The Ghosts of Oakdale, pt. 1

“The cemetery is an open space among the ruins, covered in winter with violets and daisies. It might make one in love with death, to think that one should be buried in so sweet a place.”

–Percy Bysshe Shelley

Founded in 1852, Oakdale Cemetery in Wilmington was the first planned, rural cemetery in North Carolina. Much like its sister cemeteries of Magnolia in Charleston, and Bonaventure in Savannah, Oakdale is a winding necropolis full of Spanish moss, alluring angels, and gorgeous flowering trees and shrubs that just begs to be explored and adored. Meant to be both garden and graveyard, this large, rural cemetery mixes the beauty of life with that of death and mourning. In the era of its conception, Victorian North Carolinians often spent many an afternoon relaxing in Oakdale with loved ones living and long gone, picnicking and reminiscing, and the cemetery became so popular that families paid to have their long-deceased loved ones relocated to its beautiful grounds.

The Proprietors of the Wilmington Cemetery, led by Dr. Armand John DeRosset, spearheaded the Oakdale project by purchasing 65 acres for eleven hundred dollars in 1852. Preceding the likes of Oakwood in Raleigh and Maplewood in Durham, Oakdale no doubt laid the groundwork for more cemeteries like it in the state. And while Oakwood and Maplewood may be more well known in North Carolina based on their location and famous burials, Oakdale should be on any true taphophile’s list of places to visit.

Now expanded over a sprawling 123 acres, a unique feature within the walls of Oakdale is the use of mounds and terraces for the plots. Each plot is accessed by a small set of steps, with the steeper plots offering jaw-dropping views of staggered headstones and monuments peppering the hillsides around large masonry walls. As I journeyed through each section, my thoughts drifted to the historic Native American mounds of the Midwest, such as Cahokia, Spiro, and the Serpent Mounds, almost as this were a subtle homage.

Designed by Louis C. Turner, the layout of the cemetery itself also lends to Native American influence. Though not apparent at ground level, the map displays what appears to be a face with a headdress, facing the Cape Fear River to the North. For those “in the know” about cemetery maps, this is not a feature unique to Oakdale. Another famous example of hidden symbolism within a cemetery’s design is the map of the aforementioned Bonaventure, which bears a skull in profile along with the Freemasonry compass and square. Given that the President of the Oakdale Cemetery Foundation was acquaintances with Benjamin Franklin and Dr. Benjamin Rush? It certainly adds intrigue and mystery to the design!

In an unfortunate twist of fate, the first interment within Oakdale was none other than the young daughter of Dr. Armand DeRosset, Annie, who died at the tender young age of six on February 5th, 1855. Her grave is marked by a delicate white marble baptismal font, crowned with a sleeping lamb. A common symbol used for the graves of children, the lamb signifies their innocence in the eyes of Christ, and scrawled across her marker are the words “Our Little Annie”. As her headstones stands today, she is surrounded by her parents and siblings, together forever in eternity.

Annie’s story in the first in a myriad of interesting tales that I plan on sharing over the next few weeks. Next time, we’ll talk burials at sea and dueling judges as we continue our walk through Oakdale.

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