Raleigh’s Serene And Scenic Oakwood Cemetery

By Diane Lea


Nestled in the heart of Raleigh’s Historic Oakwood, the city’s revitalized Victorian neighborhood bordering on the elaborate Queen Anne Cottage-style Governor’s Mansion, Historic Oakwood Cemetery and Mausoleum quietly preserves Raleigh’s heritage. Established in 1867 on a 2 1⁄4-acre parcel donated by Raleigh plantation owner and businessman Henry Mordecai, today the 102-acre, private, not-for-profit Oakwood Cemetery is more than a serene and scenic final earthly resting place.

The splendid natural setting, with paths winding among mature oak and cedar trees and ornamental shrubs, is also an outdoor history museum, art gallery, sculpture garden, a resource for historical research, botanical garden and arboretum, event setting, as well as a beautiful place to commune with nature and your own spirituality. Oakwood hosts a range of activities, including genealogy classes, star gazing expeditions, nature walks, book readings, photographic competitions, lectures on history and preservation, and even theatrical performances by Burning Coal Theatre Company and other arts and performing groups. But Historic Oakwood Cemetery’s current vibrancy belies the heart-rending story of its origins — and owes much to the dedication and hard work of its staff and Board of Directors.

Confederate Dead

During the painful period of post-Civil War Reconstruction when North Carolina’s Capitol City was occupied by Union forces, Confederate dead were buried in a local cemetery on Rock Quarry Road. In 1866, a group of Raleigh women decided to establish a permanent burial place and formed the Wake County Ladies’ Memorial Association to begin the preparation of a graveyard on the land donated by Mordecai. The project received unexpected impetus in 1867 with the arrival of a federal agent sent to Raleigh to find a burial site for Union soldiers. The agent chose the Rock Quarry Road location and gave the local families three days to move the Confederate dead, or, as the story goes, the bodies would to be placed on the side of the road. More than 400 were hurriedly removed to the Mordecai site. The nonprofit Raleigh Cemetery Association, established in 1869, continued to increase the Oakwood Cemetery site to its present size, assisted in part by the city and private donors in acquiring adjoining land for expansion.

Today, Joseph Freed, Oakwood’s general manager, begins his discussion of historic Oakwood by pointing out the neat rows of simple white headstones with pointed tops that characterize the old Confederate Cemetery.

“The legend is that the tops of the stones were pointed so that no Yankee could sit on a Confederate tombstone,” says Freed. “We have 1500 Confederate soldiers and sailors and four Confederate generals buried here,” he added. According to William S. Powell’s Encyclopedia of North Carolina, the citizens of Wake County secretly made their way to Oakwood Cemetery on May 10, 1867 — Confederate Memorial Day — to honor their dead, although they had been prohibited by the Reconstruction military governor. Today, the Sons of the Confederacy host a Lantern Walk in the Confederate Cemetery the weekend before Halloween. The event includes re-enactors in various vignettes portraying life during the Civil War. Oakwood Marketing Director Michelle Pacofsky notes that the popular re-enactment attracts between 300 and 500 visitors.

Those Who Served

Not far from the Confederate Cemetery is the House of Memory, built in 1936 to honor the men and women of the state who served the nation through military service. The Gothic-inspired structure was conceived by Raleigh native Mrs. Alfred Williams in 1917 as a memorial for Confederate soldiers and sailors. The daughter of Confederate Maj. Gen. Bryan Grimes, Williams repeatedly lobbied the North Carolina General Assembly to allocate funds for the monument. Due to her efforts, the Assembly did vote a budget for the project and, with the help of private funding from the Daughters of the Confederacy, the cornerstone of the small solemn building was placed on May 10, 1935. Frank Porter Graham, then president of the University of North Carolina, dedicated the House of Memory to all the soldiers and sailors of North Carolina who served in time of war. The 22 feet by 38 feet structure, with open sides is constructed of rusticated Wake County stone and detailed with limestone windows and traceries. Overlooking the Confederate Cemetery, it houses 15 bronze memorial plaques honoring North Carolinians from all the nation’s wars.

The Power Of Love

Cemeteries are intrinsically sacred and romantic places where the beauty of the monuments and grounds stand as important reminders of the endurance of love and memory. Oakwood is no exception. Many tender love stories are rendered in the choices of memorials and sculpture. One of the most tragic is reflected in the small Grecian Temple of Diana that Philadelphia architect AG Bauer built by hand to honor the memory of his young wife, Rachel Blythe. Bauer was the right-hand man to Governor’s Mansion architect Samuel Sloan of Philadelphia and even took over the completion of the project in 1885 when Sloan died two years after construction began. Bauer had met Blythe at a Raleigh boarding house. She was of Cherokee heritage, and the local citizenry, considering her of “mixed blood,” refused to accept her into society after she and Bauer married. The Governor’s Mansion was completed in 1891, and Blythe died in 1898 at a relatively young age. Perhaps, speculates Freed, her death was hastened by her imposed social isolation. Freed cites a letter sent by Bauer to a friend in which the broken-hearted widower refers to his work at Oakwood as being finished. Shortly thereafter, he committed suicide.

Another, somewhat happier, but none-the-less mysterious love story is commemorated by a magnificent bronze and granite memorial occupying a premier knoll in the lush Forrest Section of Oakwood. The memorial was commissioned by Michigan real estate entrepreneur Franklin Stanley Prikryl for his long-time friend and companion Ouida Estelle Emery Hood. The couple met in Raleigh, where Ouida was born and lived and eventually married successful automobile designer Wallace Hood. Wallace commuted back and forth to Michigan.

World War I and the opening of an army training camp nearby brought Prikryl to Raleigh where he met Wallace. A friendship bloomed among the three, and Prikryl offered Wallace a job after the War, specifying that they would all have to move back to Michigan. They did and soon the Hoods established themselves in the small farming community of Frenchtown, about 30 miles from Detroit. Prikryl moved in with the Hoods, and the three continued to live together while the gentlemen pursued their individual business interests and Ouida devoted herself to charitable causes. At some point, Wallace left Frenchtown but Prikryl stayed on, paying Ouida for his room and board. Sadly, Ouida died of a hemorrhage in 1930, and Prikryl took her body back to Raleigh, where he purchased two adjoining lots in Oakwood. Though she was buried in her beloved City of Oaks, the soil beneath which she lay was brought by Prikryl from Michigan.

Prikryl turned to a group of bronze workers in Germany to cast the three life-size angelic figures and a center bust plaque for the memorial. Though he had declared his intention of being buried in the Hood-Prikryl memorial with Ouida, Prikryl’s life changed for the worse, and he died in Los Angeles while living with his sister. He is buried there in Forest Lawn Cemetery.

Angels are often selected to commemorate deceased loved ones. Their celestial connections and aesthetically pleasing appearance seem to give comfort to those left behind. One angel has acquired the title, the Guardian of Oakwood, and her story is the stuff of loss and redemption. Commissioned as a monument to his wife, Etta Rebecca White (1880-1918), by Raleigh businessman WE Ratcliffe, the angel was carved of Carrera marble in Italy. It was lost at sea off the coast of Wilmington, the port of entry most convenient to Raleigh. Happily, divers were able to find the angel and retrieve her undamaged. Her beautiful face, with its classical profile and wide-set, tranquil eyes, has made her a favorite of cemetery neighbors, staff, supporters and visitors.

As in all these Oakwood stories of love and tragedy, the artistry of the memorial seems to soothe the spirits of families and friends. One particularly touching memorial was commissioned by Sen. John Edwards’ family to commemorate the death of their young son, Wade. Carved on the grounds of Meredith College by North Carolina sculptor Robert Mahaly, the marble statue depicts an angel enfolding a child in its flowing garments.

Raleigh Old And New

Many old and new Raleigh and North Carolina names appear on Oakwood’s various stones and monuments, including six United States Senators. Being a Raleigh resident is not a prerequisite. It is open to all people, near and far in both geography and time. In fact, entire graveyards have been transported to the cemetery and recreated. Freed proudly points out that a graveyard associated with the Hinton family has recently been brought to Oakwood and re-interred.

“The Hintons, whose ancestors fought in the Revolutionary War and owned plantations in Eastern Wake and adjoining counties, were committed to saving their history,” says Freed. “It’s a worthwhile preservation project, and we have the room to place them all together in their order in the old family cemetery.”

Freed proudly points out another important element in the Oakwood landscape, a special Field of Honor. “Due to the lack of space in National Cemeteries all over the country and here in North Carolina, Oakwood has responded to the need by designating a Field of Honor patterned exactly after Arlington National Cemetery,” says Freed. “Many cemeteries have a Veteran’s section, but they may not be so different from the civilian sections. It is very moving to see our rows of white marble markers replicating those in Arlington.” A Veteran’s Day Ceremony is held in the Field of Honor every year.

Another important component in Oakwood is the modernist style mausoleum as a memorial choice, providing both crypt space and cremation niches. A beautiful Cremation Garden is nestled under Yoshino cherry trees that add to the glorious springtime display of blooming shrubs which makes Oakwood particularly beautiful in the spring.

So what are the issues being faced by this most personally significant, yet public facility? While good planning has provided space for 4000 available cemetery sites on 26 undeveloped acres — enough to serve the Raleigh community for another 200 years — Freed and superintendent Chuck Gooch, office manager Sharon Freed, grounds foreman Charles Batts and Pacofsky, say there are many issues to address.

Future Plans

“We had massive damage from Hurricane Fran,” Freed says. “Our costs for tree removal, pruning and the restoration of stones, roads and plantings were astronomical. Without the help of the endowment fund, part of which is dedicated to the maintenance of each grave in Oakwood, and many significant private donations, we couldn’t have done what we had to do in the relatively short time we had.”

To address unforeseen events and expenses and to continue the tradition of quality maintenance, a new group called Friends of Oakwood Cemetery has been formed to assist the Board of Directors and the staff and, particularly, to assist in sponsoring and facilitating events, research and promoting public awareness of Oakwood’s historical and cultural significance.

Quiet evenings are especially evocative in Oakwood Cemetery, but at almost any time of day there is a sense of Raleigh’s history and the community’s commitment to honoring and preserving the men and women of all pursuits, stations and faiths who lie here — and of peacefulness. Perhaps mostly peacefulness.