This article is part of a series on How Historic Laurel Hill Cemetery Is Reinventing Itself. It is based on an interview with Ross Mitchell, Executive Director of Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia, PA.
Stoneangels: Prior to coming to Laurel Hill, you worked for seven years as gallery director at the Barnes Foundation. You were hired as director here with no cemetery experience. I was curious about that.
Ross Mitchell: Well I come from an Art Management background–and art background-I started off as a painter. I quickly discovered that I’d really like to have money, though! (laughs). So I’d gotten into Arts Management and also was doing historic preservation work, and I’d always loved cemeteries. They [Laurel Hill] weren’t looking for a cemetery person-they were looking for somebody who could help them make the transition from being a cemetery to being a destination-a National Historic Landmark. So what I bring to the position is the background of appreciation of the artwork that is here and the historic preservation experience.
Stoneangels: What kinds of things are going on at Laurel Hill these days?
Ross Mitchell: Well, we’ve re-branded ourselves through a consulting agency as “TheUndergroundMuseum.org.” We found that when you ask people about visiting cemeteries, they say, “Why would I want to visit a cemetery?” Our goal is to get people to visit. When I first started at Laurel Hill, we had all these different images and logos and letterheads – not one consistent image, so before we went too far, we needed a consistent branded identity, where we could tie everything together-our website, our letterhead, our newsletter. We received a $10,000 [Samuel S.] Fels Fund Grant to do a branding project. TheUndergroundMuseum repositions us. -As an example: one of the ads that was developed states “Dead men tell no tales… that’s why we have tour guides.”
Stoneangels: In the article “Resurrecting Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill Cemetery” (Jan-Feb 2006 issue of Stone in America, the Business and Design Magazine of Memorialists) you are quoted as saying that critics of your work here think your “less-than-heavily-deep-and-serious approach [to generating interest and revenue] is disrespectful.”
Ross Mitchell: Well, one of the ideas I had was to start horse and carriage rides through the cemetery. I received a letter from someone who thought the “clopping sound of horses through the cemetery would break the peace.” Well, first of all, we have admission tickets from the 1800s which state, “This ticket admits the carriage of the lot holder.” Back then there were only carriages that came in here! Somehow we need to market the cemetery, to get more people here, to make it into a destination, which is something that John Jay Smith [Laurel Hill’s founder] had as his initial concept of Laurel Hill– that it should be rewarding and entertaining. If we do nothing, and the cemetery falls into disrepair, is that respectful? So we need to find ways to make people want to come to Laurel Hill-through educational programming, outreach to the community, and by having it be fun! Whether it’s our Halloween tours or whatever. It no longer solely functions as a cemetery as it is 99% full; we have to find ways to generate interest and support.
Stoneangels: So there are no more burials?
Ross Mitchell: We still have roughly 1% of 78 acres available, and some families have had lots for a hundred, a hundred and fifty years [so their descendants continue to be buried in the family plot or mausoleum]. We have between 25 and 50 burials a year. Not enough to support our operations. So that’s what I’m trying to do, find other ways of getting funding to support [the cemetery]. We are also trying to make the lots we do have more appealing.