West Laurel Hill Cemetery opened a Jewish section in 2011 called Chesed Shel Emet, and it proved so successful that the Bala Cynwyd cemetery is breaking ground on a new Jewish section.
To be called Makom Shalom, A Place of Peace, the new section will feature space for 884 plots spread over about 2.5 acres of rolling hillside landscaped into three terraces, cemetery President and CEO Nancy Goldenberg said. The new section is slated to debut in June 2022; design work began in 2019.
“The design speaks to the need for a contemplative cemetery experience that knits Jewish tradition with the natural beauty and serenity of a very special place,” she said.
West Laurel Hill, which was founded in 1869 and covers 187 acres, hired Boston-based Halvorson | Tighe & Bond Studio to design Makom Shalom, which will be north and adjacent to Chesed Shel Emet and its 1,780 plots.
“(Chesed Shel Emet) exceeded our expectations in terms of popularity. A third of the plots were sold within a couple years,” Goldenberg said, noting that nearly all of those plots are now sold.
The cemetery also completed in 2017 a 385-plot section for members of Orthodox Lower Merion Synagogue.
Bob Uhlig, the vice president of landscape architecture and urban design for Halvorson | Tighe & Bond, said the new section’s design will incorporate Jewish elements of enclosure, separation and intimacy, while tying into the neighborhood. Formal gates will incorporate washing stations.
Aside from existing mature trees on the site, plants that have significance to Judaism and Jewish history will be incorporated into the landscaping, including willow, myrtle, flowering almond and cedar of Lebanon, Uhlig said.
“We’ll use species indigenous to Israel, but hardy enough to live in Philadelphia,” he said.
“This will create a sense of place and tell a story in the living landscape of the connection between modern Jews and Jewish cultural and religious history,” Arboretum Manager Aaron Greenberg said.
The sloping section presented both opportunities and problems to tackle, Uhlig said.
“With those slopes came some nice challenges,” he said. “We creatively integrated the stormwater into the pathways.”
Goldenberg didn’t rule out further expansion of either the Jewish or non-Jewish sections of West Laurel Hill, which is a private, nonprofit entity that also operates a funeral home.
“We’re not running out of space,” she said.
That’s unlike several of the older, strictly Jewish cemeteries in the Philadelphia area. The Jewish Exponent has written several stories in recent years detailing the decline of cemeteries that have little remaining space and have limited numbers of new burials, resulting in poor financial conditions.