To Every Life a Season
Historic Oakwood Cemetery invites conversation
with the Death Letter Project.
By Cheryl Capaldo Traylor / Photos by Michael Palko
“A Cemetery Full of Life,” the moniker of historic Oakwood Cemetery, signals to visitors there is something different about this place of abiding peace. When asked if anyone special is buried here, Michael Palko, Oakwood Cemetery’s photographer-in-residence, replies earnestly: “Yes,” everybody here was special to someone.”
Chartered and incorporated in February 1869, Oakwood Cemetery was developed during the 19th century garden cemetery era. In its early years it served as a gathering place where people would stroll and picnic on the landscaped grounds. Today it still provides a beautiful park-like setting for the final resting place of more than 25,000 individuals, including governors, senators, mayors, and many other prominent citizens. One of Raleigh’s most legendary sons, former N.C. State University basketball coach Jim Valvano, is also memorialized here.
Upon visiting the cemetery, signs of life are everywhere: towering magnolias and oaks, bees buzzing around beehives and colorful flowers, and too many birdhouses and birds to count. Spring breezes gently move a multitude of windchimes that dangle from trees, pealing out a symphony of ethereal rings and tings. Rosemary, daffodils, pansies, and roses are planted in the ground atop many of the gravesites, as garden flags and personal items adorn the graves. A diverse collection of garden benches—concrete, metal, and wood, some simple, others ornate—are scattered throughout the 70 acres, effectively creating an eclectic arrangement of contemplative spaces.
Palko captures this unique beauty in evocative photos that he shares on social media for followers to appreciate. The inspirational Instagram feed is quite unexpected for a cemetery. Since 2014, Palko’s photography has served not only to document the beauty and preserve the history of Historic Oakwood Cemetery, but also to promote the cemetery and inform the public about events.
This year, Historic Oakwood Cemetery celebrates its 150th anniversary. To honor the occasion Robin Simonton, executive director, and Palko want to change the conversation surrounding death in our culture. Or perhaps, lack- of conversation is a more apt description. None of us remain unaffected by the inevitable fact of death, but we are often left navigating losses alone. “You carry each loved one’s death with you. Death isn’t baggage, but it is something we all carry,” Simonton notes. Many people want to talk about a lost loved one, but aren’t given the opportunity. It’s a discussion that many people don’t know how to have, and the hardest part of the conversation, Simonton says, is starting it.
As a way to honor those who rest in Oakwood Cemetery, Simonton and Palko have initiated The Death Letter Project—North Carolina, which was inspired by a similar effort launched in Australia by Tina FiveAsh. They also hope the project will motivate the community to think and talk about death in a different way, and that it will reduce the fear and taboo surrounding the topic. “Everyone has a story,” Palko says. “We’re walking around with it, but never share it. Hopefully, this project will give an opportunity to do this.”
They have asked North Carolina residents from diverse backgrounds to handwrite letters exploring topics on death, including what death means to them, what they think happens after death, and how personal encounters with death have changed the way they look at life.
Each letter will be accompanied by a photograph of the writer, but without any indication of where the picture was taken. This is intentional. Palko says, “The portraits purposefully strip out any sense of place or status of its subjects, just focusing on the individual and their experience. Like death, the portraits are a great equalizer.”
Letters will be shared throughout the anniversary year on Oakwood Cemetery’s website and social media platforms. Historic Oakwood Cemetery’s primary role in the community is to provide a final resting place for loved ones. “That’s why we’re here,” Simonton says. “But, it’s also a place for families to come back to seek comfort and be reflective. Why can’t the entire community benefit from that?” A cemetery is both a repository of history and the ideal outdoor classroom, she says. The cemetery hosts and participates in many community events, including Day of the Dead 5K, Sunrise Yoga, and First Friday Flashlight Tours.
Anniversary plans include a gala at The N.C. Museum of History in October and special tours throughout the year. Visitors are welcome during business hours. Request a guided tour, or download Historic Oakwood Cemetery’s app for self-guided excursions. Remember to be respectful, and no dogs, please.
Another thought-provoking section of Historic Oakwood Cemetery is Mordecai’s Meadow, a green burial space bordered by a row of active beehives. Opened in 2016, it offers an alternative to contemporary burial methods but provides an interment option similar to the cemetery’s original burial practices. Using biodegradable containers such as pine boxes or shrouds, and no vaults or embalming fluid, green burial allows for a more environmentally friendly burial alternative.