Oakwood Cemetery works to keep history alive

By Todd Cohen

RALEIGH, N.C. — In 1867, under federal occupation, the city of Raleigh was told the cemetery at its Civil War hospital, containing the remains of Union and Confederate soldiers alike, was becoming a national cemetery.

In response, a group of local women formed the Ladies Memorial Association, which successfully lobbied state lawmakers for $1,000. It then asked the Mordecai family for two-and-a-half acres where it could bury the remains of Confederate soldiers interred in the hospital cemetery in violation of a federal law prohibiting the burial of Confederate soldiers alongside Union dead.

The Association then bought the Mordecai land for $1, and used the rest of the funds from state lawmakers to move the remains of 494 Confederate soldiers and make improvements to the former Mordecai land, now part of Historic Oakwood Cemetery.

Oakwood Cemetery, which celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2019, has grown to 72 acres and is home to the remains of 25,000 people, among them local and state political, business and civic leaders, and over 1,400 Confederate soldiers.

Oakwood each year hosts thousands of visitors, including hundreds of students, for public tours, events and educational programs on history, death and dying.

“A cemetery is a place of remembrance, where generations after us will come back to learn about the people who lived before them,” says Robin Simonton, executive director of the Raleigh Cemetery Association.

In 1986 the nonprofit purchased the two-and-a-half acre confederate cemetery for $1 from the women’s group that had formed it and had been renamed United Daughters of the Confederacy.

Operating with an annual budget of $550,000 and seven employees, Oakwood Cemetery holds five burials in a typical week, and has enough space to handle burials for at least 200 more years, says Simonton, former program and volunteer services executive at Raleigh-based Girl Scouts North Carolina Coastal Pines who studied Amish burial customs in graduate school and holds a master’s degree in historical administration.

Oakwood generates about 95 percent of its operating income through fees from the sale of burial plots and monuments, and the preparation of graves. It generates the remainder through donations, mainly contributions for tours and education programs.

Oakwood is in the early stages of considering whether to change its tax-exempt status. As a nonprofit cemetery, it now can accept contributions of no more than $13,000 a year. for which the donors can take a deduction. Becoming a charitable nonprofit as well would remove that limit.

If it made that change, Oakwood likely would launch a formal fundraising program, mainly to cover the costs of preservation, expansion of its education programs, and repairs from storms and vandalism.

Two years ago, Oakwood spent $23,000 to restore 11 headstones in its Confederate cemetery that vandals had defaced by painting anti-slavery language.

And in the wake of the toppling in September of a Confederate statue in Durham, the Raleigh Police Department has increased its patrols of the cemetery, Simonton says.

In 2011, Oakwood spent tens of thousands of dollars to remove 17 trees and restore dozens of grave monuments felled by tornadoes.

“This was a garden cemetery, which were precursors to city parks,” Simonton says. “This is where people came to socialize, go on dates and picnics, in the early days. We invite people to come in and enjoy the cemetery as it was for generations.”

As part of its nonprofit mission, she says, Oakwood provides learning opportunities throughout the year for students, civic groups, and for individuals and families trying to cope with death and dying.

Once a semester, students from William Peace University enrolled in a class on death and dying visit Oakwood to learn about death traditions and customs. And continuing-education students from N.C. State University visit the cemetery for a six-week course on “Discovering the Dead.”

Oakwood partners with Renaissance Funeral Home and Transitions LifeCare to host sessions on death and dying.

In a competitive business — Raleigh is home to two other cemeteries, and its incidence of cremation far exceeds that of North Carolina overall, and of rural areas — Oakwood does little advertising, and markets itself mainly by inviting the public to “use the grounds as they’ve always been used,” Simonton says.

Although one in five Americans has a cremation urn at home, “a cemetery is always important,” she says. “To be remembered is an important part of the grieving process for you and your family.”

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