Tar Heel of the Week

Tar Heel of the Week: She strives to bring Oakwood Cemetery to life

CorrespondentOctober 19, 2013 

TARHEEL-NE-091713-TEL

Robin Simonton took over as director of the Oakwood Cemetery two years ago and has steadily raised its profile, bringing in an unprecedented number of visitors for tours and other events.

TRAVIS LONG — tlong@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

  • Robin Simonton

    Born: Oct. 13, 1975, Downers Grove, Ill.

    Residence: Durham

    Career: Director, Historic Oakwood Cemetery

    Education: B.A. American History, University of Hawaii; M.A. Historical Administration, Eastern Illinois University

    Family: Husband, Jeff; son, Cullen, 3

    If you go: Lantern walks with the Sons of Confederate Veterans will be at the cemetery Oct. 26 from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. The All Saints’ Day celebration will be on Nov. 3 at 3 p.m. Visit historicoakwoodcemetery.org.

    Fun Fact: Mowing the massive Oakwood cemetery, with its narrow spaces between markers, takes a six-man crew a full week. Most of the crew are Montagnards, hired by a previous director who was a Vietnam veteran.

— Robin Simonton’s fascination with cemeteries springs from more than one well.

Walking among headstones at Historic Oakwood Cemetery, she notes their ever-changing symbolism: a single finger pointing heavenward, a cut-off tree with a branch for each family member.

She cites the people themselves, whether well- or lesser-known, such as the man who survived going over Niagara Falls as a child, or the daughter of a conjoined twin. And then there’s the landscape, including rolling hills, stone arches and butterflies circling graveside flower bushes.

While thoughts at this time of year often turn toward the macabre, Simonton’s year-round passion is bringing people into the world of the dead that has transfixed her since childhood.

Since taking over as director at Oakwood two years ago, she has fostered public interest in the site through a long and surprising parade of initiatives, from college courses to romance-themed tours, brass bands to discussions of mortality.

A historian by training, Simonton says she’s trying to bring back the tradition of cemeteries as gathering places that existed before public parks were common.

“This is where couples would come to court, and where families would come for picnics,” says Simonton, 38. “These have been social centers in the past and should still be. We love and enjoy life here because these people can’t anymore.”

These days, Segway tours and joggers roam the cemetery’s narrow roads. Last week, a group of home-schoolers made rubbings of Confederate graves, planning to look the soldiers up at the state archives. On another side of the 102-acre property, a couple stood silently side by side before a grave.

Simonton has encouraged all such visitors, and has also taken the museum on the road in lectures at book clubs, churches and museums about different parts of its history.

Thad Woodard, director of the nonprofit cemetery’s board, says Simonton has made the historic site into a vibrant destination befitting both its central location in a renewed downtown and its long history.

“Robin has led us to the point of Oakwood celebrating life as much as remembering those who went before us,” says Woodard, whose parents and grandparents are buried at Oakwood. “I did not have any inkling of the different ways that this place could be put into motion. All of that has just been Robin’s creativity, which is unlimited.”

Interest from the start

Simonton grew up in a small town outside Chicago, Downers Grove, which had a historic cemetery right on Main Street. As a child, she would wander through the graves of the town’s founding fathers while her mother ran errands downtown.

“If she had to go to the bank, I would go to the cemetery,” Simonton says. “If she had to go shopping, there I would be again.”

She earned a degree in history at the University of Hawaii – a school she chose years before graduation for its far-flung locale and exotic culture. While there, she helped research a local cemetery; later, she would research Amish burial practices.

She worked as a grant writer and a field director for the Girl Scouts before returning to school to earn her master’s degree in historical administration.

She worked at historic homes and helped develop historical programs for Jekyll Island in Georgia. But after graduation, she was back at the Girl Scouts.

The organization brought her to North Carolina, where she rose to a position managing several departments for the North Carolina Coastal Pines chapter. She also started giving tours at Oakwood as a volunteer.

When the position as director at Oakwood came open, her background in history and her experience in nonprofit management made her a good fit. She loved the Scouts, but she couldn’t resist Oakwood.

Mother’s Day tea

Founded in 1869, Oakwood holds more than 22,000 graves, including those of nearly 1,500 Confederate veterans and hundreds of state luminaries.

Tours there have long emphasized particular parts of its historical significance, such as tours of governors’ graves. The Sons of Confederate Veterans conducts a lantern tour close to Halloween; Simonton will be there in period dress this year.

But Simonton has worked to bring in new groups and ideas. She created a nondegree course for N.C. State University that focuses on topics such as famous women in history and conducted a Mother’s Day tea near the grave of a woman who co-founded the holiday, with the deceased’s relatives participating.

The museum now has an app with locations of graves and histories of their inhabitants and conducts First Friday evening tours much of the year. Two movies were filmed there this summer.

Last month, Simonton organized the Death Café, a symposium on death itself at the cemetery’s mausoleum. In November, the Moravian Brass Band will play at an event to commemorate All Saints’ Day.

Current projects include creating a tour of sites where the namesakes of local schools are buried, and an art competition focused on creating urns.

She gets inspiration from other cemeteries nationwide and has connected with several directors at other throughout the South to help her with her work. She is also editor of an online journal for cemetery buffs called “Graveyard Rabbits.”

Her outreach both puts the site’s beautiful grounds to use and serves to remind people that it is an active cemetery, expected to have 200 years’ worth of burial space open to anyone.

And although she is eager to attract interest, Simonton is quick to point out that its main purpose is still as a resting place. In fact, her exuberance for her outreach efforts aside, she says 90 percent of her job involves selling funeral plots and working with families of the deceased when it comes time to use them.

The cemetery averages five burials a week, and Simonton attends nearly all of them. For all her colorful personality, she wears gray and black suits to work every day. She concedes she must walk a fine line in attracting people to visit in a respectful way.

“You don’t want anyone to ever think that you’re exploiting their loved ones,” she says.

The business of running a cemetery also means keeping up with trends. For instance, Simonton has worked to expand its memorial options for people who choose cremation, which is becoming more popular.

She doubts that the trend will spell the end of the cemeteries she loves.

“These are places that for generations people can come and see that you lived, that you existed,” she says. “I would hate it if 100 years from now people didn’t put their loved ones’ names in stone.”

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