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A look at local history: The final resting place of thousands, Harleigh Cemetery a study in architecture

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With fall and the spookiest of holidays getting closer as the days grow shorter, it’s a little easier to justify holding your breath as you pass by a graveyard and let long-buried superstitions get the best of you.

But Collingswood’s Harleigh Cemetery has endeavored to eschew those eerie stereotypes in favor of more pastoral, vibrant scenery since its 1885 beginnings.

As part of the mid-19th century rural cemetery movement, Harleigh’s very design benefited from a reaction to cities’ burial-ground overcrowding problems. Not just a necessary answer to a mounting dilemma, however, the movement was refined and softened by the belief that cemeteries should be welcoming park-like enclaves that invite rather than unnerve their visitors.

The cemetery stretches into both Collingswood and Camden, its copses of trees, choir of birdsong and scenic walking paths more suggestive of a cross-town park than the final resting place for tens of thousands of peaceful residents tucked throughout more than 130 acres of lush, manicured growth.

Indeed, one peek at the cemetery’s website (harleighcemetery.com) describes it in bucolic vocabulary more traditionally associated with a public space made to invite the living. It evokes multisensory images like the peaceful susurration of rustling leaves and the warmth of the sun dappling Harleigh in the “magical fancy” of chiaroscuro interplay between light and shadow. Fountains, manicured landscapes and glimpses of the Cooper River licking at its shores all add to its natural appeal.

Louis Cicalese, Harleigh Cemetery president since 2019, explains that the cemetery’s aesthetic is a reminder that life and death are simply part of a never-ending natural cycle in his president’s letter.

“It has the power to turn our thoughts to a future of sweeter service here and now, as well as there and sometime, and to view with nature and with each other to make it a place of uplifting influence,” he writes.

And even the array of architecture dotting the cemetery’s landscape were intended to pay tribute to those loved and gone while gently nudging along those yet to fulfill their purpose.

“Harleigh Cemetery is a study in architectural design — and the erection of the Memorial Chapel and Mausoleum is a crowning tribute to man’s love and human devotion,” Cicalese’s letter concludes. “Truly, the works placed here, not only keep in remembrance those who have served their day, but uphold and inspire those whose hands have still their life’s work to do.”

Those interred at Harleigh Cemetery offer no dearth of potential inspiration for the living in their own right. The Victorian-garden beauty that characterizes the cemetery is a visual delight, no doubt, but the veritable who’s-who of Harleigh’s eternal occupants is a silent reminder that some legacies can transcend death in a bid for the immortality of accomplishment.

Renowned writer popularly accepted as the poet of democracy Walt Whitman is perhaps the most recognizable resident buried among Harleigh’s own leaves of grass. Not even 10 years after the cemetery opened, the late Camden resident’s 1892 funeral drew friends to his burial site for a public ceremony filled with readings and live music; today, Whitman’s grave is certainly one of the cemetery’s most-visited destinations.

Whitman is not the only notable creative soul laid to rest in Harleigh Cemetery, though he predates them by quite a margin, such as poet Nick Virgilio, who died in 1989; more recently, Philadelphia jazz drummer Charlie Rice was buried there in 2018. Rice recorded, played and toured with some of the genre’s biggest names as the Jazz Age caught on across the country, and was still performing into his 90s. The Camden born-and-raised Virgilio, meanwhile, is credited for popularizing the Japanese form of haiku poetry in the Western world; the entirety of his poem “Lily” can be read as an inscription on his headstone.

But when it comes to Harleigh’s most famous residents, the politically minded dominate the list. Among them include: female labor organizer and radical activist Ella Reeve Bloor, who fought for women’s suffrage and mobilization as workers; three Civil War Union Brevet Generals, George Burling (Colonel and commander of the 6th New Jersey Volunteer Infantry — who was originally buried in Philadelphia’s Mount Vernon Cemetery), Colonel William Joyce Sewell of the 5th New Jersey Volunteer Infantry and Colonel Timothy Moore of the 34th New Jersey Volunteer Infantry; and two Supreme Court Justices, Albert Burling and Ralph Donges.

A number of 19th- and early-20th-century New Jersey senators are buried at Harleigh, including Sewell and John F. Starr, as well as father-and-son pair David Baird Sr. and David Baird Jr.

With so much history both behind and underneath it, it’s no wonder Harleigh Cemetery has been listed on the New Jersey Register of Historic Places since 1995. It remains a thriving part of the local landscape and has adapted to modern burial demands and advancements to keep serving its community in not only form but also function, to honor the dead while comforting the living.

After all, in the words of its most famous resident, life and death are eternally “two old, simple problems ever intertwined.”

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