Architectural historian Janet K. Seapker, an expert on Victorian funerary art, will be leading a historical walking tour around Oakdale Cemetery on Sunday, April 20th. This tour takes a look at one of the state’s oldest cemeteries and the history behind it. It also will give attendees the opportunity to explore and enjoy Oakdale’s treasures through funerary art and nature’s beauty. The tour starts at 2 p.m. and is open to 15 guests.
Seapker, who has a degree in both history and in museum studies, has worked as an architectural historian since 1971. She has been leading the Oakdale Cemetery tours for over 20 years now.
“I set it up for Friends of Oakdale Cemetery, and before that it was just to benefit the cemetery in general,” Seapker notes. Seapker chose this time of year to hold the tour as azaleas and dogwoods are in full bloom, which showcases the cemetery at its finest.
Oakdale is a museum in itself, and the tour looks into the past burial styles and rituals through the evolution of cemeteries. In 1852, during the Victorian era, Oakdale was chartered by the General Assembly of North Carolina, who purchased its 65-acres for $1,100. The cemetery was created during the rural cemetery movement—which transformed burial grounds into peaceful settings with park-like environments and beautiful landscaping. Oakdale was the first cemetery of the state. Cemeteries reamin quite difference from graveyards, as they’re planned and well thought-out construction configurations. Conversely, a graveyard often had a lack of organization when it came to burials.
“Graveyards usually come with the recognition that death is spooky and something to be feared, [while] cemetery means ‘sleeping chamber,’ and is very different from graveyards,” Seapker asserts.
Before the rural cemetery movement, the deceased were buried on family members’ land, plantations or on local church grounds. Prior to the opening of Oakdale, most people were buried at St. James’ graveyard. Yet, it became overcrowded. Plus, townspeople often feared that bodies of people who died from disease would pass on the illness to the living.
“That [was] obviously disproven long ago,” Seapker says, “but it was part of the thought in the Victorian era, so that gave rise to the creation the cemetery.”
Oakdale became an ideal location since it provided adequate space for graves. “The two major criterion for rural cemeteries are that they need a convenient walker/carriage drive down the side of the city limits and that they are arranged around topography,” Seapker explains. “The designer of the cemetery, who surveyed it, laid out the sections and the plots so that they complimented the topography.”
Today the cemetery reaches around 100 acres and is filled with nature’s beauty and curved pathways. Throughout Oakdale a variety of funerary art is apparent, too, as symbolism reached an all-time high. During the mid-to-late 1800s artists and carvers did elaborate stone carvings for their deceased loved ones.
“Things that are agricultural in nature often symbolize a long life; a sheaf of wheat on the top of a gravestone is a symbol of longevity and wisdom,” Seapker entails. From the palm to the tulip, the Easter lilly to the dove, each carving represents different meanings, which will be interpreted during the tour.
“[The carvings] tell something about the area,” Seapker clarifies. “For instance, a soldier who might have been killed early in his life would often be represented by a truncated column, because he didn’t live a long life. So, they trunked of the top part.”
One of the more significant gravestones on the tour is that of 6-year-old Annie DeRossett. DeRossett was the first person to be buried at Oakdale in 1855. Her stone reads: “Our Little Annie” and features a lamb lying on top—a universal symbol of innocence and youth. DeRossett was the daughter of local physician Armand DeRossett, who was also the first president of the Oakdale Cemetery corporation, and whose home is historically preserved at 23 S. 2nd Street. Other notable graves featured on the walk include native David Brinkley, an American newscaster who worked for NBC and ABC, as well as with Chet Huntley. Arthur Bluethenthal is also buried at Oakdale in the Hebrew section, and is known as the first Wilmingtonian killed during WWI after being shot down over Belgium.
“His unit was called the Lafayette flying core,” Seapker notes. “Their symbol was a profile of a Native American whose headdress strangely has a swastika on the side of it. The swastika is one of the oldest symbols in the world, [and has been] used by many cultures. It was Adolf Hitler who gave it a bad reputation. It went from being a universally accepted love symbol to the most hated in the world.”
Space will be limited and the tour will be canceled in the event of bad weather. For more information contact: (910) 762-5682 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Oakdale Cemetery Historical Walking Tour
520 N 15th St.
Sunday, April 20th, 2 p.m.