Hill resident manages city’s most historic cemetery
On a recent weekday morning, I accompanied Bill Doran on a “50-cent tour” of his office.
But Doran’s office is not like any other. The Chestnut Hill resident is the superintendent of Laurel Hill Cemetery, a sprawling 84-acre graveyard (not counting the 187 acres of West Laurel Hill across the Schuylkill, of which Doran is also superintendent. Here, among the dead of Philadelphia’s social register, Doran fights a constant battle against the forces of nature — the constant threat of wind, rain and ice that topple 50 to 60 gravestones a year, according to Doran.
“Most people come and see the stones turned over and they think it’s vandalism,” Doran said as he showed me a large tomb that had actually been pushed off of its base several inches by ice last winter. “But it’s not. Ninety-nine percent of it is not vandalism. It’s old age and it’s the landscape.”
Doran has lived in Chestnut Hill for 13 years. He came to America 25 years ago from his home in County Wicklow, 45 miles south of Dublin.
“I had a friend who left for America and was always asking me to come visit,” Doran said. “So finally, after two years, I came over for a vacation. I came over for a two-week vacation, and I’m still here 25 years later.”
Doran is quiet about his personal life. He still has the Irish accent of his homeland, but when he speaks, it’s mostly about his vocation. He has worked with monuments nearly his whole working life (starting as a mason). He has an eye and talent for restoration and seems to enjoy the bucolic, if macabre, surroundings of his work place.
“I grew up in the country and it feels like I’m not in the city when I’m here in the cemetery,” he said.
His interest in monuments in general led him to donate his crew’s services to the restoration earlier this year of the Celtic cross at the intersection of Germantown Avenue and Winston Road.
“I’ve been driving by that cross for 13 years on my way to work and noticed it was in need of repair,” Doran said. “I’m always looking out for sculptures. I can’t even pass a cemetery.”
Doran and his crew restored the cross in three and a half days.
Though much of the work Doran faces every day at Laurel Hill is on stones that are nowhere near as large as that cross, there are monuments in Laurel Hill that would rival monuments anywhere in the world for size and craftsmanship.
“There are some monuments that would cost more than $3 million today,” Doran said.
“Over there is the tomb of General George Meade,” Doran said, pointing to the Civil War hero’s final resting place.
He singled out an old Norway maple alongside the grave.
“And that tree there was here then,” he said. “We have a photo of the funeral, and you can see that tree in the photo.”
Not far from Meade’s tomb, Doran pointed to a spot where a tree fell down and toppled several gravestones on the way down.
“There it is,” he said, shaking his head.
Doran said that when he came to Laurel Hill to begin work as a contractor — before he went to work on the cemetery grounds full time 12 years ago — the cemetery had been severely neglected. The stones of those who had no family behind to tend to their gravesites, fell and were left there.
Some gravestones that had faded to the point where they were no longer recognizable were refaced, but in a manner inconsistent with the way historians preferred. The text was changed or important dates left off, robbing the stones of their authenticity.
“Historians would prefer you just put a plaque in front of the stone,” Doran explained.
Five to six years ago, Doran said he and his crew began “making a dent” in repairs to stones in the cemetery. They restore between 600 and 700 stones a year, but each year another 50 to 60 fall.
Asked if he believes he’ll ever catch up, he’s optimistic.
“My goal before I leave or I die, whichever comes first, is to fix all the stones,” he said with a smile.Laurel Hill Cemetery is hosting its first-ever cell phone tour at 7 p.m. Friday, July 31. The tour is free, but space is limited. To make a reservation, call the cemetery at 215-228-8200.