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West Philadelphia Cemetery Welcomes Community Gardeners


It's no secret that many cemeteries are more than places for the dead. They can be peaceful, open green spaces, especially appealing in crowded cities, like Philadelphia, where people sought more community involvement for historic cemeteries' upkeep and ended up with a city gardening and a continuing education center. Peter Crimmins of member station WHYY takes us there.

PETER CRIMMINS, BYLINE: Two hundred years ago, The Woodlands cemetery in west Philadelphia was the country estate of William Hamilton, one of America's preeminent horticulturalists. Now it's an urban cemetery surrounded by townhouses, apartment buildings and trolley lines.

LILY APPLEBAUM: The ferns I just put in, and then the bulbs, you know, I planted in the late spring or fall of last year.

CRIMMINS: Lily Applebaum lives in a downtown apartment, and this cemetery is the only gardening opportunity she has.

APPLEBAUM: I'll be honest - sort of, like, shed a tear when this fern came back because I thought it had died. And then I saw, like, one chute come up - sort of a fiddlehead come up, and that was very exciting (laughter).

CRIMMINS: The 19th-century cemetery is the worse for wear. A lot of names have worn off the headstones. Many funereal sculptures are eroding. That appeals to Applebaum's Gothic sensibility.

APPLEBAUM: Angels that are missing hands or, you know, like, one that's - I find particularly disturbing is sort of, like, a Madonna and child, but Madonna's missing a head.

CRIMMINS: The cemetery is filled with Victorian grave markers that you don't see anymore. They're called cradle graves. They have a headstone, a footstone and two sidebars, all of which create a trough. They were designed to be planted with ornamentals by the family of the deceased. The historic cemetery is now maintained by a small nonprofit with not a lot of money to hire groundskeepers for these graves. So last year, director Jessica Baumert reached out for volunteers in the neighborhood. She was hoping 20 people might come. Seventy-five showed up.

JESSICA BAUMERT: And so we realized pretty quickly that we had struck something in people. So we kind of scrambled and figured OK, well, we're just going to accept all 75 people. And we'll make it work. And it's probably one of the best things we've ever done as a site.

CRIMMINS: The second year, this year, 250 people signed up. The overwhelming popularity of the grave gardening program pushed Baumert to offer gardening classes and to train volunteers to use Philadelphia's geneological libraries if they want to learn more about the residents buried beneath their miniature gardens.

CARA BLOUIN: We also spend a lot of time sitting around here trying to figure out who these people are and what their lives were like.

CRIMMINS: Cara Blouin helps maintain a grave site of a 19th-century man but is way more interested in the life of the woman buried next to him, probably his daughter, who was a Civil War nurse at Gettysburg.

BLOUIN: She died in her 70s, unmarried. So we're wondering if her father pushed her into a life as a Civil War nurse to escape her fate or if he was a wonderful, careful father who told her this was a way for her to live a life of excitement.

CRIMMINS: In honor of that deceased nurse, Blouin will plant medicinal plants on her father's grave, things like spearmint and wintergreen, all while sitting in the grass and musing on what it might have been like to live her life. For NPR News, I'm Peter Crimmins in Philadelphia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Crimmins

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