Why does Rocky’s wife get a tombstone at Laurel Hill?
The cemetery can't fundraise, burial-lot sales have dwindled, and they needed to do something.
Here lies ... Adrian Balboa.
Well, not really. Laurel Hill Cemetery’s headstone for the fictional wife of the fictional Philly boxer is a leftover from the Rocky Balboa film shoot a few years ago. As Terri Greenberg, one of the cemetery’s tour guides, tells it, Stallone arrived to shoot his scene at Adrian’s grave, took one look at the Styrofoam prop headstone and said, “Tacky.” The current granite version was made, and now is one of the stops on the “Famous People Not Buried at Laurel Hill” tour.
Adrian’s headstone was relocated to its current cramped locale after the shoot, though. Had to make room. Though there’s enough markers for people not actually buried here to make a tour out of it — George and Martha Washington, Robert E. Lee, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter — it’s crowded underground at Laurel Hill.
That’s true for most of Philly, though. “If you are walking anywhere in Old City Philadelphia, you are probably walking on somebody’s grave,” says Greenberg. The city’s population nearly doubled in size to over 80,000 over the first three decades of the 19th century, leading to massive overcrowding of both the living and the dead. The situation prompted John Jay Smith, with a few others, to establish Laurel Hill as a non-sectarian garden cemetery in 1836. It thrived for nearly a century, becoming a center of communal social life, architecture and horticulture.
“But by the early 1930s, it was out of the profit business,” says David Horwitz, one of the earliest tour guides and a history professor at CCP. As a 501(c)(13), The Laurel Hill Cemetery Company is not allowed to fundraise. Sales of burial lots had dwindled to a near stop, and interest on the small 19th-century endowments for upkeep was negligible. Recreational culture had also changed; everyone had cars or radios. People stopped coming. The cemetery fell into disrepair.
Horwitz first stumbled into Laurel Hill in June, 1972. Hurricane Agnes had just torn up the Atlantic seaboard and was carrying “entire villages down the Schuylkill.” Looking for a good vantage point to photograph the flooded, debris-strewn river, he found himself high on the eastern bank in the neglected burial ground that nature had nearly reclaimed. Some of it was impassible; many flat headstones were covered with grass and weeds, and groundhogs (still active) were sinking monuments.
The situation couldn’t be solved by traditional methods — only about 1 percent of Laurel Hill’s 78 acres is still available for burial plots, and the cemetery does a meager 25-30 burials a year, many of which are in old ancestral plots. There are some new-looking markers — like the granite, man-sized microphone flanked by two pairs of stadium chairs that marks the grave of Harry Kalas, buried here in 2009 — but they’re few and far between. Getting one of those few remaining slices of earth is expensive: Single plots start at $2,500 and larger ones can go as high as $10,000.
The benefits? You’ll never be alone. Not if Alexis Jeffcoat, development and programs coordinator of The Friends of Laurel Hill Cemetery, the nonprofit that was founded in 1978 and revitalized the cemetery, has anything to say about it.
Since there’s a finite capacity for interring the dead, Laurel Hill’s had to re-establish itself as a destination for the living, with regular events like themed tours (like the one of the faux graves), concerts and movie screenings, as well as allowing Stallone and Michael Bay to shoot films here. And the efforts seem to be working: In 1998, Laurel Hill was deemed a National Historical Landmark, the first cemetery to receive the distinction. And on one sunny day, people are walking through the grounds — some kneeling at headstones, but some picnicking. There’s even two men from Colorado who began visiting famous cemeteries around the world, like Père Lachaise in Paris, about 10 years ago. They stopped in Philly to see Laurel Hill before heading south to Arlington.
For Jeffcoat, the big struggle is “changing people’s mindsets about cemeteries.” When Horwitz started bringing his history students out for visits, a few complained, and he notices that it still “unnerves” some of them.
Not Horwitz, though. The 72-year-old is fine visiting his own grave. “Not a bad view for eternity,” he jokes, surveying the red granite obelisk overlooking the Schuylkill that will serve as his headstone when he is dead. Isn’t it a little eerie? “We’re just doing what they did. Which is to visit their own monuments,” he says, nodding at the grand mausoleums and pale towers and obelisks of Millionaire’s Row, rescued from the past and restored to their proper continuity with today’s Philadelphia. “Look around you. Isn’t it obvious they wanted to be seen?”
“Famous People Not Buried at Laurel Hill” tour, Thu., July 18, 6 p.m., $20, Laurel Hill Cemetery Gatehouse, 3822 Ridge Ave., 215-228-8200, thelaurelhillcemetery.org. Reservations suggested.