A commemorative inscription. Laud. Poem. A sign of brevity.
Epitaphs travel the length and breath of each moment only to seek immortalization in the indentation of a lithic element. Words carry meaning and instill the vitality a living person once held in ways voice can no longer gratify.
The Historic Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh, North Carolina resembles any other cemetery in that it serves one purpose: honor the dead. Whether through burials or cremations, each interment allows families to grieve and remember past lives. To the last words and the impressions left behind…
“We May Lose And We May Win, But We Will Never Be Here Again. Take It Easy…”
Remember some years ago in middle school when you stood up with the class and the pledge of allegiance slipped easily out of your mouth as your hand found the left side by your heart? People say the purpose was to salute a flag, a piece of cloth representing a country. It is a piece of living history that never dies but transcends generations. In times of casualties, the flag flies half mast to signify a death. Great loss reverberates throughout the nation. When a soldier dies far away at war, his family receives the flag after a ceremonial show of transforming it into a triangle as the crowd is reminded that his loss is remembered through his heroic deeds. But what is the significance of a triangular flag? The reasoning for this ceremony lays in obscurity, although several ideas come to mind.
During the Revolutionary War, General Washington and his company wore tricorn hats with brimmed sides and three corners turned up. Another story finds its origin at sea. As early as 1824, a ship captain from New England was gifted with a flag as a show of reverence to the captain and a wish for safe voyage. As a way to consecrate the flag, it was blessed in the name of the Christian Trinity by a high power of the church and folded into a triangle. As the Church invoked the Our Father prayer, the small congregation uttered, “glory” in return. The captain flew the flag high and told the crew, “I’ll call her old glory.” It is said that perhaps later on he folded the flag in a triangle when he presented a replica to the Ohio 6th Infantry who adopted “Old Glory” as their flag.
The “Write a Letter to a Soldier” program created by Oakwood Cemetery’s Summer Intern, Callaway King. Letters are sent to soldiers serving overseas.
So much symbolism and patriotism encompass the American flag. What is more unique is that folding it into a triangle is not a requirement by the United States Flag Code. It can be stored away so long as it is done in a manner that is appropriate and respectful without inflicting damage to the cloth.
On Veteran’s Day, Oakwood Cemetery found a number of guests attending the Flag Retirement Ceremony. The purpose honored the United States flag as it weathers with age and wear from usage. However, age doesn’t mean throwing things away. Rather, Old Glory is retired with decorum and regard.
Flags adorning the Field of Honor
To start the ceremony, the flag is parted into several pieces. This makes for an easier incineration as the flag rests in fire, a symbol of rebirth. Ceasing to be a flag, the material becomes individual stripes of red and white, representing the 13 colonies. The blue background and white stars remain intact to show the the union’s will to never separate.
A speech called “Remember Me?” was read aloud as people returned to nostalgia about Old Glory and what patriotism meant. As the speech came to a close, the names of the colonies rang out as each fragment of cloth found the fire. Lastly, the blue field of white stars ended the retirement of the flag. Veterans and active military members carried triangular flags and placed them in the fire. Other members of the audience were also asked to indulge in the honor.
Interns Sandy Nguyen and Callaway King performing the flag retirement ceremony. King holds strips of the flag and reads the names of the original 13 colonies while Nguyen places each piece into the fire.
Grand salutes made way to remember those who fought wars and never came home. It also honored those who lived to see a brighter day with the end of war and continued their lives.
Some cemeteries display blooming gardens while others hold cinema nights. But no one has Bruce Miller. Oakwood Cemetery boasts the rights to a great historian whose dedication to little old Raleigh is nothing short of a blessing. Earning his tenure as a most knowledgeable guide to all things Oakwood Cemetery, it was only fitting to etch his memory and name on a street. Miller’s Magnolia Walk houses one of the oldest and famous patrons whose history the eponymous figure knows all too well. Here lies Sophia Patridge, the founder of the Confederate Cemetery at Oakwood, John Haywood, the first Treasurer and Raleigh’s first Intendant of Police (Mayor), and Ellen Mordecai, the author of Gleanings from Long Ago of the Mordecai family whose plantation bears a short walk a few blocks away.
On a Friday afternoon, Miller accompanied the Raleigh Governor’s Mansion docents through the maze of streets and stones. From far away, one would assume that this tour is rather quiet and normal. But Miller’s demeanor and presence turned even the most intriguing chit chat to a halt with his abundance of never ending wisdom. A true cognoscenti of his time, he never fails to enlighten the crowd with facts intertwined with lighthearted humor. If there is such a thing as a walking encyclopedia then he is it!
As the storyteller introduces each patron and their tale, one cannot help but wonder how this man can remember so much. The theme of the day revolved around the governors and state officials of Raleigh. From Robert Watson Winston to Charles Brantley Aycock, Miller’s genteel Southern introduction brings the past a bit closer to the present. At certain points, he goes on a first name basis with patrons. One can only surmise that given the chance, they would return the favor and tell their own stories about the man himself.
Throwing in a few unrelated tombs and their origins, the crowd hung on his every word as curiosity peaked. As revolutions around the former first park of Raleigh were made, the tour ended with the trademark humble Bruce Miller philosophy as capturing the “spirit of the place” and making a small contribution to a lively place. Miller is no stranger to the plenty of tours and even lectures at North Carolina State University. He is the author of Oakwood to Oakwood which can be purchased at Oakwood Cemetery for $15. A huge investment of time and research was spent on learning and collecting facts and anecdotes about the people and through his generosity, all proceeds go to the cemetery. The book provides an insight on past figures whose influence on the neighborhood remains a great feat to this day. As Miller puts it, the book kindly depicts, “The lives and homes of people who lived in or developed Raleigh’s Oakwood neighborhood — and stayed.”
Now that Halloween is over, it seems that the only way to go is Thanksgiving. Actually, there is a holiday at the beginning of November. November 1st is the start of All Saints Day which for most people remains in an unfamiliar territory. Call it All Hallows, Day of All the Saints, Solemnity of All Saints or Feast of All Saints, this multinominal holiday honors saints who reached Heaven. Primarily focusing on unknown saints, the origin of this day began with Pope Boniface IV collecting the bones of saints and other remnants in order to rebury them in the Pantheon in Rome on May 13 in 609 AD. Eventually, Christians came to recognize the numerous martyrs and their lives on the anniversaries of their deaths. As the years flew by, canonization of the saints grew in great numbers. Pope Gregory IV officially put a stake on the November 1st as the day of commemoration.
The practice now extends to remembering members of a congregation. Names of churchgoers are read out loud during Mass on All Saints Day as their loved ones remember them. The day and its celebrations vary throughout the world. In some countries, lighting candles by graves marks the remembrance while laying flowers and wreaths is another way. Pope Boniface IV also takes credit for All Souls’ Day on November 2nd.
In America, Halloween’s orange and black gloss and candy overshadows this day as children trick or treat for the colorfully wrapped squares and circles. Haunted houses find transient tenants for the night and delightfully scarified thrill seekers. The night ends with ghost tours and costume contests. But the night ends in a much simpler way at Oakwood. Driving along the streets inside, handmade vibrant orange ribbons tied into luminous bows adorn several graves in honor of All Saints Day. So much solace can be found in the sacred day as Robin Simonton, Executive Director of Oakwood Cemetery explains the particulars. Typically held in churches, Oakwood finds that exception in their Mausoleum where the event is held. This year, the St. Mark’s United Methodist Church came by as the Oakwood Community gathered to remember the lives of the people as their names are read aloud.
“It is a somber remembrance of those we lost. The whole thing is a big community event.”
Ever think about walking in the cemetery at night? Doesn’t it give you chills? Well, for those who are into the walking sans the feeling of shadows looming enjoyed a mild and family oriented annual Lantern Walk at Oakwood Cemetery. Processions of cars and an intrigued audience lined the pathways into the cemetery waiting for the night to come alive. Short, historical vignettes set against the beautiful backdrop of swaying oaks and Southern magnolias told visitors about life and death during the Civil War as the country felt the division between the Union and the Confederates. Along the path, luminaries revealed characters in period attire as each story unfolds into poignant and heartwarming moments. Soldiers spoke of lost friends while returning veterans found comfort in Southern hospitality and reflection years later. But a thematic approach to the storytelling consisted of laughter and empathy in scenes where Confederate and Union soldiers united in soft quibs at one another and end in a knowing of a shared humanity and camaraderie.
Around 1400 Confederate veterans rest in this part of the cemetery with a few Union veterans close by. Tours took a good hour and each group trekked up the hill every 15 minutes with their guides. A fond tradition, the tour is hosted by the Sons of Confederate Veterans with acting by local re-enactors and volunteers. Proceeds help Oakwood in the efforts to restore the Confederate Cemetery.
If you happened to find yourself walking down Wilmington Street last weekend then you saw quite a sight. Participants gathered for a run while others walked from Centro Mexican Restaurant and Tequila Bar Downtown Raleigh for the Day of the Dead 5k. This footloose race included some fancy costumes and makeup in the form of adorable sugar skull children, brightly colored fairy women, ghoulish 80’s rock band members and other creative costumes. The day finished with a welcoming costume contest, live music, food and gorgeous art created by an array of artists.
There is no physical prowess to show in this race, but rather a fun community event that is runner/walker friendly, keeping the four-legged friends and children in mind. But another aspect of this celebration is the sweet fact that the Day of the Dead 5k benefits the Brentwood Boys and Girls Club of Raleigh. An organization known for helping children through many educational and fun after school programs, BBGC of Raleigh strives to promote healthy lifestyles, academic success, good character and citizenship by encouraging physical education, tutoring and mentoring. If you grew up in the 90’s then you probably saw a bunch of commercials endorsed by celebrities about the importance of giving back to the community by volunteering your time to this place.
And in Raleigh, the locals caught the volunteer bug as traffic controllers, race day breakdown crew and chummy cheerleaders while sporting gear in bright fall colors. Just in time to celebrate a holiday that although may not be as well known as Halloween, still manages to captivate quite a crowd. Director Pepe Caudillo reflects that this day holds significant meaning and the sense of tradition cannot be forgotten. Also known as El Dia de los Muertos, the beginning of this holiday is traceable to as far as hundreds of years ago with the Aztecs. Seeing how death is a natural part of life, rituals grew to celebrate family members’ departure and honoring the gods. With the arrival of the Spaniards, the tradition received an immersion of European elements. Soon, the Day of the Dead moved South and some Central American countries adopted it. Now, it is a beloved holiday in the United States that seems to coincide with Halloween.
The difference between the two is that the prior honors the dead. A Table of Remembrance known as Ofrendas (one can be found by Centro and the other at Oakwood) is set up with offerings and installations designed to help souls on the first two days of November to enjoy their favorite food, drink, personal object, etc… Decorations vary from flowers, fruit, candles, paper art and pictures of the dead. A familiar object is the sugar skull (also known as calavera), a confectionary with vibrant colors often seen on ofrendas. Signifying the soul of a loved one, these beautiful candies can be found with happy smiles whilst names of loved ones can be written on their foreheads or simply decorated in neon foil, pastel swirls, glittery dots and more. Smaller skulls represents children as bigger and more ornate ones are for adults.
“Over the years, it has become richer and more amazing than the Aztecs every thought which is great!”
Caudillo shares that the celebrations make him feel philosophical about life since he often ponders about life and death. He also finds the idea of dedicating a special time to remember loved ones as something wonderful.
“It is a way to stay in contact with those we don’t see but we still feel. They still make us cry, laugh and feel alive even though they are dead. I think this is a powerful festivity since it is about something that no one can stop, but it can be assimilated into a positive, constructive, colorful and fun way.”
The inspiration for this race and street festival which is in its fifth year started through a collaboration with the Centro owner, Angela Salamanca. Ask anyone who has ever lost someone and they will tell you that you want to remember those tender moments that makes you remember their love. Salamanca lost someone near to her, a sister named Margarita 12 years ago this October. But she chooses to celebrate her life through a holiday that commemorates her life.
“It is precisely a way to celebrate those who have a past and in a way that is not sad or heavy. There is a beautiful energy–loud and vibrant. It represents the holiday. There needs to be a role for mourning and life. It is an opportunity for celebration rather than a death anniversary, which is heavy I think.”
And great opportunities have been created. Going along with the lightheartedness of things, it is hard to believe that it was only five years ago, Salamanca came to Caudillo about raising money for BBGC of Raleigh. Each year has seen an increase in success and community involvement. Now, the hopes for this year’s race is to generate money to beat last year’s $12,000 mark and Caudillo hopes to surpass that with $15,000. As an effort to raise more money for this non-profit organization, Salamanca organized the All Saints Day or El dia De Los Santos Storytelling Supper on November 1st at 7:00 pm. Hosted in the Mausoleum at Oakwood, guests were guaranteed a front seat to the old fashioned art of storytelling and live music all while enjoying delicious eats and refreshments from Centro, Fullsteam Brewery and Wine Authorities.
While today is the last day of the Day of the Dead festivities, a number of people will be honoring their loved ones with flowers, candles, presents, toys and more by their graves as they celebrate their lives.
When you think of a cemetery, not much comes to mind other than the fact that it is where those we love reside once they pass on to the next life. While some people might believe there is a Heaven, Hell, Limbo or whatever else, one resounding theme is hard to miss. The dead speak. Now, it is not a case of <em>American Horror Story</em> where the dead linger among the living and blend into their daily lives. Rather, the dead speak to us through their epitaphs and stones.
Epitaphs and stones carry a message that portrays a person’s life and sometimes what the family wishes for others to remember about their loved one. Expressive messages such as mother, father, sister and brother allows the living to know who these people were once. It ventures even further to tell us about status, dreams, sadness, joy and even quirky quips and jokes. There is so much symbolism in the soft and deep etches on each stone in forms of flowers, words, animals, and other significant bas relief and fixtures.
One of the curious initials grave explorers may encounter is IHS. Known as a Christogram or a combination of letters, it appears as a dollar sign. But the significance of what it means in Christianity is great. Signifying the first three letters in Greek for the name of Jesus Christ (ΙΗΣΟΥΣ), there are actually several meanings.
Iesus Hominem Salvator: Jesus, Saviour of Mankind
In Hoc Signo (Vinces): In this sign (you will conquer)
In Hoc Sanctis: This place is sacred
Variations and interpretations of what IHS is remains up in the air, but these are the three most common ones. Among those of the Catholic faith, it is quite prevalent for this Christogram to appear on gravestones and it has even been more visible on the graves of those of the Christian faith as well.
One of the most beautiful visions on a grave is the presence of a Surrogate Mourner. Appearing as a female figure or an angel, these statues wait silently next to the grave as her patron sleeps. “She is there to mourn when the family isn’t able to be there,” Robin Simonton, the Director of Oakwood Cemetery muses. One impressive surrogate mourner is the 10 foot monument made of white marble at Oakwood dedicated to Wade Edwards, the son of former North Carolina senator John Edwards and the late Elizabeth Edwards. Young Edwards passed away in a tragic car accident in 1996 on his way to a family event. After his death, his mother came to his grave often to read to him. The angel lovingly embraces Edwards’ face as one would cradle a child’s softly in her hands while the folds of her robe envelopes her surroundings.
Traveling away from Oakwood Cemetery to the Alter Friedhof Cemetery in Bonn, Germany, a strangely alluring surrogate mourner rests peacefully after a bit of reading. The grave belongs to Caroline Walter who passed away in 1867 due to a bout of tuberculosis at the age of 17. To remember Caroline, her sister Selma commissioned the large monument to be placed on top of the gravestone with the intention that the stone carried the young girl’s image. Many people mourned Caroline because of her sudden, tragic death and the brevity of her youth. In life, she was known for her beauty that was unsurpassed by any other. Naturally, beauty seems to follow her in life as in death and a still stranger story. Selma noticed that after the funerary flowers placed in the stone figure’s hands wilted, new flowers materialized. No one from the family or friends admitted to replacing the floral arrangement. For over 100 years, before the sun rises, fresh flowers lay the sleeping beauty’s awaiting hands.
The Arch signifies victory in death or a door leading to Salvation with its lofty height.
Presumably the Bible or other religious works, an Open Book represents the Book of Life.
The Chi is represented by an X and the Rho is represented by a P. These are the first two letters in the Greek word for Christ.
Graves of young children usually bears a figure of a child who is in deep slumber. Sometimes, these stone children hold a significant likeness to their resting patron. Although the appearance of the sleeping child equals death, it also takes on a more euphemistic belief that the child whose time was cut too short is only sleeping for now.
The Broken Column signifies death or the loss of someone of high position in the family such as a patriarchal or matriarchal figure.
The Obelisk is a prominent symbol whose popularity was at its height from the 1880’s to the 1930’s. Initial appearances goes as far back as ancient Egypt and Rome. Its meaning is rooted in rebirth and the link between Heaven and Earth.
Curtains and Drapes
Around Easter, numerous Catholic churches cover the figures of Jesus, Mary and various saints in purple drapes. There is much reverence for their sacrifices as congregations gather to pray, but an air of sadness never fails to linger. The presence of Curtains and Drapes is a call to mourning and that life’s end on Earth.
In Christianity, a Dove is the symbol of Innocence and Peace. However, depending on this bird’s position, other meanings come to mind. A flying dove means Resurrection. An ascending dove means that the soul is going to Heaven while a dead dove shows that the person has died prematurely. A descending dove is an indication of guiding souls into Heaven. A dove with a twig in its mouth in diving formation represents the Holy Ghost.
Popular in French culture, the Fleur-de-Lis can be traced back to early French royalty. Interchangeable between a lily or an iris, these flowers denote faith, wisdom and valor or passion and love. It also means The Trinity.
Many graves bear floral accompaniments and one that remains ever popular is Ivy for its simple message of immortality and friendship.
Bees are the wonderful little creatures who make honey and we are especially thankful to the ones here at Oakwood Cemetery. A Beehive is the symbol of abundance in the Promised Land or Piety. It also means Virtue and Faith.
The Lion is a symbol in literature and life known for its Courage and Strength, just like the one in The Wizard of Oz. It remains true in death as a guardian of those who rest.
A flowering plant with prickles, at first glance it looks like a purple or white flower meant to be placed in a bouquet. This plant means Remembrance.
Latin for “remember you will die”, this message carries the inexplicability of death. A depiction of bones, a skull and an hourglass represents this grim trinity. It serves as an ever true reminder to all that mortality is a thing of brevity. Oftentimes, this symbol is found on older gravestones existing in the 1800’s. However, this is way before Oakwood’s time and no skulls and crossbones are here.
Courtesy of http://www.gothichorrorstories.com
Death comes upon swift wings in this immortal epitaph
Courtesy of http://www.bobforrestweb.co.uk
These above ground fixtures do not necessarily house remains, but depict Immortality.
Those whose love for the sea will appreciate this small, brilliant gift of nature and simplicity. The shell is a signature of resurrection, everlasting life, the journey of life and the baptism of one’s soul.
Courtesy of http://www.bakermuseum.org
While not all of these pictures come from Oakwood Cemetery, the commonalities cannot be denied. Symbols and signs carry an affinity found universally in most cemeteries. Those whose sense of adventure compels them to explore are urged to make their own discoveries of what symbols and monuments are out here. When it comes to explaining gravestones, plenty of meanings exist and no one answer is correct. Take what you will from it or research the endless possibilities of these outlasting epitaphs.
“I am dying to get home and take you in my arms again. You had better watch out darling…”
These are the words that captivated me as I read through stacks of letters from World War II from a soldier to his honey waiting at home. There are so many stories about love in literature that makes the heart swoon like The Notebook, Casablanca and The English Patient. But the one that resonates with me the most is the one I heard this morning. I had the pleasure talking to Charlene Stell, a volunteer at Oakwood Cemetery, about her parents who are buried in the Veterans’ Section. Charles Vlaskamp passed away in 1999 while Dorothy Vlaskamp also passed in 2014. Her father was a frequent visitor to Oakwood and enjoyed learning about the history of the Civil War. Charles and Dorothy married on March 27, 1944 in New York. It was a sudden decision when Dorothy took a train from California to see her lover, not knowing if he was going to be there. Once there, she married in the dress she arrived in to her waiting soldier. Soon, Charles shipped out to the next station as the war continued.
What is most endearing is the story of how they met. He was stationed in Twentynine Palms in California and on a night out with friends, the group decided to dance at a United Services Organization Center. She happened to be there at the right time. No one wanted to dance with her more than he did and another fellow. Coins were flipped and the rest is history. However, love is never easy in war and complications ensued. Charles would not be home for a very long time and marriage was a distant photograph. But their love never faded as he sent out letters to her wherever he went from Holland to Paris to Germany to Louisiana to wherever as he followed General George S. Patton’s path. Their love was tried by the adversities in life such as Charles going through a divorce when they first met and the war separating them thousands of miles from each other. But the two found a way to make it work.
Theirs is a story that the 1940’s relished because Charles and Dorothy reunited after the war ended in 1945. Home to a new America, the two built a life together lasting over three decades. Although the two divorced later in life, both remained great friends as well as wonderful parents and grandparents. In his spare time, Charles enjoyed a game of golf, read voraciously and nourished his gift for playing piano by ear. Dorothy remained on the crafty side of things and loved oil painting, making porcelain dolls and gardening. Stell remembered how her mother kept all of her father’s letters in a box. The letters accompany many stunning pictures of the duo in their younger years and are now preserved in an photo album created by Charlene’s daughter, Jennifer Knight, depicting their love story. Along with this is an album created in remembrance of Dorothy as a wife, mother, and grandmother. As for Charlene, she spends her days dedicating hours at Oakwood helping many whose loved ones are interred here and passersby with a sense of curiosity. She has also donated a generous gift by giving all of her parents’ letters and photo albums to Oakwood Cemetery as a way to preserve their love, memories so that others may remember how they once lived.
As I sat down with Sue Purkis, I can tell that a meaningful story is about to unfold. With a smile, she tells me that she is an advocate for Wreaths Across America, an organization dedicated to remember, honor, and teach about our brave military members and veterans. Each December, they lay wreaths on the graves at Arlington National Cemetery and many other veterans’ cemeteries across the country. After creating a chapter of Wreaths Across America at Oakwood Cemetery, she tells me that this venture has been quite successful in the past three years. Veterans and many of their families dwell in a section known as the Field of Honor where veterans are provided with a white, marble headstone marker by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs free of charge. Oakwood Cemetery’s purpose is to provide a low-cost burial space for veterans and their families while keeping a space that honors the lives of those interred.
Originally from Boston, Massachusetts, Purkis knew about WAA before coming to Raleigh. She considers herself as someone who is interested in cemeteries and also in the preservation aspects. In the past, cemeteries were places where families held picnics and gatherings. As someone who has worked in a hospice setting where taking care of ill and elderly patients were normal, death is not a hidden thing for her. She firmly muses,
“We all deal with it.”
Oakwood is a peaceful place of rest and life for her. When she has time, Purkis volunteers at events such as the North Carolina Science Festival: The Birds and the Bees and the Urn Art & Garden Faire held here. She hopes to see more local events that will create involvement for those who are curious about Oakwood.
On this year’s ceremony for WAA at Oakwood, the goal is to be able to lay more wreaths for all veterans who reside in other sections outside the Field of Honor. In the past, the Girl Scouts came to lay wreaths and Purkis hopes that more of the “next generation” will attend. Moreover, she tells me that if there was full representation from the Army, Navy, Coastguard, Airforce, Marines, and the POWs, she would feel complete and content on this year’s mission.
Oakwood Cemetery will host another Wreaths Across America event on Saturday, December 12, 2015 at 12:00 p.m.
If you have any questions, please call Robin Simonton at 919.832.6077
For those who would like to purchase wreaths this season, please visit:
Sponsoring Group ID Number: NC 0016P
Location ID: NC H0FH
Name of Cemetery: Oakwood Cemetery
You can also press on the link below: