If you got rich in Pittsburgh’s first great golden age, chances are you wound up here. Walking through Homewood Cemetery‘s beautiful large-plot section 14, the names pop right out at you: Frick, Mellon, Heinz, Straub, Baum, Benedum, et cetera, et cetera. These may not be household names to the rest of the world, but in Pittsburgh they’ve all got streets and buildings and foundations and corporations named after them. And they all ended up in the same big section of the same cemetery*.
Jennie Benford has been leading visitors through Homewood Cemetery for nearly twenty years, and let this amateur crypt fancier tell you: she gives good tour. As an archivist, historian, and major league taphophile (she was also married at Homewood Cemetery), Benford landed her dream job as Director of Programming for The Homewood Cemetery Historical Fund not too long ago.
Benford currently offers three different tours of Homewood: Taking It With You, the one we took concentrating on Section 14’s robber baron excesses; Angels and Obelisks, highlighting particular grave styles and details; and the newest tour, In The Beginning, which focuses on the first three sections of the cemetery that were open for business in 1878.
Benford’s deep knowledge and communication of not just Homewood’s long-term residents, but American (cemetery) history is incredible. To this blogging layman, our older bone yards tend to look a lot alike. But we started with a great overview of American cemetery history and a terrific comparison between the tenor of the “rural cemetery” movement (ala Allegheny Cemetery, opened 1844) and how it compared to Homewood’s “lawn-park” model (1878).
Benford’s greatest gifts, though, are an encyclopedic knowledge of her subject and the deft craft of relating historical detail with the skill of a great storyteller. Architectural nuance, names and dates, period styles, and a rich volume of tales (some of them with appropriate verbal grain-of-salt asterisks) put the context with the casket, the undertone with the eulogy, and the diary on top of the dirt.
Benford’s tours of Homewood Cemetery are available by appointment and may be scheduled for “just about any day or time.” Those interested can call 412-260-6305 or message Benford through the Homewood Cemetery Historical Fund FaceBook page to set up a tour.
* They didn’t all end up in Homewood. Allegheny Cemetery in Lawrenceville (for instance) also contains many prominent Pittsburgh figures, but Homewood definitely has the most marquee names, and they’re all clustered in one defined section.