If “graveyard” doesn’t come to mind when you think of places to view art, it certainly may after a visit to Oakland Cemetery. From gravestones and monuments to sculpture and architecture, this Grant Park attraction contains a small cross-section survey of art history.
Oakland Cemetery was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1976 as a significant example of a Victorian-era cemetery. It was part of the rural cemetery movement that began in 1831 with Boston’s Mount Auburn Cemetery. Unlike many church graveyards, which can crowd easily, these cemeteries were constructed in places removed from downtown areas where more land was available. They doubled as parks, of which Oakland Cemetery was Atlanta’s first. Situated on one of the city’s highest ridges, retaining walls divide various plots and enhance the land’s picturesque vista.
Walking through Oakland Cemetery is like taking a crash course in Atlanta history. Approximately 70,000 individuals (and several pets) are buried there, including immigrants from both Africa and Europe, the wealthy and the poor, servants and prominent community leaders, and famous celebrities and unknown soldiers. This variety has resulted in an impressive array of grave markers.
Victorian symbolism abounds in Oakland Cemetery. Obelisks, for example, represent eternal life, and draped palls symbolize sorrow. Particularly rich is the grave marker for Eddie Kiser, who was a teenager when he died:
The cut tree trunk represents a short life, the ivy means abiding memory and eternal friendship, and the anchor symbolizes hope. The rock base shows that Eddie’s life was built on a firm religious foundation.
In addition to grave markers, various monuments punctuate Oakland Cemetery. One of these honors approximately 3,000 unknown Confederate soldiers who are buried at Oakland. Carved by T.M. Brady of Canton, Georgia, this monument is based on the Lion of Lucerne in Switzerland. The dying lion represents courage. In the Oakland interpretation, it rests its head on a Confederate flag.
Another monument, that of the Kontz family, is one of Oakland Cemetery’s few examples of the Egyptian Revival style. The winged design at the top of the arch may represent the god Ra. Lotus flowers, which symbolize the renewal of life, are carved into the sides.
As for monuments that house the remains of loved ones, Oakland Cemetery boasts 54 mausoleums that range from basic structures to beautiful architectural achievements. Of the latter, the most visually impressive is the Gothic-inspired Richards mausoleum. It was built by H.Q. French of New York City for the remains of Robert H. Richards, a London-born entrepreneur and co-founder of Atlanta National Bank. The gargoyles feature lion heads with bat wings and talons. They are intended to frighten away evil spirits.
The Maddox mausoleum is another particularly impressive structure. Built in the late 19th century, it is an example of the Romanesque Revival style. The lighter stones on the buttress-like extensions are an interpretation of the banding effect, or belt courses, typical of this style. The peaked arch of the entryway, however, is more Gothic.
Many of the monuments in Oakland Cemetery are in the Greek Revival style. With its Corinthian columns supporting the pediment over the porch, the Clyde L. King monument is an example of this style. King’s wife, Clara Bell Rushton King, loved her home at 1010 Ponce de Leon Avenue so much, King had this replica constructed at the cemetery.
Built in 1899, the Bell Tower Building serves as the receiving vault and sexton’s office for Oakland Cemetery. Modeled after Norman and English castellated churches, it represents yet another architectural style. The bell in the 50-foot tower still rings when the sexton is notified of an upcoming funeral. Oakland Cemetery currently averages about two funerals per month.
Though surrounded by a bustling city, Oakland Cemetery is a quiet location for a peaceful walk. I enjoy standing in Oakland’s stillness, while the MARTA flies back and forth, beneath the visible downtown skyline in the near distance. In this beautiful setting, thoughts inevitably drift over themes of life—my own and that of Atlanta—in terms of the past, present, and future.
Oakland Cemetery has been undergoing massive renovation efforts due to damage caused by last year’s tornado. Please visit their website for information about how to help. Tevi Taliaferro’s book Historic Oakland Cemetery provided background information for this article.
Planning a trip to Atlanta? Visit Atlanta Hotels for a selection of places to stay with discount prices.