was recognized throughout post-revolutionary America as a leading example of English taste in architecture and landscape gardening. (source)  Hamilton created a landscape full of rare plants and trees, gathered from plant explorers and through his network of significant botanical associates (Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, John Bartram, etc.)  "There was not a rare plant in Europe, Asia, Africa, from China and the islands in the South Sea, of which has had any account, which he had not procured."  His 1813 obituary noted, "The study of botany was the principal amusement of his life."  (source)

"In 1840, local investors bought the intact core of the estate to transform the grounds into a rural cemetery.  Still active today, Woodlands Cemetery retains two of Hamilton's 18th-century buildings, elaborate Victorian funerary monuments, curving green contours and majestic trees."  (source)

Last Monday, I had the opportunity to visit Woodlands for a couple of hours, while I was near Philadelphia on my way to the National Clean Plant Network-Roses annual meeting at Longwood Gardens.  (More about what I learned at this meeting in a future post.)  I went there specifically to see the results of the Grave Gardener project, where gardeners adopt, plant, and tend cradle graves in the cemetery.  (A cradle grave has a large headstone and footstone, connected by curbing to create a space that is perfect for use as a planting enclosure.  For more about cradle graves, click HERE.)

The Grave Gardener program at Woodlands is in its second year, and it has proved to be very popular.  (150 gardeners were chosen for 2017, from a pool of 250 applications.)  There is a list of approved plants that can be used, most of which have historical significance.  Grave Gardeners are encouraged to research the people in the graves that they tend, which can create a true relationship between the gardener and the "residents". 

"There's two groups of people," says the executive director of the cemetery.  "There are the ones that think this is the coolest thing ever, like when you tell them you do this, and there's the ones that think it's the weirdest thing ever."  (source)   (All of you already know which group I belong to.)

The monuments and the landscape at Woodlands are spectacular.  Located in West Philadelphia, surrounded on all sides by modern buildings, Woodlands' 54 acres is an quiet place of beauty and calm.  The cemetery founders were keenly aware that their enterprise saved this unique place from industrial and residential development in what was then a streetcar suburb.  (source)

While Woodlands has an amazing collection of trees in its landscape, fifteen of which qualify as state champion trees, it doesn't have much else.  There is grass, a lot of grass ... no shrubs or perennials to speak of ... and only one rose that I could find, located in a landscaped area near the mansion.  No telling exactly how old the rose is, but it appears to be an old once-bloomer.  (and I totally forgot to snap a photo of it.)

Every time I go to a new town and visit their cemetery, I see things that I have never seen before.  At Woodlands, I found unique monuments and at least one cast iron fence that was new to me.

I wanted to stay at Woodlands for a while longer, because there was still so much to see, but it was getting late, we were hot and thirsty, and we had to get on the road to meet friends for dinner.

I will conclude this post with my favorite images from Woodlands.  These three mausoleums were in the farthest corner of the cemetery, built into a hill, on a footpath away from the road, tucked in the shade of enormous trees.  It was an incredibly peaceful spot!

I thought of Goth Gardener when I saw this, and I know that she will agree that it is a perfect place for one's eternal rest.

If you have time to get sucked into a wonderful, enlightening Internet rabbit hole, click on the links in this post to read the articles.  I was amazed at the significance of William Hamilton, and you probably will be, too. 


  1. What a gorgeous place. I think old cemeteries are fascinating!

  2. What a beautiful and timeless place. I've never seen cradle graves before, they are lovely. Great pics!

  3. Super post, now wish we had met y'all.

    1. No you don't ... the traffic on the way to the hotel was awful. No sense for both of us to have to suffer that. It was great to see you!

  4. Great Photos and information. Thankyouverymuch for posting!

  5. I too find cemeteries peaceful and interesting. I've felt my share of awkward silence after saying that out loud, haha. We have a lovely garden cemetery up here in Bangor, ME. It was linteresting to see your pictures of another one. The cradle graves are rare up here, unfortunately.

    1. I had to run look up your cemetery. It's wonderful! I never heard of Mount Hope before. Thank you VERY much for telling me about it.


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