As you’re walking through Laurel Hill Cemetery, or any historic cemetery, you’re bound to run across a sight that can confuse many visitors: gravestones which bear a distinct resemblance to baby cradles. It’s understandable that one might conclude these monuments specifically mark the grave of a child, but that’s not always the case.
Sadly, as with many Victorian-era cemeteries, there are indeed many children buried here. When you consider the fact that Alexander Fleming didn’t discover Penicillin until 1928, or that it would be another 27 years after that until Jonas Salk developed his Polio vaccine, infant mortality and childhood illness was an ever-looming threat for 19th century families. But these graves were used to honor people of all ages.
The idea behind a cradle grave – as they are properly called – is to provide a place for planting flowers. Some archaeological digs seem to indicate that the tradition of placing flowers with the dead dates back thousands of years, and has remained an important part of funerary custom for people all over the world.
Cradle graves can be identified by their layout. They usually consist of a headstone, footstone, and two low walls connecting them. In the middle, there is an exposed patch of earth where family members could plant and maintain small flower gardens.
Laurel Hill, like many other rural cemeteries in the Victorian era, was a popular weekend destination for Philadelphians looking to escape the noise and crowding of the city. When families visited their dead, they might have spent some time tending to the plantings in their loved one’s cradle grave. Other families may have left an endowment with the cemetery so the superintendent and grounds crew could do the same.
Unfortunately, Laurel Hill began to experience neglect and disrepair as the years went on. The American relationship with death had changed drastically by the end of World War II, making it now seem odd to spend a weekend in a cemetery. As a result, many of these cradle graves rapidly became overgrown with weeds, or choked off with invasive vines.
Seeing a cradle grave without it’s intended plantings is probably what leads to many people assuming these are baby cradles, hence the confusion.
Laurel Hill is taking on a new project this year of restoring many of our cradle graves to their former glory. We’ve proudly partnered with the “Roots to Re-Entry” program through the PHS, which provides people transitioning out of the Philadelphia prison system with valuable job training in landscaping and gardening. Their focus during their training at Laurel Hill will be the cradle graves in the Medallion Garden section of the cemetery.
Be sure to stop by this spring to see the way these cradle graves restored to the way they would have looked in the 19th century.