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Love stories buried no longer

A history buff whose heart has been broken shares Valentines from a Victorian cemetery.

February 14, 2008|Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writer

PHILADELPHIA — 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."

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