When Joshua Darty moved to Asheville in 2006 with a freshly minted forest management degree from N.C. State University, an open position at the city’s Parks and Recreation Department seemed like a potential fit. But when he showed up for his interview at 53 Birch St., he was in for a surprise.
“I’m like, ‘This is a cemetery! I think I’ve got the wrong address!’” Darty recalls.
He had the correct address, in fact, and became a landscaper for Riverside Cemetery, a city-owned 87-acre burial ground and public park. In 2013, he became the cemetery’s director, and he’s since learned that the job entails a lot more than administering funerals and maintaining the scenic surroundings.
Darty has also become an amateur historian and teaches visitors about Asheville’s history through the stories of its deceased. Since Riverside Cemetery’s establishment in 1885, it’s served as the final resting place for many of Asheville’s famous residents: Thomas Wolfe, O. Henry, Zebulon Vance, George Masa, Lillian Exum Clement Stafford and many others. Darty, 37, spoke with Xpress about interpreting old maps, visits from ghost hunters and the most popular gravesites for tourists.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.
Why do you think cemeteries are important to our heritage?
Cemeteries in a lot of ways are our first museums. They preserve history; they preserve people. There’s not a day that goes by without someone coming in here to tell me about a relative. Usually it’s just a small anecdote, but a lot of times it’s not something I’ve known before and I can dive in and do some research. Everyone is fascinating.
You apprenticed under Paul Becker, the previous manager of Riverside. What did you have to learn about managing a cemetery?
The biggest thing is learning how to read the maps, because we have superold maps. What is on a map and what’s actually, physically in the cemetery is usually miles apart. My job is trying to interpret what a former manager might have written down in their notes and determining how that relates to what you actually see, in order to know where to bury the next person.
What’s the oldest map of the cemetery?
The first set of maps we have in here were drawn in 1885. Those are almost unusable, because they will fall apart the second you touch them. The set I use the most right now is the 1954 set, which was done when the city of Asheville took over the cemetery in the ’50s. I also have aerial maps, done on a Google overlay, that I helped do in 2015.
What other records does the cemetery keep?
We have the old internment books that date back to the 1880s. It’s the book where you write the names of who’s passed away and the service details. Every time we have a service, I still will update the newest version of those books.
You’ll see there’s a lot of interesting notes in them. Depending on who was taking the notes, they sometimes gave a cause of death: a lot of streetcar deaths and gunshots early in Asheville, but mainly the flu. You can look through 1918 and see all the influenza deaths. Thomas Wolfe’s brother is one of those.
How frequently are you asked if there are ghosts at Riverside?
Easily two to three times a week. We have ghost hunters who come in here and a lot of people who are interested. Guests always ask what my experiences are. I’ve not had any experience and I don’t want one, because I have to work here. I’d hate to be afraid of where I work. I’m a skeptic as well.
Which gravesite do visitors most want to see when they come here?
Thomas Wolfe and O. Henry. Of our tourists, I’d say a good 75% come to see them. And W.O. Wolfe’s angels, a lot of people want to see those. There’s more of his angels here than probably every other place combined. We have at least four made by him and one disputed — “historians disagree” is the term.
Do you have a favorite beautiful spot in the cemetery?
There is a Celtic cross that was from Zebulon Vance’s second wife’s family. It’s an exact replica of the St. Martin’s Cross at Iona Abbey in Scotland. It’s at the top of the hill, so you have this beautiful mountain view. It is one of the prettiest spots, especially in the morning, because it faces east and you can see the sun rise right behind that cross.