There are no ghosts. Not really. There are, however, spirits. There’s a fine distinction. While ghosts are reminders of things from the past, gone from the world, spirits can reside comfortably within the hearts of the living. And if spirits ever truly haunted a place, helping to mold the character of it, they move about in the form of the staff tending Raleigh’s historic Oakwood Cemetery.
Robin Simonton, Sam Smith, Charles “Wink” Batts, Ki Rolan, Mit Siu, Than Apuot and Ydjong Nie are the caretakers of Raleigh’s most prominent resting place for the local departed. Yet, when speaking to these people, it becomes clear that Oakwood Cemetery is not merely the final destination for some 25,000 of the Oak City’s citizens. Executive Director Robin Simonton views Oakwood as something much more. “An outdoor museum,” she calls it. “We try to be a good neighbor. We host events related to and honoring the history of this place.” Relaxed and enthusiastic, she recites recent functions at the cemetery, “Flashlight tours… school groups… holiday and spiritual programs.”
Indeed, Oakwood Cemetery is, in many ways, a social center and arboretum all in one. Joggers and families with strollers share the gently rolling hills with a sea of grey slabs — remembrances in stone. On any given day, Simonton and her staff welcome visitors and small groups to this green oasis in the midst of the city, only a short walk from the towers of downtown. “We must be good stewards,” explains Simonton. “This land would be full of condos if a cemetery wasn’t here.”
“Grass. There’s always grass. The hardest part is keeping up with the grass.” Superintendent Sam Smith is friendly, talkative and clearly enjoys his work. He pilots a small white golf cart over strips of asphalt, pausing to step out and remove a fallen branch from the trail. Sam knows the cemetery’s 102 acres well, keeping a sharp eye out for broken limbs and overgrowth. He’s respectful of his role, which includes both maintaining the grounds and overseeing burials. “You’re cognizant of where you are. It’s not just rote maintenance here. It can get personal. Sometimes I get thank you letters from families.”
Smith glides easily from topic to topic, chatting about doing what he can to ease the raw grief of those saying goodbye to friends and family. In the next breath, he describes the deer and hawks and groundhogs that call Oakwood home. The electric cart trundles onto gravel in a quiet, out-of-the way corner of the cemetery and pulls up to a weathered steel structure. In front, bleached lawn chairs surround a makeshift table. Tools and lawn care machinery rest nearby. This area — known informally as “The Shop” — is Oakwood’s groundskeeping headquarters.
The Montagnard, also known as the Degar people, are indigenous to the central highlands of Vietnam. They’ve been called the United States’ most loyal allies during the Vietnam conflict and fought ferociously alongside American forces throughout the war. The minority ethnic group faced fierce reprisals after the fall of Saigon in 1975. Thousands fled into Cambodia and, eventually, the U.S. military helped many resettle in North Carolina.
Four lean men — Ki Rolan, Mit Siu, Than Apout and Ydjong Ne — amble about The Shop, preparing equipment for the day’s work. Smith helps translate, bridging the language barrier and disrupting awkward pauses. They tell me they’re happy to be part of a team, but there’s likely a dialect nuance I’m missing. There’s more to it. These men have an easy camaraderie and share the weight of backbreaking work. Rolan prefers the push mower to the riding mower, explaining it better handles the tight corners commonly found on stone monuments.
The Degar first came to Oakwood Cemetery through the property’s former superintendent, Chuck Gooch, who prior to that position, fought alongside them in the jungles of Vietnam. Years later, by chance, he met a past Montagnard colleague 9,000 miles from where they fought together. From that encounter emerged a job offer. In time, others from the tightly knit Degar community came to work at Oakwood. It’s almost become a tradition. When not tending the fields and knolls of Oakwood Cemetery, they grow squash and eggplant in unused parts of the property. They’ve recently taken up beekeeping for honey and to pollinate the surrounding flora.
“Wink” Batts, the groundskeeping foreman, emerges from his office within The Shop. After 30 years on the job, he describes himself as “the big brother,” smiling widely. He says his favorite parts of the grounds are the new sections, where uniform rectangular stones make for easy upkeep. Batts describes the older Magnolia Hill section as the roughest parcel, where ornate family plots penned in by heavy granite blocks wrestle with tangled oak roots. He’s picked up some Vietnamese over the years but confesses, “those guys have picked up a lot more American.” Batts paints the picture of dedicated hard work peppered with a good deal of jokes and teasing, often involving the Montagnard tricking him and Smith into unknowing utterances of erotic phrases in Vietnamese.
Magnolia, cedar, crepe myrtle and oak screen the landscape of lovingly crafted ornamental monuments. Simonton, Smith, Batts, Rolan, Siu, Apout and Ne spend their days keeping that nature at bay, lest it reclaim its rightful property and undo the carefully manicured lawns and plots. That’s the paradox of Oakwood Cemetery. We have dedicated Oakwood to the rites of death in a place unbounded in the abundance of life.