Think of cemeteries in Atlanta, and your mind probably goes immediately to Oakland Cemetery, the stately final resting place of many prominent Atlantans. You might also think of Westview, a cemetery larger than Oakland with vast swaths of land still untouched as well as one of the largest community mausoleums ever built. You might even be familiar with Sylvester Cemetery in East Atlanta, overgrown and neglected in the mid-twentieth century, but now a frequent site of community events, thanks to a committed group of neighborhood volunteers.
You probably don’t think of a highway exit ramp, a strip mall parking lot, or a speculative condo development left for dead after the housing bubble burst.
The number of burials in Oakland and Westview combined is estimated to be between 170,000-200,000—a large number, but not nearly enough to account for the majority of Atlanta’s populace that have passed on. So, where are they buried, laid to rest, or memorialized? Why are some of them inside a walled enclosure in the shadow of a Wal-Mart?
The perpetual care cemetery—a model where a trust is established for ongoing maintenance and care of a cemetery (and the purchase of a plot includes this upkeep)—is a fairly recent phenomenon. Historically, the dead were often buried in small family cemeteries on private property, or in church cemeteries. City burial grounds did exist, but they were places to avoid—fraught with disease due to poor sanitation and overcrowding, with graves often stacked on top of one another. Considering that these public graveyards were often in the center of town, their existence became a serious health risk to the population they served.
In this context, the rural cemetery movement of the nineteenth century began, giving us the large, rolling, landscaped cemeteries that are so iconic today. In these cemeteries, individual families were responsible for the upkeep of their respective plots, and often spent afternoons planting trees and flowers, socializing and picnicking on the grounds. Today, we tend to view cemeteries as intriguing at best and depressing at worst, but this was not the Victorian perspective. Death was an unavoidable part of nineteenth century life, and cemetery maintenance was a family affair.
However, time marches on, and descendants move away or are unaware of their family history. Paralleling advances in medical technology, death was increasingly viewed as something separate and walled-off from everyday life. Without perpetual care trusts, many cemeteries became neglected eyesores instead of communal green space. Large cemeteries such as Oakland were able to recover due to their prominence in the city’s landscape, but small family plots often remained derelict and forgotten.
For instance, many people forgot Gilbert Memorial Cemetery long before the Georgia Department of Transportation started building I-75’s Cleveland Avenue exit ramp in 1985. In 1841, plantation owner Jeremiah Gilbert designated a portion of his property as a cemetery for slaves and their families. After the Civil War, it remained in use for burials by residents of Plunkett Town, a nearby African American community. An estimated 1,700 people were buried at Gilbert over nearly 100 years, but by the mid-twentieth century, conditions in the area noticeably deteriorated, and eventually a motel and liquor store were built on the site. The owners felt that the presence of the cemetery would harm their business, so they removed most of the headstones and placed them in the store’s basement, where GDOT found them after seizing the building in the early 1980s. The headstones that now sit inelegantly in the grass of the cloverleaf at the Cleveland Avenue exit ramp do not represent actual burials; instead, they are memorial stones meant to mark the approximate location of a cemetery that was once much larger. The memorial site represents both an awkward commemoration of a previous age and a curiosity to motorists on the interstate.
Accessing Piney Grove Cemetery requires driving down an unassuming street sandwiched between condominium developments near Lenox Mall and GA-400. A cul-de-sac reveals telltale markers of Atlanta’s stagnating condo market: a PVC labyrinth sits amid weeds, where construction just restarted after years of neglect. Yet getting of the car and traipsing through the overgrowth leads to markers of another kind: Headstones, many fallen or damaged, are scatted among discarded tires and trash, and little orange flags represent the locations of burials as determined by archeological investigation. In years past, the cemetery served Piney Grove Missionary Baptist Church, the center of an African American community of the same name. The congregation was established in 1827, and the original church operated until it was condemned in 1948. Members worshipped outside until a new church was completed, and this second building stood until 1996 when the roof collapsed during a storm. Burials continued uninterrupted at Piney Grove Cemetery from the 1820s through the 1990s, and many of the older congregation members have entire families buried there—although the site is now too inhospitable to visit. Traffic speeds by on GA-400, and multimillion-dollar condo dwellers unknowingly live next door to the site of Buckhead’s earliest African American community.
Before there was a Wal-Mart at the corner of Memorial Drive and South Columbia Drive in southern DeKalb County, there was the first enclosed mall in Georgia (Columbia Mall, later called Avondale Mall). And before that, there was a cow pasture, house, and small graveyard belonging to the Crowley family, who settled in the area in 1802. The last family burial occurred in the late nineteenth century, but the land remained in the Crowley family until a developer purchased the property in 1960 to build the mall. Crowley family members made sure the cemetery was not destroyed, yet it’s difficult to label the result a clear preservation “win”—the developer graded the former cow pasture for the new parking lot, leaving the cemetery standing some twenty feet above as a remnant. A stone wall built around the small parcel results in this nearly two-hundred-year-old cemetery simultaneously towering over and isolating itself among suburban sprawl. The cemetery was preserved, yes, but it has lost its context—the Crowley family cemetery now reads as a museum-like artifact plunked onto a development rather than an integral component in the landscape.
These are just a few of the countless examples of cemeteries that have been forgotten, lost, and encroached upon by the contemporary built environment. The preservation of small, old cemeteries is a difficult task, especially when there is no clear site ownership or responsibility for maintenance. Add the complicating factors of economics, race, and politics, and it’s not so hard to see how these anomalies came into being. Avoiding cemeteries marooned within suburban parking lots is probably a wise goal, though, and we might take a page from the Victorians—in more cases than not, cemeteries represent undisturbed green space. They carry potential to incorporate sensitively within the built environment, and to be made available for the public’s enjoyment much like the parks and trails we often go to such great lengths to secure, finance, and build. What if the answer to more green space in the urban landscape has been right below our feet all this time?
Amber Rhea is a student in the Master of Heritage Preservation program at Georgia State University, hoping to parlay her lifelong love of old buildings into a career. She is interested in things most people find mundane or annoying, like urban infrastructure and traffic flow. In a previous life, she was a web developer, blogger, podcaster, and conference organizer. She was responsible for PodCamp Atlanta in 2007 and Sex 2.0 in 2008, and co-hosted the award-winning podcast “Mostly ITP” from 2006-2009. Amber grew up in Augusta and used to bad-mouth Atlanta, then ate her words after landing here in 2004 and realizing there was nowhere else she wanted to be.
Special thanks to Erica Danylchak, Executive Director, Buckhead Heritage Society; and Jill Sweetapple, Archivist, DeKalb History Center.
House rules for commenting:
1. Please use a full first name. We do not support hiding behind anonymity.
2. All comments on BURNAWAY are moderated. Please be patient—we’ll do our best to keep up, but sometimes it may take us a bit to get to all of them.
3. BURNAWAY reserves the right to refuse or reject comments.
4. We support critically engaged arguments (both positive and negative), but please don’t be a jerk, ok? Comments should never be personally offensive in nature.