Eternal Garden: Grace & History at Oakdale Cemetery

BY Sandra Chambers

Oakdale Cemetery is North Carolina’s oldest rural cemetery. Designed in the picturesque Victorian mode of the mid-nineteenth century Rural Cemetery Movement Oakdale today is both an outdoor museum and arboretum. With a total of 165 acres Oakdale exemplifies the Rural Cemetery Movement in its garden-like setting featuring large shade trees ornamental plants and beautiful flowers including azaleas dogwood camellias and yellow daffodils (planted to honor the 399 yellow fever victims of 1862 who are buried there) as well as paths and benches for those who wish to enjoy the beauty and serenity.

Creation of these rural cemeteries which began in 1831 with the opening of Mount Auburn in Cambridge Massachusetts continued south many along the coast and were actually the forerunners of modern public park development in America.

Overcrowding of church and town burial grounds as well as health concerns was the impetus behind the Rural Cemetery Movement. Following this national trend a group of prominent Wilmington businessmen acquired a 65-acre plot on the east side of Burnt Mill Creek just east of the town limits for a cemetery. Oakdale was chartered on December 27 1852 by the General Assembly of North Carolina.

The first of the current 28 000 interments in Oakdale took place on February 5 1855. Ironically it was 6-year-old Annie DeRosset the daughter of physician Armand John DeRosset the first president of the cemetery corporation.

“The fact that Wilmington had such a cemetery demonstrates Wilmington’s status in the state ” says Janet Seapker historian and president of the Friends of Oakdale Cemetery. “Wilmington was the largest city in the state when the cemetery opened in 1852.”

The Oakdale designer Louis C. Turner laid out sections A through H as a maze of curvilinear avenues winding through the hilly terrain with depressed drives and raised plots. Over the years other sections have been annexed including a new live oak section which was added in 1992. Today burial plots are still available at Oakdale with an additional 10-15 acres open for future development.

“What is unique about Oakdale ” says cemetery superintendent Eric Kozen “is that it shows 150 years of cemetery development.” In 2003 Kozen says he discovered a lead box tucked on a lower shelf in the cemetery’s secure vault. The box had been buried when Oakdale’s lodge cornerstone was laid in 1896 and contained many valuable documents including a report of all the burials to date. Oakdale has kept extensive records of everyone who is buried there except for a period during the Civil War from 1863-1867 when records were not well maintained. These discovered documents while they don’t contain names do record the number of burials for both Union and Confederate soldiers.

“Cemeteries are very intriguing ” Kozen says. “I make new discoveries all the time.” In addition to its rich history Oakdale’s peaceful beauty makes it truly one of Wilmington’s treasures.

We wish to thank Eric Kozen and Janet Seapker for their invaluable help in providing historical information for this article. For more information on Oakdale go to

Much  more than a cemetery

Oakdale is an outdoor museum that tells a unique history of Wilmington and its people over the past 150 years. Beneath its ornate and beautiful monuments lie the graves of many of the movers and shakers of Wilmington veterans of all wars and branches of the service victims of the 1862 yellow fever outbreak politicians mayors congressmen artists writers merchants immigrants wives mothers and children. Below are a just a few of the many intriguing stories of individuals buried at Oakdale.

William Ellerbrock — A riverboat captain and volunteer fireman Ellerbrock lost his life on February 11 1880 while helping to fight a fire at Front and Dock streets. Entering one of the burning buildings a wall collapsed on him trapping him inside. His faithful dog Boss entered the building trying to save his master but both were found dead the following day. A piece of William’s clothing was found in the dog’s mouth presumably the result of the dog trying to drag his master from the burning building. Ellerbrock’s friends and the citizens of Wilmington erected a monument to his memory with a relief of the dog on the back of the monument which reads “Faithful unto death.”

Nancy Martin — While on a seafaring voyage in May 1857 with her father a sea captain and her brother 24-year-old Nancy nicknamed Nance became ill and died. The ship was near Cuba at the time. Her father not wanting to bury her at sea tied her to a chair bolted it to the bottom of an empty cask which was then filled with spirits to preserve the body. Upon arriving in Wilmington six days later Nancy was buried at Oakdale Cemetery still entombed in the cask.

Mrs. Rose O’Neale Greenhow — A Confederate spy during the Civil War Greenhow was instrumental in providing the leading general of the Confederate Army in Manassas with Union troop movements and numbers. She was later caught and imprisoned for 11 months with her daughter Little Rose. She then traveled to Europe at the request of Confederate President Jefferson Davis to try to win the support of France. After an unsuccessful attempt to do so she was returning to America when the ship she was on ran aground trying to run the federal blockade at Fort Fisher. The lifeboat she was on was struck by a wave capsized and Greenhow drowned. She was later found with a satchel strapped around her neck containing $400 in gold and the messages from the French to Jefferson Davis. Greenhow was given a full-honors ceremony by the Confederate forces and was buried in Oakdale in 1864.

Capt. Josephus Franklin Bussells — Capt. Josephus was a menhaden fisherman who died on July 8 1919. One day Bussells was steering his boat through Georgetown Bay on the upper South Carolina coast when he heard cries for help. He lowered the lifeboat and rescued two cold and wet duck hunters in a disabled launch. After the gentlemen had changed clothes and been given a hot drink Bussells inquired as to their business. “By your help and the Grace of God I am still the President of the United States!” replied the sitting president Grover Cleveland one of the rescued gentlemen.

Donald Hartman — One of the Four Aces a flying aerial group that performed death-defying aerial feats Hartman was practicing a handstand high above Wilmington’s Legion Stadium on the afternoon of October 20 1937. A sudden strong wind began to sway the slender rod that supported him and sent him hurling down to the ground. He was rushed to the hospital where it was determined he had broken his neck arm leg foot and all his ribs. He died 10 minutes after reaching the hospital. Because he had no living relatives he was buried in Wilmington at Oakdale Cemetery. His epitaph is a testimony to the accomplishment of his life’s goal: “Died pleasing public.”

Funerary Art and Iconography at Oakdale

Oakdale Cemetery was established during the Victorian and Antebellum eras of the mid to late 1800s when cemetery symbolism and iconography were at a peak. These are a few of the symbols that can be found carved on monuments and headstones at Oakdale and other cemeteries of the period.

(Used by permission from the Oakdale Cemetery Web site.)

The Handshake symbolizes matrimony. These hands are seen as one female and one male and indicate an earthly farewell.

The Dove symbolizes peace and purity and can also be seen diving from the heavens with an olive branch or cross in its beak symbolizing the Holy Ghost.

The Anchor symbolizes hope and was often used for those whose livelihood was that of a seaman or captain.

The Hand coming from above symbolizes God reaching down from Heaven.

The Hand with the Finger Pointing Upward symbolizes that the soul has gone to the heavens.

The Cross and Crown symbolizes passion or sovereignty of the Lord. While many crosses adorn graves this cross with the crown denotes one’s passion to the Lord.

The Palm Branch symbolizes victory or triumph over death. It characterizes the triumphant entry and the resurrection.

The Rose symbolizes love and often adorns children’s graves as a rosebud that has not opened with a broken stem. The fuller the bloom the longer one lived.