Paying Respects

Illuminating Oakdale Cemetery


As darkness falls, a crowd of people will gather at the North 15th Street entrance to Wilmington’s historic Oakdale Cemetery. With the remnants of the full moon hanging in the night sky, groups enter the cemetery gates and walk dimly lit paths for the annual Oakdale Cemetery Luminary Tour.

The FRIENDS OF THE OAKDALE CEMETARY, a non-profit organization founded in 2005 and dedicated to “preserving and promoting the historical character of Oakdale,” sponsors various tours through the cemetery, including October’s Luminary Tour and a Saturday morning Summer Series.

The Luminary Tours will be held on Sunday, Oct. 20 and are limited to 125 participants, split between three groups beginning their strolls at 6:45, 7:00, and 7:15 p.m.

“We just decided this year’s theme will be clergy,” says ERIC KOZEN, cemetery superintendent. “So it’s not really a Halloween ghost thing, but there are some interesting stories, for sure.” Groups will walk a set path through the over 20,000 occupied burial sites, making several planned stops where tour guides will regale them with tales of Wilmington’s most notable clergy members. Granite monuments, some of them over 150 years old, will have a completely different pallor in the dim light of the waning moon.

Previous Luminary Tours have focused on other topics related to general Oakdale history.

It’s obvious Kozen, originally a horticulturalist, has fallen headfirst into his position overseeing the 100-plus acre cemetery since he took over the position in 2002. On a tour earlier this year, he began focusing on the victims of yellow fever, which struck the Port City 151 years ago. Both Kozen and David Rice, the New Hanover County health director, had some welcome difficulties staying focused on the tour’s 16 planned stops.

They outdid each other again and again with fascinating tidbits of Wilmington history, the cemetery, the Civil War, public health, and even their own personal connections to the cemetery. The dozen or so people who showed up for the tour, despite the unrelenting drizzle, listened over the drumming of rain on umbrellas; even when the drizzle turned into a downpour, everyone stayed until the last story has been told.

“The cemetery looks so different at night,” Kozen said. It was a view he wanted to share. Local Boy Scout troops assisted with placing and cleaning up the luminaries, which provided a lit path for walkers without interfering with the evocative view of the cemetery in moonlight. For safety, the traditional bags are lit with battery-operated tea lights, which gave the same flickering effect as candles.

Now, as then, hors d’oeuvres are served at the cemetery gates prior to the Luminary Tour, giving participants an opportunity to relax and ask questions before the tour begins.

Tickets for the Luminary Tour go on sale Oct. 1, and have sold out since the nighttime tours began in 2011. Tickets are $10 per person. Plans are also in the works for a horse-drawn carriage tour in November.

To view more of photographer Kristen Corley's work, go to