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: You said death was more common in the 1800s?
Ross Mitchell: The life span was much shorter back then. And before there were antibiotics, people lost children all the time. We have one lot here where [a family] lost eight children in ten years, all under the age of ten.
Stoneangel: They weren’t all stillborn babies?
Ross Mitchell: No, colds would come around, infections would happen and there were no antibiotics. So people died [earlier]. People were laid out in the parlor. In fact I believe that’s one of the reasons they started calling it the “living” room instead of the parlor because the parlor waxs associated with where you would lay out the body when you had a death in the family. So “living” room…
Stoneangels: As opposed to the funeral “parlor.” I brought my daughter here when she was about fifteen-we used to come here together to take photographs. She was surprised to see so many tombstones of children who had died before they were 6 months old. She couldn’t understand why so many children had died that young. It was a great history lesson for her. Hanging around here, I think in some way helped me prepare myself for my father’s death. I have a small family and I was not used to grief and death. But I knew it was inevitable. So I appreciate Laurel Hill from that respect.
Ross Mitchell: One of the programs we’re developing here is in conjunction with St. Joseph’s University [Philadelphia], an Urban Mourning Rituals Program-that’s the working title now. It’s an outreach program into the local community. Unfortunately, with all the shootings that we’re having in Philadelphia–a lot of youth-on-youth murder–everybody in the city knows somebody who’s been shot. So we’re working on developing a program that’s based on the spontaneous memorials–spontaneous roadside memorials that happen, and the Rest In Peace memorials at murder sites, the spray-painted memorial on the back windows of cars, Rest In Peace spray-painted memorial t-shirts, sort of graffitied, modern urban rituals. These are a natural outgrowth of loss and of people trying to deal with loss.
So with Professor Berndt, from St. Joseph’s University, we’re developing a program to go out into the community to help children understand what these mourning rituals are, what they’re for and to help children deal with their loss. We’ll come to Laurel Hill as part of the program–we have 170 years of mourning rituals here and can help kids understand and work through their unfortunate losses.