Angels and Martyrs

Christopher Moraff


The Monuments of Laurel Hill Cemetery

I can still remember the first time I set foot in Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill Cemetery. I was about nine and my father and I were strolling along the banks of the Schuylkill River when he pointed high up, to a rugged cliff dotted with chipped stone blocks and great reaching figures, and asked me if I knew what I was seeing. To my young eyes it must have looked like a great medieval castle, its granite embankments and solid little structures abraded by centuries of wind and war, its grass trampled by the ghosts of armored knights and invading hordes. 


“It's a cemetery,” he said. “Should we take a look?”


We hiked up Hunting Park Avenue and made our way through the gate into an endless rolling sea of green and gray bristling with tall obelisks of marble, hulking monuments and winged angels set in eternal prayer  (more than 30,000 of them in all, I later learned.)


Over the years I would take many walks and bike rides through Laurel Hill. But it wasn't until a few years ago that I started taking pictures there. I'd recently begun learning about the history of the cemetery and felt a need to document it, to try and capture the essence of the ancient pockmarked stone – and the mostly unnamed craftsmen who carved it – in a way that was authentic and unadulterated. 


In mid-2009 I brought a tripod and my digital Nikon to the cemetery and started making the images in this series. I've been going back every year since, and I've barely made a dent. 


Laurel Hill Cemetery was founded by John Jay Smith,  the type of Renaissance man common to the 19th century but rare today. A publisher, librarian, businessman and scientist, as well as a founding member of the Academy of Natural Sciences, Smith hired Scottish-American architect John Notman to lay out the 78-acre plot of his West Laurel Hill Cemetery, as it was known then. 


A naturalist and horticulturalist whose ancestors were associates of William Penn, Smith imagined a burial ground consecrated by nature itself, unlike the tiny walled graveyards – devoid of life – that dotted the city since colonial days and where Smith's own daughter had been interred.


As his friend Thomas Meehan described it in the Gardener's monthly and horticulturist in 1881: “Not a flower bloomed in that barren, sectarian graveyard. No bird sang its innocent chant; no tree - no sign of any living thing appeared in this old-time desert of the dead, but the few blades of grass which persistently struggled to enforce a protest against this awful desecration of nature's love for us even after we are gone.”


When it opened in 1836, West Laurel Hill was the first “garden” cemetery in Philadelphia, and only the second in the U.S. Over the next 170 years, some of the most prolific artists and sculptors of the day would be represented in the ornate monuments and mausoleums, including Alexander Calder, the American sculptor Harriet Whitney Frishmuth (who studied with Rodin and Karl Bitter) and the Polish sculptor Henry Dmoghowski-Saunders, whose busts of Thaddeus Kosciuszko and Casimir Pulaski are on display in the U.S. Capitol. But for the most part, the creators of these masterpieces – including most of those in this series – remain anonymous, meaning we must enjoy them for their beauty alone and for the fragment of American history they represent. 


Author Bio:

Writer and photographer Christopher Moraff ( ) is a news features correspondent for The Philadelphia Tribune and a contributing writer for the magazines Design Bureau and In These Times, where he serves on the Board of Editors.  His photography has been shown at exhibits around his hometown of Philadelphia. A selection of his street portraits (2008-2011) also appeared in Highbrow Magazine.

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Christopher Moraff
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