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The Hawk News

The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

‘If there’s any such thing as a happy cemetery, this would be the place’

The life and work of Laurel Hill Cemetery’s groundskeeper

Peter “Bill” Doran, 59, breezes into the main office of Laurel Hill Cemetery, located on Ridge Avenue in Philadelphia, Pa., with a 16-ounce cup of Wawa coffee in his hand. Doran, dressed sensibly in a pair of dark blue jeans, a plaid shirt made up of various shades of blue, and a black collared jacket, is ready to start a long day of work in the cemetery.

Doran is the superintendent of Laurel Hill Cemetery and West Laurel Hill Cemetery, an approximately 12-minute drive away on the other side of the Schuylkill River. He arrives at Laurel Hill every day and handles tasks such as overseeing the digging of graves, planning burials, working on monuments and inscriptions, handling grounds maintenance, and delving into special projects that include maintaining trees and the three miles of roads that crisscross the cemetery grounds.

“I do everything soup to nuts over here,” Doran said. “People think that when you work in a cemetery, all you do is dig graves and see dead bodies, which is completely untrue.”

Doran admitted that he hasn’t dug 10 graves in over 30 years and hasn’t seen a dead body in over 20. He maintained that there is much more to do in cemeteries that people don’t see.

“Technically a cemetery never closes,” he said.

For that reason, superb groundskeeping is necessary. When Doran arrived at Laurel Hill Cemetery 30 years ago, people though it had been closed due to its state of disrepair.

The cemetery was in shambles because it had fallen on hard times. Doran came to work at Laurel Hill Cemetery because he saw that a change needed to be made, and he wanted to play a key role in the cemetery’s restoration.

“If I had my way,” he said, “everything would be perfect 100 percent of the time.”

Doran, a native of Ireland, came to America when he was just 28 years old, leaving his family to start a new life. This particular fact has caused him a bit of grief.

His blue eyes dropped when, in a soft voice, he explained what the transition was like for him.

“When you’re 28-years old, and you feel like you can do anything, you never really think about people getting old. ’Cause if you talked about people getting old, like your family and all, you would never leave them,” he said.

Thirty years later, Doran feels as though he’s paying the price for his actions.

“All my family and friends are starting to pass away,” he said. “I didn’t go home for several years after I came here. Then the only reason I was going home was for funerals.”

It goes without saying that Doran’s choice to work in a cemetery is a curious one.

When Doran lived in Ireland, he worked as a stonemason. Upon arriving in America, a monument dealer needed a stonemason to do a job in Princeton, N.J. Doran worked tireless days, which originally started at 7 a.m., but made the transition to 5 a.m. when the man that he worked for insisted that they leave early in order to beat traffic. Doran was paid $50 a day for his work.

After this experience, Doran said, “The rest is history.”

He began working for Laurel Hill Cemetery part-time, until he made the transition to full-time work. His average workweek is 40 hours.

“I never take off,” he said, and he admitted that he has at least three weeks of accumulated vacation time to take before Christmas.

Laurel Hill Cemetery is over 180 years old, and became a National Historic Landmark in 1988. Doran’s transition into full-time work has proven beneficial during his time at the cemetery, particularly for the aesthetics of the property.

The cemetery consists of individual plots, which have become more popular in recent years, as family members live farther and farther away from one another, as well as family “estates” and mausoleums.

180 years ago, without trains, cars, and planes, people used to ride their horses and carriages to the cemetery, and would typically stay there for some time. Family members would maintain their loved ones’ grounds themselves, but as times have changed, it has become the onus of the cemetery staff, like Doran, to maintain the plots.

Some of the burial sites have endowments that were created 100 years ago and are kept in a fund. Only the interest that is collected can be spent on restoring the plots. With the average lot requiring $200-$400 to fix up, some plots are left for years to collect interest so that necessary repairs can be made.

A great deal of money that Laurel Hill Cemetery raises is put back into the cemetery for beautification and restoration projects. Each year, Laurel Hill hosts tours and special events to supplement these projects. The Gravedigger’s Ball, a black tie event, has been held annually for the past 11 years.

These events are necessary because they sustain the cemetery in a significant way. Despite these fundraising events, the price of burial plots at Laurel Hill remains competitive with those in the surrounding area. An average burial charge here is around $5,000. This price tag, Doran admitted, is simply not feasible for many Philadelphians. He estimates that there are probably half a million people in the city who cannot afford a $5,000 burial. That, he said, is heartbreaking.

Doran said that he often does what he can to help a family that is having trouble footing the bill for a burial. However, he said, although it is infrequent, some people must be turned away for their inability to pay. He confesses that this is probably one of the saddest parts of his job.

“I treat everyone the same, whether they are as poor as a church mouse, or a multimillionaire,” he said.

Since he is constantly surrounded by death, Doran experiences some very sentimental moments with these families. Doran’s demeanor changed as he recounted that, just last year, on the year’s snowiest day, Laurel Hill buried a 13-year-old girl. It’s always sad when a child dies, he said. Doran remained pensive as he continued to talk about the saddest part of his job.

He talked about the people who remain unclaimed from Philadelphia’s coroner’s office. When family members cannot afford to pick up and bury their loved ones, the remains are stored at the coroner’s office, where, after three months, they are cremated. Recently, Laurel Hill Cemetery buried over 1,500 cremated remains that had never been retrieved from the coroner. Doran is pleased that these souls finally found a resting place in Laurel Hill.

At Laurel Hill Cemetery, there are between 25–45 funerals held every year, and Doran tries to attend every single one of them.

“I do my best for everybody,” he said. “To personalize it.”

Despite the constant gloom surrounding his job, Doran doesn’t let it get to him.

Laurel Hill, he said, is “one of the nicest cemeteries in the city.”

“A lot of people get the impression that they’re never alone in here,” he claimed. “There’s always someone passing your grave, or talking to you. If there’s any such thing as a happy cemetery, this would be the place.”

It is not hard to envision Laurel Hill as a happy cemetery, especially considering the exciting things that often go on there.

Several movies have been filmed at Laurel Hill Cemetery, including “Creed,” “Rocky 6,” “Law Abiding Citizen,” “Transformers,” and “Denial,” among many others.

“You get to meet all the movie stars,” Doran confessed with a chuckle.

Who has Doran met? Jamie Foxx and Sylvester Stallone, to name a few.

Doran chuckled as he discussed some of the “famous people” that are buried here. There’s a Dr. Pepper, Martha Stewart, and Harry Potter who all call Laurel Hill Cemetery their final resting place.

Ask him who the most famous person buried here is, and he’ll respond “everybody.”

“Everybody is famous,” he said, “Everybody was loved by somebody at one stage.”

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