Anna Hochman is a sophomore Urban Studies major from San Francisco.
For her art installation, she worked with cotton ribbon and biodegradable twine. The installation is located on one of the Woodlands’ oak trees in order to call attention to the extraordinary merging of nature and death in the West Philadelphia cemetery.
There is no sight more stunning to me than that of a blooming cradle grave. Course, gray, timeworn material meets the soft and springy vibrancy of growth, as grasses and flowers explode out of the trough created by the headstone, footstone, and sidebars of the Victorian-era grave setup. Cradle graves are miniature garden oases, and at this time of year, the Woodlands Cemetery — a 54-acre cemetery, garden, and public park in West Philadelphia — is full of them. Each grave has been tirelessly tended to by gardeners throughout the seasons, in anticipation of this springtime bloom.
On a gloomy Wednesday afternoon on a stroll through the cemetery, I met Becky, a volunteer with the Woodlands Grave Gardeners, a group of Philadelphia residents who tend to the cradle graves of the cemetery. The graveyard turns into a community garden as each volunteer takes on a plot or two and makes it their own. Becky was packing up her gardening supplies after a day’s work on the Dreer family plot, which she took on this season. Next door, the Parker family plot was starting to bloom, which she told me she’d been working hard at for several years. Hyacinths were scattered around the edges, their deep lilac colors complimenting the pure greens of the grasses and leaves surrounding them. I marveled at the bulbs of some peonies that Becky was sure were going to blossom in the next few days, magenta petals looking like they were struggling to break free, similar to chicks hatching from their eggs. The troughs of the cradle graves within the family plot were explosions of greenery, distinct shades popping out against one another and spilling out of their sidebars. Becky had made the graves come alive. The beauty of the cradle grave comes not just from the flowering plants themselves, but from the meaning they evoke. As the dead are buried beneath the ground, their memories live on in the life contained within the space of the grave’s trough. We are all earthly beings, and in this context, after death, we return to the earth and become something new. We become fertilizer, flowers, and grass in the cradle grave, which is just one instance of elements of the natural world aiding in our process of accepting and coping with death. Perhaps death isn’t as scary or ominous when we see our loved ones growing into the nature they were buried near. Walking through the Woodlands, one’s thoughts of death have a calm peace to them, the tree-canopied paths, lawns dotted with sunshine-yellow flowers, and spirited high grasses showing how life always circles back, returning with vibrancy and meaning.
The Woodlands Cemetery could be described as a commonsense ecology, each of its parts things we don’t often pause to think about. However, the meeting of these components, which happens so beautifully at the Woodlands, is not common at all, and instead quite exceptional. The burial, for instance, is one of the most common practices that a person can partake in. One of the human race’s most distinct features is the fact that we bury the dead. Across the span of thousands of years of human existence, thousands of religions, cultures, and locations, human beings lay their loved ones to rest for the final time in the earth. The Woodlands, a space for this perfectly common and ubiquitous practice, is commonsense.
The Woodlands Cemetery’s embrace of gardening and nature, however, is extremely uncommon. Cemeteries in this day and age typically exist outside of daily life, separated both physically and mentally from concentrations of people. Old cemeteries like the Woodlands, however, were built on the outskirts of cities, in rural areas that were relatively unpopulated. As cities continued to expand, neighborhoods developed around the cemeteries. (Greenfield, 2011). These cemeteries hence have turned into public parks, little patches of peaceful green space amidst the concrete hustle and bustle of surrounding urban environments. City parks are another factor that make the Woodlands commonsense, as they are a completely common and not thought-about element of the environment around us. It is the fact that this neighborhood park happens to be a cemetery that makes this space so exceptional. The Woodlands prides itself in the fact that the public uses its grounds as a park, not only running the volunteer grave gardening program but also operating as an arboretum and as an operational hub for the Philadelphia Orchard Project. The cemetery is not just a place to bury the dead, but a place to reconnect with the earth, both for those who have gone and for those who are still living.
This aspect of the Woodlands comes partly because of its location in an urban setting, where it acts as a park for the surrounding community, but also because of its history. William Hamilton inherited the land that is now the Woodlands in 1766, building a family estate on the property (William Hamilton, 2022). Influenced by the grand nature of English country estates, Hamilton began to turn the grounds into a showcase for his vast plant collection, which he accumulated from across the world. He was able to access this international horticulture through his connections with various botanists, both local and abroad, and his relationships with political leaders, such as George Washington, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson, who helped him lobby to receive seeds procured during a Lewis and Clark expedition to the Pacific. Hamilton passed away in 1813, his obituary reading: “The study of botany was the principal amusement of his life.” The estate went to his sons, who could not afford to maintain the grounds and sought out buyers for the property. In 1840, the Woodlands Cemetery Company was founded and purchased the land, with the goal of preserving the landscape and scenery that had been so carefully maintained by Hamilton (Hamilton’s Landscape, 2020). His influence lives on in the Woodlands through the arboretum that is planted throughout the cemetery. Oaks, elms, pines, and cypresses are among the most common, varying greatly in species and origin, some of them descendants of the very trees that Hamilton himself cultivated.
In his novel The Overstory, Richard Powers tells the story of a chestnut tree, planted on a farm in Iowa, whose life is inseparable from the lives of the family members on the farm. While entire generations of kids grow up, marry, have kids of their own, and become the principal caretakers of the land, the chestnut advances in only “a couple new fissures, an inch of added rings” (Powers, 2018, p. 9). Family members who have passed are buried under the tree, which still shades them after they are gone. In this story, just as much as the tree becomes a part of the life of the family, who photograph it every month, as they die, they become a part of the life of the tree. The same story could take place in the Woodlands, where the trees have been around for generations, witnessing and protecting the burials of grandparents, then parents, and then grandchildren in family plots. It takes a long time, but eventually, buried bodies and wooden coffins decompose and disintegrate into their surroundings, perhaps even becoming nutrients for and growing into the trees that shade them.
Central to any ecological analysis of the Woodlands is thinking about the land itself, which did not always belong to William Hamilton, and was first the land inhabited by the Lenni Lenape. In fact, a Lenape village called the Aroonemink, which translates to “place where the fish cease,” was located just southwest of what is now The Woodlands (Late Winter, 2022). A 2001 excavation along the west bank of the Schuylkill River found evidence that a relatively large community of Indigenous people occupied the land six thousand years ago, during the late archaic and early woodland periods (Duffin et al., 2023). The first European settlers arrived in the area near Philadelphia in the 17th century with the 1633 formation of the New South Company, funded by Dutch and Swedish investors, and their 1638 purchase of a section of land from the Lenape near what is now known as Wilmington, Delaware. The company later started a settlement on Tinicum Island, which is near today’s Philadelphia International Airport. Swedish and Finnish fur traders came next, establishing trading posts along the west bank of the Delaware River. William Warner was the first European to settle in West Philadelphia, arriving in 1677. Five years later, William Penn arrived, claiming land granted to him by King Charles II to establish a colony for his fellow Quakers, being persecuted in England (Duffin et al., 2023).
Penn’s relationship with the Lenni Lenape is often seen as an example of a good and peaceful relationship between European settlers and Indigenous peoples of America. However, the history of their land becoming his is much more nuanced than most tellings of the story let on. Penn’s Quakerism certainly could have led to a peaceful relationship between himself and the Lenape people whose land he purchased, in what is known as the Great Treaty or the Treaty of Shackamaxon, named after the town in which this agreement is said to have taken place. The signers of the treaty vowed to live in peace with one another for “as long as the waters run in the rivers and creeks and as long as the stars and moon endure” (Shurley, 2019). However, when William Penn died and his sons took over his estate, they changed the meaning of the treaty, insisting that the family actually had claimed all of the lands within a day-and-a-half’s walking distance of their property. This “Walking Purchase,” where Penn’s sons sent people to walk for a day and a half, led to the family fraudulently seizing lands sixty-five miles past where the initial agreed-upon settlement was, resulting in the family’s estate growing 750,000 acres (Duffin et al., 2023).
When we think about the Woodlands, about how we are able to bury our dead in a space that allows us to make a meaningful connection with the nature around us, we must remember that the legacies of the people here before are also being carried. In light of this, I wanted to ensure that a piece of disruption in the Woodlands, making people think about the greater meaning that this very special cemetery brings to death, would include this legacy. Just as the Woodlands should not be taken for granted, neither should the land itself that they stand on.
I aimed, first, to create a physical manifestation of the idea that being buried is a return to the earth, where the end of life aids in the beginning of new life. I wrote the names of those who are buried in the Woodlands on a strand of biodegradable ribbon, wrapping it around the branch of a tree in the cemetery, illustrating that it can almost seem like humans are reborn into trees, grasses, and flowers in this space where nature is so purposefully maintained. On a separate strand, I wrote of the history of displacement of the Lenni Lenape, native to the land, showing how in the earth, they are just as much present as the people buried. However, this history is somewhat hidden and rarely discussed; the Lenni Lenape are not even officially recognized by the state of Pennsylvania. In recognition of this, the ribbon that I used was sheer, and the words I wrote folded in on themselves, legible but slightly hidden at the same time. This ribbon was also wrapped around the tree, woven together with the first.
Lastly, I wanted to include some words to help interpret the art. As I had been pondering the space of the Woodlands in recent months, a folk song by the artist Hozier kept coming to mind. The song is called “In a Week,” and the lyrics, from the perspective of someone who has been recently buried, speak to the idea of disintegrating into the nature around us and returning home in death. On a ribbon, I first wrote down a verse from the song, and I then wrote my own. I took a lot of inspiration from Natasha Myers’ “A Kriya for Cultivating Your Inner Plant,” where she leads readers through a meditation to, in effect, become a tree. “Draw water up your growing stem into your leaves,” she writes. “Play with this new buoyancy, feel the lift and lilt as your leaves and stems reach for more sunlight. You are becoming phototropic. Lap up the sunlight through your greening leaves” (Myers 2014, p. 2). These descriptions of the feeling of photosynthesis were quite powerful to me, and I included this sense in my own lyrics, writing, “I have never known air like the oxygen that breathes through me. I have never known brightness like this sunlight that beams on me.” This written inhabitation of somebody who has been buried, and is now returning to life once again as a plant, compliments the physical representation of the names being wound around the tree.
The Woodlands are a common yet sacred space, where the every day turns fantastical. As people walk through the grounds and come across this tree, I hope they pause and consider just how consequential and extraordinary the space truly is.
Duffin, J. M., McConaghy, M. D. M., Licht, W., & Lloyd, M. F. (2023). The Original People and Their Land: The Lenape, Pre-History to the 18th Century. West Philadelphia Collaborative History.
https://collaborativehistory.gse.upenn.edu/stories/original-people-and-their-land-lenape-p re-history-18th-century#:~:text=The%20indigenous%20people%20who%20inhabited,lat e%2017th%20and%2018th%20centuries.
Greenfield, R. (2011, March 16). Our First Public Parks: The Forgotten History of Cemeteries. The Atlantic.
Hamilton’s Landscape. (2020). The Woodlands.
Late Winter Tree Tour. (2022, March 8). The Woodlands.
https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/aebbeb56d8ba498a82c54041325ccd8f Myers, N. (2014). Sensing Botanical Sensoria: A Kriya for Cultivating Your Inner Plant. Centre for Imaginative Ethnography.
Powers, R. (2018). The overstory. W. W. Norton.
Shurley, D. (2019, August 23). Philadelphia’s Forgotten Forebears: How Pennsylvania Erased the Lenape From Local History. Hidden City.
Hochman 9 William Hamilton. (2022). The Woodlands. Retrieved May 5, 2023, from https://www.woodlandsphila.org/william-hamilton