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By Michael Kleiner
The roster reads like a Who’s Who of the Philadelphia area. Annie Ward, the maid to Charlotte Drake Martinez Cardeza, both of whom survived the Titanic. Anna Jarvis, the founder of Mother’s Day. A.J. Reach, the first professional baseball player and first owner of the Phillies. Benjamin Shibe, who became President of the Phillies and had a stadium named after him. The Dietz & Watson, Breyers Ice Cream and Pew families. Musicians Grover Washington, Jr. and Teddy Pendergrass. And more.
They are among the 100,000 people buried at the 146-year old West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd. While some might think it creepy to work at a cemetery, this history drives Deborah Cassidy, Director of Sales, Marketing and Family Services. The 187-acre grounds are spacious enough to hold events besides burials and funeral services and are available for community use.
“It’s a park rich in history and magnificent architecture,” she said, “The stories of the deceased make such an impact. I wouldn’t say it’s creepy. One of the great things about working here is not just helping families, but also the many offerings we have. We have facilities for funerals, cemetery burials, cremations, weddings, meetings, lectures, programming and events. Our facilities are here to make it more convenient for families, but families can choose our funeral home and be buried elsewhere, and they can choose our cemetery and use another funeral home.”
West Laurel Hill, which includes an arboretum, sculpture garden, two meeting venues and two chapels with different capacities, a conservatory, and two reception rooms, was established in 1869 as the expansion of Laurel Hill, which is located on Ridge Avenue in East Falls.
Laurel Hill was established in 1836 and is on 81 acres of land.
“The estate founder John Jay Smith decided to expand Laurel Hill,” explained Deborah. “The Fairmont Park Commission was established and the development of the park thwarted any expansion opportunities for Laurel Hill. Therefore, John Jay Smith came across the river and created West Laurel.
“What makes the two cemeteries unique are we are the same company and are privately owned. Laurel Hill is more program driven now. They have 10-15 burials a year. With Laurel Hill, proceeds from their programming goes to the beautification, development and repairs needed at Laurel Hill. West Laurel Hill has approximately 570 burials and 200 funerals a year. Our programs are more geared to charities. We partner with a charity so any of the proceeds are given to the charity. As an example, we have a Kentucky Derby party here. Last year, the charity was Hope Springs, which is an organization that provides therapeutic horseback riding for hundreds of children and adults with disabilities. All the money raised from this event was donated to Hope Springs.”
Deborah has been at West Laurel Hill for 15 years. She started as a Family Service Representative, and was quickly asked to head the department. Some would think being a Family Service Rep would be trying on a daily basis, and can be, but it is also very rewarding helping families.
“The Family Service Representative meets with families whether they are preplanning or after a death has occurred,” said Deborah. “They help guide the family through the arrangements and details. They’re the advocate for the family and help them through a very difficult time.
“It can take a toll on the staff, but there’s a reason we hired them. They are individuals who are sincere and genuine and devoted to helping families. That's why we have a great team and don’t have a great turnover. We’ve won Best of Main Line for 10 years, so we’re doing something right.”
There have been a few innovations at West Laurel. In 2008, they started green burials, and in 2016 a pet cemetery will debut. A Jewish cemetery is also being built.
The green area is 1 1/2 acres, with expansion to four acres possible. A restoration was done in 2014 and 2015.
“We want to provide different options for our families,” said Deborah. “We didn’t want to turn someone away that wanted a green burial. Twice a year, we bring goats in to eat all the invasives that have grown. We hired a natural landscape architect to help us with plantings. We have 38-40 individuals buried in this section and approximately 40-45 that have already prearranged.”
In a green burial, the body is not embalmed, but buried in a biodegradable shroud or an environmentally friendly casket, or in the case of cremations, urns. Graves are dug by hand and no chemicals are used on the land. Natural markers are used instead of headstones.
West Laurel is so active in the community that Deborah received the “Feather in the Cap Award” from the Rotary Club of Bala Cynwyd-Narberth. Her team does over 180 events a year.
They are proud of their partnership with SBN. West Laurel is the lead sponsor of SBN’s Sustainaball fundraiser. They hosted the first sustainability fair this year, promote SBN events and mention SBN to customers.
Among the activities West Laurel staff have been or are involved in:
Established the Cynwyd Heritage Trail, which runs from the Cynwyd Train Station off Montgomery Avenue to Manayunk over the Schuylkill River Bridge. They provided mile markers, volunteer to clean the trail and organize special events.
Cleaned, revitalized and mapped the Gladwyne Jewish Memorial Cemetery.
Sponsored Haverford Music Festival, Narberth Middle School Basketball, a 5K run for MANNA, and the Lower Merion Conservancy
Host the monthly Boneyard Bookworms, who discuss a chosen book; Easter Egg Hunt, and a Puppy Prance to benefit the Montgomery County SPCA.
“We are committed to giving back to the community,” said Deborah. “One of our objectives is to help further other non-profit’s missions. As great stewards of our land, we understand our obligation to give back. When we give back, we’re helping in small increments a bigger cause.”