Love stories buried no longer

Times Staff Writer

On a stretch of land here dusted with the wings of sycamore seeds, love stories lie underground with the dead.

There is the human heart buried next to the man who first captured it. The body of a banker whose wife left him for a famous actor. The couple hit by a train after a wedding reception.

Time threatened to wash away the long-lost tales of romance and heartache trapped in Laurel Hill Cemetery, a Victorian-style graveyard overlooking the Schuylkill River.

Along came Gwen Kaminski, a history buff whose heart had been broken before she was hired at Laurel Hill. She worked in the cemetery's main office, which held a rich archive of yellowed burial records, newspaper obituaries and wedding announcements donated by historians and families over the years, along with rows of heavy, rusted keys that unlock century-old mausoleums.

For two years, Kaminski, 29, kept to herself running cemetery programs. As fall gave way to this winter, she strolled the burial ground blanketed in brown grass and bare oaks, thinking of the bones beneath her feet. What lessons, she wondered, loomed behind those faded unfamiliar names etched in dirt-smudged stone, those of the dead with last wishes to rest forever next to one they loved? What happens to feelings when they are buried with the people they belonged to?

In the office, she learned of Mary Peterson, who died on Dec. 7, 1912. Her body was buried with her second husband in another cemetery -- but she had requested her heart be removed and interred at Laurel Hill, alongside her first husband, Thomas Howard Peterson. Kaminski searched the Laurel Hill archives for Mary Peterson's file and found the interment record: It listed only her heart.

Peterson's story inspired her.

"I always thought I would know I had found 'the one,' when I could picture myself after my death lying next to that person for all of eternity," Kaminski said.

She began digging for more tales, spending late nights researching archives, the Internet and genealogists' records, copying handwritten love letters and black-and-white photos.

Kaminski wanted to tell these stories to the public, so she asked Laurel Hill's executive director, Ross L. Mitchell, if she could host a tour. It would be offered on the Saturday before Valentine's Day. She would call it: "Love Stories of Laurel Hill."

All morning, rain danced on the graves.

Kaminski had anticipated bad February weather, a snowstorm perhaps, so she planned to keep the tour in the cemetery's north end, closer to the shelter of the office. But she would not cancel. Nearly 50 people had signed up, mostly couples. They came bundled in scarves and gloves, holding umbrellas and paper coffee cups. A middle-aged couple with arms linked around each other's waists. A young couple holding hands. An elderly man who visits cemeteries around the world as a hobby.

Just after 2 p.m., Kaminski grabbed her notes and led the crowd down a path.

"Hi, everyone, my name is Gwen," she said, wrapped in a purple velour scarf. "I'll be your guide today -- um, this is the first time I'll be giving a tour."

As if on cue, the clouds peeled away, making way for the sun.

Kaminski had collected many stories to tell the group.

There was the one from 1930 about husband and wife Ulric and Katherine Dahlgren, who attended a wedding in which Ulric served as an usher. During the reception, Ulric noticed the newlyweds setting off for their honeymoon in Bermuda. Ulric grabbed his wife and tried to chase them down to say goodbye. But an oncoming train hit the Dahlgrens' car, killing Ulric. Katherine was injured, but survived.

Then Kaminski talked of Leo and Ralda Davendish. The couple dated for seven years before marrying. But three weeks after their wedding in 2001, Ralda died of a brain aneurysm. She never got to see the prints of her wedding pictures. Ralda was buried at Laurel Hill, and shortly after, Leo took a job at the cemetery office, Kaminski said, "undoubtedly as a way to still be close to her."

Kaminski led the group across the gravel, grass and muck, warning them to watch out for groundhog holes. She stopped at the graves of Charles and Elvira Ellet, which she had decorated that day with roses and American flags.

"By historical accounts Charles was not a very sociable man," Kaminski said. "He was reclusive, and romance was the last thing on his mind."

Forced one day to attend a social event, he met a petite brunet nicknamed Ellie. According to Kaminski's research, Ellie told her sister that Charles was the "most handsome man she had ever seen." They married Oct. 31, 1837, and had four children. Charles went on to build some of the first wire suspension bridges in the U.S., including one over Niagara Falls. During the Civil War, he was shot in the knee at the Battle of Memphis on June 6, 1862. His wound was not considered life-threatening, and he wrote to Ellie: "My anxiety is now for you, and . . . our dear little ones. Join me here my dear Wife and let us study out the future and talk over the past."

Days passed and his conditioned worsened. When Ellie arrived at his bedside on June 21, he was dead. She buried him at Laurel Hill on June 27, 1862.

"Only two days later," Kaminski told the group, "Ellie died of a broken heart."

Opened in 1836, Laurel Hill has 11,000 family lots; nearly 100,000 people are buried here. The dead include six Titanic victims; founders of the Republican Party; and 40 Civil War generals, including George G. Meade, the Union commander at Gettysburg.

For her tour, Kaminski narrowed the thousands of love stories to a dozen.

There was Leonard Moorhead Thomas, who died in 1937. The prominent Philadelphia banker, buried at Laurel Hill in a family plot, had married actress Blanche Oelrichs. One day, Oelrichs went to a jewelry shop to exchange a diamond tiara for a rope of pearls. While there, she met actor John Barrymore. She later called him "the most beautiful man that ever lived . . . like a young archangel." The two had an affair, and three years later Oelrichs divorced Thomas.

At the resting place of Elisha Kent Kane, a noted doctor and Arctic explorer, Kaminski recounted the story of a love long resisted.

Kane met Maggie Fox, a founding member of the spiritualist movement, in a hotel where she was conducting seances. At first his relationship with Fox was paternal, Kaminski said. Kane lectured her on how to dress and behave like a lady. Fox referred to him as "the Preacher." Two months after meeting her, Kane promised to marry her, but he would not tell the public or his family they were dating. Kane became ill after his last Arctic expedition, and died in 1857 at the age of 37. Ten years after his death, Fox wrote a book, "The Love-Life of Doctor Kane," revealing their romance.

Fox became a lonely alcoholic and died 36 years after Kane, at 59. While Kane rests at Laurel Hill, Fox was interred in a pauper's grave at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Fox once wrote to Kane: "Should we never again meet in this world, we will in another. . . . Then you will know that I have loved you, and love you still."

Susan and Drew Dorfman, both 60, of Philadelphia, listened with interest. The couple met in college at 19 and have been married 40 years. They had driven past Laurel Hill many times; word of the tour gave them a reason to stop. The stories got them wondering: How will they be remembered when their time comes?

"I've never thought about it until this tour," Susan said. "So you die, you are over, you're buried."

About a month ago, the Dorfmans attended the funeral of a woman who died in her mid-50s after a long illness. They had been close friends with the woman and her husband. As her body was lowered in the ground, the Dorfmans watched her husband start to walk away, then turn back to reach for the casket, as if he did not know how to leave her.

People want to believe "there is something afterward that we don't really understand," Susan said, adding that it makes sense to want to be memorialized together.

"I think we'll give it some thought now."

The group stopped before a tall vase-shaped monument. The words engraved in stone read: "Tout Passe Except Love That Goes On Forever."

A red-framed copy of a New York Times notice published in 1914 sat propped against the stone. It announced the engagement of Theodore and Violet Jaeckel. Violet died in 1926, and her ashes were interred at Laurel Hill in an urn. Theodore remarried nine years after Violet's death, but he died a few months later. At his request, his ashes were placed inside that urn, Kaminski told the group, "mingled with Violet's for all of eternity."

"I thought the epitaph here, which he wrote for her, is so . . . " Kaminski paused, her voice breaking. She lifted her right hand to her heart, " . . . so moving."

She read the inscription: "Lovely, loving and beloved, life to her was a wondrous adventure which her tenderness, purity, courage, sweet courtesy, unselfish devotion glorified to her companion after the night apart dawn."

The tour ended with Etta James singing "At Last" on a portable CD player at a wine and cheese reception in the cemetery's gatehouse.

"When you walk through a cemetery like this, you look back on your life and look forward toward death," said Heather Ascher, 53. She attended with her husband, Michael, 65. "What would I want her to say about me and my spouse if she put that rose on our gravestone?"

After the people left, Kaminski sat at a long scarred wooden table reflecting on what led her to these stories. Before taking the job in the summer of 2005, Kaminski ended an eight-year relationship. "That," she said, "was a death in and of itself."

Their lives had been so intertwined, it felt like letting go of part of herself. She poured herself into Laurel Hill.

A year later, another man began showering her with affection. Kaminski denied having feelings. She talked it over with her mother: "What am I afraid of?"

"Once I let go of all my fears and apprehensions . . . then I knew."

She smiled with a hint of embarrassment and delight.

"He is the one," she said. "I know he is."

Kaminski has read hundreds of epitaphs during her time at Laurel Hill. One phrase she sees over and over: "Love is stronger than death."

She thinks of the Ellets, the Jaeckels, the Davendishes. Mary Peterson.

Maybe, Kaminski said, she is too naive for wanting to believe. Maybe she should listen to the part of her that doubts soul mates or an afterlife.

Then again, she tells herself, maybe not.


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