by Maddie Clark
“Why the hell would anyone want to come to a cemetery with their significant other to celebrate Valentine’s Day?” asks Gwen Kaminski. “Because cemeteries can be super romantic.”
It may also be due to the fact that the heart of a woman, and only her heart, was buried six feet under the earth at the Laurel Hill Cemetery per her final wishes.
On Saturday, Feb. 10, Gwen Kaminski, director of development and programs at Laurel Hill Cemetery will act as tour guide for the cemetery’s annual “Till Death Do Us Part: Love Stories of Laurel Hill.”
Although the cemetery was founded in 1836, this idea of a Valentine’s Day themed walking tour did not take shape until Kaminski’s hire in 2005. With over 175 years of burial records at her disposal, Kaminski one day stumbled on the interment file of a peculiar woman named Mary Peterson. It was Peterson’s final wish to have her heart removed from her body post mortem and buried next to her husband, Thomas Howard Peterson, who had died decades earlier.
Following the discovery of Peterson’s story, it immediately sparked the idea for a Valentine’s day tour because as Kaminski puts it, there other love stories to be shared.
Though historians were not able to discover the true nature of her husband’s death in 1881, Peterson’s story still continued on. When she died in 1912, Peterson elected to have the rest of her body buried in a Catholic burial ground in northeast Philadelphia with her parents, while her heart would be laid to rest with her husband.
Despite the fact that Peterson later remarried, “her heart always remained [with her first husband], physically and metaphorically,” said Kaminski.
While the idea of a tour throughout a cemetery on what is supposed to be the most romantic day of the year may seem macabre to the general public, the Laurel Hill Cemetery has always acted as a communal area for local residents.
Dating all the way back to the Victorian era, the cemetery predated public parks and museums. “This is where Philadelphians of yesteryear would come for recreation, entertainment and even what we would call dates today,” according to Kaminski. Even in a venue surrounded by death, Laurel Hill was meant to be a place for people to enjoy life.
In trying to remind guests why they’re in a cemetery celebrating Valentine’s Day, Kaminski introduces the tour with a story regarding human remains from about 6,000 years ago that still continue to exist in a locking embrace. As Kaminski states, the couple are “very symbolically connected in love.”
Based on the state of the couple’s teeth when they died, it was determined that they passed at a very young age. Their remains were also discovered outside Verona, Italy, the city where the tragic love story of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet took place.
Kaminski also begins the tour with the tale of two men who were laid to rest inside an Egyptian tomb around 2500 BC. When the tomb was discovered in the 1960s, historians saw that the outside of the tomb was covered with images of two men hugging, kissing and other symbols that celebrated their love.
Kaminski even leads the tour to where the real-life monuments of Adrian and Paulie still stand from when the film Creed was filmed in Philadelphia.
Though these introductory stories are not directly tied to the Laurel Hill Cemetery, Kaminski chooses to introduce the tour with these two accounts in order to set the scene and to show how someone could connect these ideas of romanticism and love with a cemetery.
“I see it as my job to really make sure [guests] have a fun time and that they learn interesting stories and even come back for more events,” stated Kaminski.
While the Valentine’s Day themed tour is a large attraction for the cemetery, it is not the only event that is held throughout the year. There are also several fundraisers such as the Grave Diggers Ball, a black tie and costume gala, and the 5k run throughout the cemetery where participants can also choose to dress up and even bring their pets if desired.
With the many events that Laurel Hill hosts throughout the year, all of the proceeds go back into the restoration and preservation of the cemetery. This insures that the history of Laurel Hill can continue to be shared with the public.
For those who are still leery of the idea of a cemetery hosting human interest events in a sacred burial ground, Kaminski states that people choose to be buried here in Laurel Hill because they want their stories remembered, “so we’re doing that for them today … we’re paying homage to what the cemetery was established for in the first place.”