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Published August 25, 2014

Death Isn’t Orderly: Nature Takes Oberlin Cemetery

Ever since finding out that there was an abandoned cemetery for emancipated slaves hidden in Cameron Village, I’ve wanted to visit it. Recently I got a chance opportunity, and discovered more than I expected.

If you’re not aware of Oberlin Cemetery, and most people aren’t, it was originally deeded in 1873 and is one of only 4 known African-American cemeteries in Raleigh, NC. Oral tradition states that the cemetery was for slaves and, later, freedmen, many of whom made contributions to the area and Raleigh’s history. While overgrown, and seemingly forgotten, it remains an active burial site.

I spent less than an hour walking around the almost three-acre lot. I visited less than half of it, mainly because of just how overgrown it was and the fact that it lacked clear paths (also because I’d had my fill of mosquitoes). I spent the time taking photos and cycling through a range of emotions, from fascination to sadness.

Death Isn’t Orderly 1

There was beauty amid the decay and, from what I saw, there were more markers downed or broken than upright.

Death Isn’t Orderly 3

I spent parts of that afternoon and evening reviewing and posting the other photos I’d taken, and only then fully acknowledged that I was troubled by what I’d seen. I kept asking:

  • “How could this place, a cemetery, a memorial to those who have passed on, have fallen into such disarray?
  • “This didn’t become overgrown overnight. Why had people stopped caring about it?”
  • “The sign at the entrance encouraged visitors to ‘pick-up, but don’t clean up.’ Why hadn’t anyone started any effort to mark these graves appropriately and start returning some order to the place? There must be a map for this ‘deeded’ property. Someone had to have been recording who was where on paper, even if, in some cases, there were only makeshift markers on the property.”

 

Death Isn’t Orderly 4
I was especially bothered by this stone (I visited it twice).

The man’s epitaph was that “He Served Others”!! How could his final resting place be one which wasn’t served at all?

RELATED: Abandoned Cemetery for Emancipated Slaves Hidden in Cameron Village.

It was only after a good night’s sleep that I awoke to realize why something I’d looked so forward to seeing left me so troubled. We want death to be orderly. To combat the chaos and disorder of death, we neatly plan our cemeteries. They are laid out with uniform rows of markers, with paved paths and have manicured grounds. Think Arlington National Cemetery and Raleigh’s own National Cemetery and Historic Oakwood Cemetery or any graveyard for that matter. We want death to be like that, but it’s not.

Death is not orderly. It comes when it wants, wherever it wants and however it wants. Exactly how nature had taken over Oberlin Cemetery.

The stories of the people interred at Oberlin are no different than those buried anywhere else. Sure, some where slaves, but many of those buried in all cemeteries were slaves too, chained either by the things of this world or with ones they self-imposed. Death came to them, as it will to us, chained or otherwise, through violence, accident, suicide, disease or simply age. And, there is a good chance it will overtake us when we least expect it. But, just because a physical resting place isn’t orderly, the contributions made to family, community, country or the world are not lessened. A person’s legacy is not diminished simply because poison ivy winds its way across his sunken grave.

I’m not advocating that we don’t plan or tend our graveyards–it helps us to deal with the loss. Rather, I realized the true nature of life and death at Oberlin Cemetery. The physical form returns to the ground, to nature in its purest form: lush, untouched and undisturbed. No monument lasts forever, except earth.

You’ll have your own opinions and convictions of what lies beyond the grave, but, regardless of your beliefs, I encourage you to visit Oberlin Cemetery. Be reminded to live your life free from chains, so that when the disorder of death comes and your physical form is placed into the ground, you and your legacy will be remembered–not because of fresh flowers placed at some shiny headstone, but because you touched the minds and hearts of everyone you met.

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  • Michael Palko

    Michael

  • Instructional designer, Photographer-in-Residence at Historic Oakwood Cemetery, and social learning evangelist. Oh, digital storyteller, too. I take pictures. Lots of them. Find me on Instagram: mpalko. All my articles.

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