Oscar’s Mortuary: The Haunting History Behind New Bern’s Most Infamous Funeral Home

John Furrier | Last Updated : March 10, 2024

Nestled in the heart of downtown New Bern, North Carolina, a stately Gothic Revival building has cast an ominous shadow over the historic town for over a century. With its imposing brick facade, arched windows, and wrought iron fencing, Oscar’s Mortuary certainly looks every bit the classic, quintessential funeral home. However, what lies behind those forbidding walls is a history steeped in tragedy, scandal, and the macabre that has cemented Oscar’s uneasy reputation as perhaps the most haunted mortuary in America.

From its very inception in the early 1900s, Oscar’s Mortuary (originally called “H.S. Ward & Son Funeral Directors”) was inextricably linked to harrowing tales of death and darkness. The mortuary’s founder, undertaker Hardy Scott Ward, was said to have exhibited an almost preternatural fascination and ease with the dead from a very young age.

According to local lore, young Hardy’s first brush with the funerary trade occurred at age 12, when he stumbled across the corpse of a drowned river worker that had washed up near town. Instead of fleeing in fear, the boy displayed a ghoulish determination, actually fashioning a makeshift stretcher out of twigs and branches to convey the body back home to his family’s farm.

Word of the bizarre incident quickly spread, and the Wards suddenly became sought after to assist in transporting and laying out bodies of the dearly departed when a member of the community passed away. By his late teens, Hardy had undergone formal training to become a licensed embalmer and mortician. He officially launched his own funeral home on Craven Street in 1906.

From the very start, rumors of Hardy Ward’s eccentric and disturbing behavior with the deceased began circulating. Multiple witnesses claimed to have seen the young mortician verbally addressing or even caressing the lifeless remains of clients while alone in the mortuary’s prep rooms and basement crypt. A few local teenagers even reported spotting Ward from outside the windows tenderly cradling or gently rocking the body of a young woman, all while whispering incomprehensively under his breath.

While likely dramatized folklore, such stories managed to taint Ward’s reputation while painting his mortuary business with a distinct aura of strangeness and Gothic melodrama. For the next two decades, Oscar’s remained mired in whispers of improper burial rites, grave robbings and even illegal grave desecrations at the hands of the eccentric undertaker turned owner.

It wasn’t until 1922 that Oscar’s nefarious legend reached its darkest and most disturbing apex, and cemented its place in New Bern infamy. According to historical records, in the summer of that year, two men who had purchased burial plots near their relatives at the city’s Cedar Grove Cemetery arrived to discover their gravesites had been crudely excavated and desecrated.

Police were immediately called to the cemetery, where they found fresh mounds of soil surrounding the violated tombs. Shovels, ropes, and other digging tools lay scattered near the gruesome scene, alongside pieces of wood that appeared to be fragments of broken caskets. Most chillingly, further inspection revealed stretches of loose earth that suggested tunnels or catacombs had been burrowed into the ground under the graves.

With little additional evidence to go on, the hunt for the grave robbers hit a dead end until a groundskeeper at Cedar Grove provided an anonymous tip to investigators. He claimed to have witnessed Hardy Ward’s solitary coach making repeated night visits to the cemetery over the past several weeks, “retrieving unknown objects” from beneath the consecrated grounds.

Armed with a search warrant, New Bern police raided Oscar’s Mortuary, where they made a series of shocking discoveries in the building’s basement that seemed to confirm the groundskeeper’s troubling story. Hidden behind a collection of heavy oak caskets, they discovered a partially collapsed tunnel bored directly into the dirt floor, along with piles of rotted coffin wood and shreds of burial garments. Tools, ropes, and other excavating equipment lay strewn about the scene.

Most horrifying of all were the piles of human remains found in clusters throughout the subterranean space – skulls, rib cages, femurs, and more, all intermingled in a grotesque pile of looted bone and tissue. Judging by the advanced stages of decomposition, some of the remains had to have been pulled from their graves months, if not years prior.

According to detailed court records from Ward’s eventual trial, the undertaker made no attempt to hide his guilt, confessing openly to authorities that he had been repeatedly despoiling the graves of clients whose bodies he had interred over a period of at least three years. His rationale, however, was profoundly disturbing.

Ward claimed that after witnessing so much death throughout his career, he developed an unnatural, almost obsessive fixation with the bodies in his care and their physical characteristics. While he carried out burials and funerals dutifully as expected, those morbid compulsions would gnaw at him, compelling him to dig up the graves weeks or months later to gaze upon and study the corpses again in more advanced states of decay.

The disgraced undertaker claimed that by inspecting the bodies at various stages of decomposition, he gained a greater “understanding” and “appreciation” of the dying process and human mortality that encouraged his personal and spiritual growth. He said it helped him connect more deeply to both the living clients seeking his services and their dead kin left in his custodial care.

Despite such demented self-justifications, police believed the grave robberies went far beyond merely eccentric or misguided behavior. Ward had clearly violated numerous criminal laws, not to mention the sacred trust expected of those in the funeral trade. The undertaker was immediately arrested, put on trial, convicted and swiftly stripped of his mortuary license.

Rather than being shut down, however, Oscar’s Mortuary was allowed to maintain operations in New Bern under new ownership. A group of businessmen purchased the tainted enterprise, officially renaming it “Oscar’s” as a way of distancing themselves from its grim history while maintaining the mortuary’s recognizable branding throughout the region.

Certainly, the strategy proved to be effective from a business perspective, as Oscar’s would remain trusted members of the community for decades to come, assisting countless families with burial arrangements and other memorial services. Still, the stains of the mortuary’s sordid past could never be fully erased.

Over the years, workers at the funereal home claimed to experience regular instances of unexplained phenomena and possible haunting activity. Abrupt cold chills wracking the prep rooms, the sound of unexpected voices or disembodied whispers on the grounds, and even reports of spectral figures briefly appearing down hallways or through basement windows were commonplace occurrences.

Many staff simply wrote off such incidents as the “lingering presence” of the mortuary’s original owner/grave robber, Hardy Scott Ward, whose spirit perhaps still felt tied to the building and bodies held within its walls. Others theorized entire cemeteries worth of desecrated souls might feel a connection to the grounds and now wander the mortuary in restless torment.

Whatever the root cause, the modern iteration of Oscar’s Mortuary has fully leaned into its macabre reputation over recent years. While still providing respectful burial and cremation services to local families, the business has actively embraced being recognized as a hotspot for alleged paranormal activity and ghostly intrigue.

Of course, it offers haunted house tours and overnight paranormal investigations during the Halloween season and throughout the year. Staff encourages guests to explore the basement levels for themselves in hopes of experiencing apparitions or unusual activity first-hand. There are also plans in the works to turn sections of the building into a museum space detailing New Bern’s long history with the funeral trade and its darker associations with grave robbing and desecration.

So while Hardy Ward’s original Oscar’s Mortuary was undoubtedly plagued by unspeakable horrors, scandal, and downright blasphemous practices in death care, its reborn modern counterpart continues serving the New Bern community while also inviting guests to revel in that macabre history. After all, as the owners say, the building seems to retain permanent connections to its grisly past – whether you believe those ties exist on a paranormal plane or simply in local lore is up to the individual.

One thing is for certain though – the next time you find yourself visiting this picturesque colonial town in eastern North Carolina, the sight of those ominous Gothic arches on Craven Street is sure to send a chill down your spine. While most present Oscar’s Mortuary as an enticing site for ghost hunters and thrill seekers, you can’t help but wonder what actual restless souls still linger on the grounds…and exactly what profane incidents once occurred behind those brick walls to stir them from their eternal slumber in the first place.

John Furrier

John Furrier is a techie with expertise in BlockChain, eCommerce. He has been working on the cutting-edge of technology for over 10 years. His work has earned him recognition as an emerging leader in this field for various magazines. He lives to break new ground and find ways to make things more efficient for his clients. John believes that “Successful people are always looking for creative solutions.”

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