New Tech for Old Stories: Oakwood Cemetery Gets an App

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Tucked down a side street in one of Raleigh’s oldest neighborhoods, a stone archway separates the Victorian homes of Historic Oakwood from 102 acres of sloping hills and headstones. There, the city’s history is buried.

On any given day there are runners panting up the pathways, teenagers playing games in the grass by the entrance, and explorers, marching from one headstone to the other, wandering and wondering about the stories buried with those bones.

For more than 140 years Historic Oakwood Cemetery has served the community, and now, this Victorian era garden cemetery is looking toward the future. With the recent release of its new smart phone application, the Cemetery is working to bring all those stories out of the ground and back to life.

File: March, 2012. Confederate graves emerge from the mist in the Oakwood Cemetery.

Karen Tam / Raleigh Public Record

File: March, 2012. Confederate graves emerge from the mist in the Oakwood Cemetery.

Released in conjunction with an updated website, the app is user-friendly and allows users to search by name, offers a location-based search for those already in the cemetery who want to explore their surroundings, and also features a tour section, which includes notable burials as well as a tour of the 25 types of trees on the property.

Cemetery Executive Director Robin Simonton told the Record she’s excited about being able to share the history of those buried on the grounds with more visitors.

“People come through here every day – a lot of walkers, a lot of visitors,” Simonton said, “and you can’t always drop everything and offer a tour.”

Now, though, staff members can direct those visitors to the free app, and they’ll have all the same information in their own hands and can tour the grounds at their own leisure.

The release of this app also offered the opportunity for the cemetery to streamline its computer system. According to Simonton, prior to the release, the office records couldn’t be accessed from the field so staff members had to take paper documents out on the grounds with them, which could be cumbersome when working with maps, photocopies and lot books.

“I’m always like, ‘have I dropped the map somewhere?'” Simonton said. “You’re trying to look professional and the maps are falling out of your back pocket.”

Now, those paper records can be protected, and all the information about a grave site or burial is literally available at her fingertips. Simonton said she can also send that information to any other staff member in an instant, which means updating work orders for sites is more efficient than ever.

A 1932 photo of Oakwood cemetery.

A 1932 photo of the Oakwood cemetery entrance.

But the app isn’t just for history buffs and internal operations. According to Simonton, one of the driving forces behind the release of the app and the new website was the families of those buried on the property.

“We want more people who have loved ones buried here to give us additional information, so they, too, can show up on the tours,” Simonton said.

This way, if someone is out searching for a great uncle, they can easily pull his record up on his or her phone and see which direction they need to walk. Or, if someone wants to share stories and memories, he can do that too.

That was the case with Pam Katchuk. Her son, Andrew, passed away in 2011 at the age of 22, and the family chose Oakwood Cemetery as his final resting place.

At the time though, said Katchuk, the database for the cemetery hadn’t been updated in a while, so she wasn’t able to look up information about her son.

So when Simonton told her Oakwood Cemetery was working on launching a new website, complete with interactive features for families to share the stories of their loved ones, Katchuk jumped at the chance.

“I wanted to share his story because he was such a great kid, and you know I just wanted other people to be able to know a little more about him,” Katchuk said.

As soon as the site went live, Simonton made sure Katchuk knew, and explained the features to her so she could share Andrew’s story.

“I put up pictures and his story, and I put a little video up there,” Katchuk said. “Just because it was nice for me, for one thing, to be able to go up there and see them.”

She was then able to share the link on her Facebook page with all of her friends and family, and according to Katchuk, it was comforting, and is something other families with relatives buried in Oakwood should use.

“I just think every person has a story to tell,” Simonton said. “Share that story, so that all of us can know about that person.”

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