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A vacation story highlighting a cemetery immediately sounds weird, odd, even creepy. Why exactly would vacationers elect to have a picnic meal in the very shadow of death? For many, it would be more puzzling as Philadelphia is not short of beautiful destinations where a delectable meal can be enjoyed in an ambiance of life in all its dynamic vivacity. In fact, there are some spots, five of them, that those who vacation in Philadelphia should avoid. It turns out that none of them is a cemetery.

Yet, if one is looking for something truly unique while visiting Philadelphia, a detour to Laurel Hill should form part of the travel plans. There’s a lot of intriguing history in this Victorian-era hobby. And the experience itself will be one of a lifetime. Here’s the good news: An hour or two at the cemetery will just be enough.


Cemetery Picnics: Tracing The Puzzling Roots

Less than two hundred years ago, Philadelphians would eat—and then rest in peace—as it were, among those who were also resting in peace. Today it would look bizarre. But in the 19th century, it raised no eyebrows. Established in 1836, Laurel Hill was the scene and theater of this practice, now almost entirely out of vogue. And it wasn’t just in Laurel Hill, or even in the “City of Brotherly Love,” as Philadelphia has come to be known. It was a practice that was taking place all over the United States.

In Dayton, Ohio—at its Woodland Cemetery, women in wide-brimmed hats or carrying parasols would flock along the tree-lined graveyard to share a meal, usually on a family lot. It was not just some light snack as some would imagine—or tolerate. And over in the Big Apple, New Yorkers were not left behind. They would make their way to St. Paul’s Churchyard that’s today neighboring the Twin Towers Ground Zero site—carrying beef sandwiches—and other delectable meals. It was their purpose to enjoy these special means right inside the cemetery.

Yet it was never like this before. Actually, up to the end of the 18th century, cemeteries had a scandalously odious reputation. Graveyards were where gambling and prostitution took place, among other social ills. It was also where decaying, smelly bodies would be snatched or taken away. They were also literally overflowing with mounds and heaps of slimy bodies. So what brought about the change?

Related: The Best Way To Experience Philadelphia In A Day.

How Cemeteries Came To Be Picnic Sites

At the start of the 18th century, the idea of setting up cemeteries like garden-like parks had started occupying the minds of some individuals. However, the idea never caught on until well into the 19th century. Names like “Green Wood” started appearing on graveyards—featuring professional landscaping, sometimes even ponds and canopied pavilions. One St. Louis newspaper ran a story titled as follows: HOLD PICNICS IN CEMETERY: Burying Grounds Selected By Christian Endevaors For Jolly Gathering.

It would be well to mention that with mass deaths occasioned by such factors as the Civil War and other pestilences, local communities gave more serious thought to the design and style of graveyards. From the spooky gloom of days gone by, graveyards became beautiful park-like gardens—where picnickers looked happy under discouraging circumstances. But another reason was at play. Up to this point in time, there had never been enough public spaces where families would while away the time outside their everyday confines. When the idea of public spaces became trendy, leading to their widespread establishment, cemetery picnics went out of fashion. They were now not serving any practical purpose. But not in all places.

Related: 10 Day Trips To Take From Philadelphia.

How To Enjoy Cemetery Picnicking At Laurel Hill Today

While it would be hard to find—and enjoy cemetery picnicking today—Laurel Hill Cemetery has an event that hankers back to the Victorian era when this practice was wildly popular. Once a year, Laurel Hill Cemetery gives individuals the chance to travel back in time, to relive this fascinating Victoria-era tradition. During this special day, guests are taken on a guided tour of the cemetery’s grounds. They are allowed to carry food; even blankets and chairs—in order to enjoy their meals among the quiet graves. And to make the experience complete, the management encourages guests to wear Victoria-era attire.

  • How Much Is A Guided Tour Of Laurel Hill Cemetery? General admission is $15 for those aged 15 and above.
  • When Is The Cemetery Picnic Event Taking Place In 2022 At Laurel Hill? This event will take place on Saturday, September 10, 2022, 1:00 pm - 3:00 pm.

Aside from Laurel Hill, this practice is alive in some of the country’s immigrant communities. Also, there are some family graveyards where loved ones occasionally gather around to rest—and eat in peace. While eating in a grave is strange, it was one time a popular practice all over the country.