Burrows in the Boneyard

2,221 total words    

9 minutes of reading

Photo Credit: Image Credit: Mellisa Pascale

During the summer of 2020, I spent many evenings in Laurel Hill Cemetery, near where I live in Philadelphia. I was partially drawn by the tranquil property, seventy-eight acres of hill and hollow peppered with spots of tree canopy, groomed shrubbery, and an assortment of burial monuments. But mostly, I went for the groundhogs. 

Step through the cemetery’s white gatehouse, and you might find a groundhog sunbathing on a flat grave marker. Traverse the green alleys between headstones, and you might glimpse a furry brown butt waddling away. Or visit the old receiving vault and meet the groundhog that likes to graze about the grassy landscape in the late afternoon sunshine. I named this one Graham, for the name on the headstone that marks his burrow like a mailbox (Samuel C. Graham, 1834–1896). Whether or not you see a groundhog, their presence is marked by the galaxy of craters they leave in the terrain. 

I’d never seen so many groundhogs in one place, and certainly not in a city. Until then, I’d thought of them as solitary creatures popping up here and there in my parents’ suburban neighborhood. Tons of questions swirled in my head about the groundhogs of Laurel Hill Cemetery, though there was one that wouldn’t quit. How far down can groundhogs go?

Up to six feet, according to the National Wildlife Federation (NWF). But they don’t say what a groundhog might come across when he gets down that far.

*     *     *     *

In 1835, a Quaker named John Jay Smith visited his daughter’s grave in a Philadelphia burial ground, as Carol Yaster and Rachel Wolgemuth recount in Images of America: Laurel Hill Cemetery. Unfortunately, the place was so disorderly that Smith couldn’t locate her. As nineteenth-century cities swelled with industry and inhabitants, burial grounds were trampled, resulting in unmarked graves and overcrowding. 

A year later, Smith and three others bought land in a rural area three and a half miles outside of the city and founded Laurel Hill. Smith envisioned a landscape unruffled by urban life, free to grow into a paradisal land. The founders adopted the garden cemetery (also called rural cemetery) design, making Laurel Hill part arboretum and part graveyard.

Wanting to know more about Laurel Hill—and the history that made it the country’s first graveyard to be named a National Historic Landmark—I signed up for a tour last October. At four o’clock in the afternoon, the temperature was in the low seventies, the blue sky smeared with white tendrils. The tour guide, Pat, gathered our group of nine near the gatehouse entrance. “Watch your step,” she warned us, her voice slightly muffled through a face mask. “There are groundhog holes.”  

Groundhogs were on my mind as Pat outlined Smith’s aspirations for his garden cemetery. In addition to being an orderly graveyard outside of the city, Laurel Hill would operate similarly to a public garden. Ambling paths were coaxed out of the land, trees provided shade for picnickers, and manicured flora rounded out the presentation. Though the cemetery underwent various changes through the decades—including the expansion of Philadelphia around its borders—it remains that garden respite today.  

As anyone who’s tried their hand at gardening will know, certain flora attracts certain friends. Laurel Hill’s Arboretum Manager, Aaron Greenburg, wasn’t startled to see groundhogs when he joined the cemetery staff. “I assume they have been part of the landscape since well before it was a cemetery,” Greenburg tells me via email. “They have always been a pest for managed landscapes.”

Dr. Christine Maher, a behavioral ecologist who has been studying groundhogs since 1998, echoes Greenburg’s sentiment. “It doesn’t surprise me because it’s sort of a natural area. Meaning there aren’t houses and people—at least live people—around, or not very many of them,” Maher says, when I describe Laurel Hill over a video call. 

Pestering the cemetery staff and finding a groundhog expert seemed like a natural step to take in my self-appointed role as groundhog sleuth. After a summer of stalking them, I wanted to see Laurel Hill through the groundhogs’ eyes, to understand what might be so appealing about living in a city cemetery. And I wanted to know if they got in the graves. 

Maher is a professor at the University of Southern Maine and some of her woodchuck research takes place at a reserve that she describes as an island bordered by river and road. Island is also a fitting term for Laurel Hill, now swallowed by Philadelphia. The cemetery’s perimeter meets streets, residential areas, and a music venue. In considering these isolated circumstances, Maher suggests that the absence of predators like coyotes and wolves might play a role in the groundhogs’ proliferation. While Laurel Hill is home to foxes and hawks, the groundhog population doesn’t seem to have taken a severe hit from these species. “There’s a lot,” Greenburg says. “I’d love if there was anyone who could do a study on the extensiveness of their population.”

Photo credit: Mellisa Pascale

Naturally, plant life is also a plus in a garden cemetery. A groundhog’s diet is greener than a SoCal vegan’s, and those in Laurel Hill ingest summer flowers, freshly trimmed grass, and the soft bark of Greenburg’s newly planted trees. In fact, Grazing Graham is capable of consuming “more than a pound of vegetation at one sitting, which is much like a 150-pound man scarfing down a 15-pound steak,” as the NWF notes. 

Offering safety and stores of nourishment, Laurel Hill seems made for groundhogs. But the founders had other purposes in mind—plans that groundhogs are equipped to undermine.

*     *     *     * 

Smith moved his daughter to Laurel Hill in 1837. Hers wasn’t the only grave with a death date prior to the cemetery’s opening. In a bid to establish a distinguished reputation, Laurel Hill had the remains of well-known individuals, such as war heroes, reinterred. This combination of elements—an appealing garden space and famous residents—clicked, and the affluent began buying plots.

“Laurel Hill was a cemetery for the elite,” Pat said on the tour. 

As our tour group descended a set of stone stairs, a woman wearing guitar earrings struck up a conversation with me. She introduced herself as the new director, taking tours to get acquainted with Laurel Hill’s functions. When I brought up the groundhogs, she chuckled and said that, in the cemetery at night, it’s holes rather than headstones that she’s looking out for.

Photo credit: Mellisa Pascale

If you never saw a groundhog, only a plethora of cavities in the earth, Laurel Hill would seem like a groundhog ghost town as much as a cemetery. But they’re out there, ruling the underworld in intricate burrow systems that can have a fifteen-meter radius. 

“The one entrance that they’ll have is often pretty conspicuous,” Maher says, “because they’ll dig out the dirt and then make a big—what we call a ‘porch’—a big pile of sand or dirt or whatever type of soil that they’re bringing up.” 

In addition to the porch, plunge or escape holes are constructed for quick getaways. That abundance of craters in Laurel Hill—and the potential safety obstacles they pose for visitors—is one of Greenburg’s main concerns, vegetation depletion notwithstanding. 

To deter groundhogs, Greenburg’s staff fills in holes and uses an organic repellent. Horticulturist Gregg Tepper tried this method on burrows in the graveyard’s Medallion Garden, just past the gatehouse entrance. “In each case of the five holes,” Tepper says, “the repellent kept them from returning to these specific locations.” 

But as Maher notes, groundhogs quickly dig new burrows. It’s possible that those former occupants of the Medallion Garden have simply moved elsewhere in the cemetery. 

Laurel Hill isn’t the only graveyard where groundhogs have left a noticeable mark. In 1904, The Washington Times reported on groundhogs that disturbed bodies in a New York cemetery, and in 1898, a Kentucky man named Stephen Langford was buried in a 1500-pound stone coffin specially made to keep groundhogs out. In the present day, groundhogs have unearthed bones in Notre Dame des Neiges in Montreal, Canada, and Mt. Hope Cemetery in New York.

Though the graveyard-groundhog phenomenon isn’t new, it does seem rare. Maher has never come across this situation in her work. When I ask if six feet is a typical burrow depth, she notes, “That’s pretty deep. It’s usually below the frost line.”

Beneath the earth’s skin, groundhogs seek warmth, and they’ll halt when they’ve found it. The need for warmth also sends them above ground, when they’re prepping for hibernation and their metabolism slows. “Sunning is probably a really important way for them to regulate their body temperature,” Maher says. This would explain why so many groundhogs in Laurel Hill use grave markers as beach chairs.

But do they use coffins as beds, bones as toys? 

“As of yet,” Greenburg says. “I have not had any issues with groundhogs exhuming any graves.” So Graham and the groundhog gang have been keeping their paws to themselves in Laurel Hill, at least as far as graves go. The greenery is always fair game.  

Though the groundhogs seem like an obvious blunder to the founders’ vision of a groomed landscape for the wealthy dead, their presence is not scorned. “They are quite cute when you see them running around and ducking into their holes,” Greenburg says. “People enjoy them.”

*     *      *     *

Every February 2nd in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, a 135-year-old soothsayer is awoken from a long slumber to read—or to not read—his shadow. Legend has it that one or the other actions will indicate the nearness of spring, though you never remember which it is, do you? Think of winter shadows, the way the low sun distorts our silhouettes and stretches them out into thin specters. If the soothsayer, a hermit in winter, steps out into the sun and is confronted with his long shadow, then winter too will stretch out, on and on for six more weeks. The opposite denotes an imminent spring.

This event is called Groundhog Day, and the soothsayer is—yes—a groundhog. For his trouble, the prophet bears the title of “Punxsutawney Phil, Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators, and Weather Prophet Extraordinary.” Sources claim he has access to the elixir of life, hence his impressive age. Some naysayers doubt the elixir’s existence and that the Phil we see today is in fact the same Phil of yore. Either way, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has suggested that Phil retire and be replaced with an artificial intelligence (AI) groundhog. Given that Phil has a forecasting success rate of 100% or 39%, depending on who you ask, I don’t know how easily Punxsutawney will give up its Seer of Seers. When you’re an AI groundhog, you get stuck with lesser titles like “Gus, The Second Most Famous Groundhog in Pennsylvania,” which is what the Pennsylvania Lottery calls their AI groundhog mascot.

For groundhogs not in possession of the elixir of life or the immortality of AI, average life expectancy is two to three years in the wild—though some can reach the age of six in the wild and fourteen in captivity. I wonder how old Graham of Laurel Hill is. I hope I will see him for a few more years. 

I wanted to piece together the groundhogs’ cemetery lives because I had to know more about them, most unlikely of foes. Stubborn residents with a knack for digging holes at a breakneck pace, groundhogs wield a peculiar power wherever they go. As man versus nature conflicts go, the cemetery scuttle comes down to engineered human terrain versus the persistence of nature. It’s a battle of endurance, and only one party has access to the elixir of life.

Photo credit: Mellisa Pascale

After the tour concluded back at the gatehouse, I set out across the cemetery’s grassy terrain to see what I could find. A well-fed groundhog sat next to a grave marker, his pre-hibernation fat spilling around his little legs. He stooped when I passed, posed to disappear down an escape hole. I increased the distance between us and paused to look back, finding his beady little eyes still fixed on me. New questions formed. How many do I not see who see me? 

When I left Laurel Hill, it was awash in the last glow of daylight. To the groundhogs, the humans were returning to their boxes and wouldn’t bother them again until tomorrow. 


List of Sources

Andreatta, David, “Groundhogs Make Mt. Hope Cemetery Holey Ground,” Democrat & Chronicle (Nov. 25, 2016), https://www.democratandchronicle.com/story/news/local/columnists/andreatta/2016/11/25/andreatta-groundhogs-mount-hope-cemetery/94346386/.

Armus, Teo, “No More Punxsutawney Phil? It’s ‘Long Overdue’ for an AI Groundhog Instead, PETA Says,” The Washington Post (Jan. 29, 2020), https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/01/29/groundhog-peta-punxsutawney/

Cecco, Leyland, “Groundhogs to Blame for Scattered Human Bones in Canadian Cemetery,” The Guardian (Sept. 14, 2020), https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/sep/14/groundhogs-montreal-cemetery-canada-bones.

Di Silvestro, Roger, “10 Things You May Not Know about Groundhogs,” National Wildlife Federation Blog, National Wildlife Federation (Jan. 13, 2011), https://blog.nwf.org/2011/01/10-things-you-may-not-know-about-groundhogs.

Greenburg, Aaron (Arboretum Manager at Laurel Hill), email message to the author, October 29, 2020. 

“Groundhogs Fact Sheet,” NATURE Online (Jan. 29, 2020), https://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/blog/groundhogs-facts/

Gurmai, David (Weekend Coordinator at Laurel Hill), October 25, 2020. 

Maher, Christine (Professor of Biology and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the University of Southern Maine), in discussion with the author, October 30, 2020. 

“Phil FAQ,” The Punxsutawney Groundhog Clubhttps://www.groundhog.org/phil-faq

Rose, Patricia (tour guide at Laurel Hill), October 14, 2020. 

“Stephen Langford – Death Notice,” Mount Vernon Signal (Sept. 9, 1898), https://www.newspapers.com/clip/3278914/stephen-langford-death-notice/.

Tepper, Gregg (Horticulturist at Laurel Hill), email message to the author, October 29, 2020.

“Woodchucks Live in Graveyards,” The Washington Times (Mar. 31, 1904), https://www.loc.gov/item/sn84026749/1904-03-31/ed-1/.

Yaster, Carol, and Rachel Wolgemuth, Images of America: Laurel Hill Cemetery (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2017).

  • Mellisa Pascale

    Mellisa Pascale is a travel and nature writer in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her work has been published by Matador NetworkPassion Passport, and TulipTree Review. She is currently pursuing an M.A. in Nonfiction Writing at Johns Hopkins University and working on a travel memoir.
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