The cemetery’s cemetery

In this book excerpt from ‘American Afterlife: Encounters in the Customs of Mourning,’ we visit Oakland, the final resting place of some 70,000 people, which puts Atlanta’s history on grand display.
Sweeney makes her way between a series of Nally family graves at Oakland Cemetery.

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Sweeney makes her way between a series of Nally family graves at Oakland Cemetery.

In southeast Atlanta, Memorial Drive and Boulevard meet at a crush of hip new lofts, tire shops with hand-painted signs, tree-shaded Victorians, and cars careening too fast down asphalt that’s potholed and gritty. Walled in at the corner of these two thoroughfares lies Oakland Cemetery.

Like so many things launched in the Victorian and Edwardian eras — the architecture of our nation’s great libraries and the Coca-Cola Santa Claus among them — burial grounds like this one have set a blueprint in the collective imagination. Oakland is everything we think of when presented, out of context, with the word “cemetery”: wrought-iron gates and crosses poking out of grassy ground, some straight and others at jauntier angles — all the ingredients of childhood drawings at Halloween. Oakland is the cemetery’s cemetery. It’s a place to lose oneself in the strange beauty of a verdurous death playground built by our Victorian ancestors, a place to learn why this kind of cemetery is what we think of when we think of cemeteries.

I love tours. Tours with guides and tours with books. Official tours in buses and unofficial tours with friends on bicycle. I even love self-guided tours with out-of-date museum-issued pamphlets characterized by bewildering layout and syntax. So I’m undaunted when Mary Woodlan, who coordinates the volunteers and special events at Oakland, tells me one March day in 2008 that I’ve missed the guided-tour season by exactly one week and will have to guide myself.

I return the next day with my friend Jon, and we look at the pamphlet. Its cover features an inkjet print of the cemetery’s Victorian obelisks, headstones and mausoleums, a skyline of sorts against the backdrop of Atlanta’s real skyline. Superimposed across it are the words “Oakland Cemetery: Atlanta’s Most Tangible Link.”

"Link to what? The underworld?" Jon asks when I charge him with holding the booklet. Later I learn it's a quote from historian Franklin Garrett, who called this place "Atlanta's most tangible link between the past and present." And it's exactly this sense that draws us here. In a city with a serious reputation for tearing down the old in favor of the new, places with any real connection to history feel especially charmed. In the case of Oakland — a rambling old park literally dedicated to the dead — the atmosphere is almost otherworldly.

Jon has come along with me because he’s an old friend whose geeky interest in all things historic intersects handily with my geeky interest in old cemeteries. When we set foot inside the black iron gates that mark Oakland’s main entrance, there’s a palpable hush as the hubbub of the outside world disappears into a wash of green-gold light. We set about orienting ourselves. The canopy of tall oaks the place is named for, some of the oldest in the city, filters the sunlight percolating down onto a wide, black avenue with raised blocks on every side. The blocks are populated with all manner of headstones, obelisks, and statuary. The temperature seems to drop a little.

This is the cemetery’s oldest section, the original six acres purchased from a farmer named Alfred Wooding in 1850. We are ready to start my neat chronological arc, beginning with the cemetery’s very first burial. Jon pulls out the Most Tangible Link and I pull out a small map. We consult.

Then we start off in different directions.

Instead of neat city blocks, the layout is more like a forest. In my search for the first grave, I trip around markers of all sizes, shapes and materials. The stones perch all over, in relationships to one another we can hardly begin to detect. There are individual stones standing alone and others in small clumps, facing every direction. Most are so old that their writing has been worn down to nothing. They are flat, round, rectangular, flush with the ground or fashioned into statues. There are small pillars and granite trees climbing with granite vines.

We have to grant some latitude to the people who created burial places like these back in the mid-1800s. When shovel first hit dirt, the cemetery as we know it was a concept brand-new to the United States. The term was used occasionally in Europe, but in early 19th-century America there were only city graveyards, which were little more than places to bury bodies. No one thought of them as places you’d visit, so not much planning went into their design.

One nasty night in Paris helped change all that. In his wonderfully detailed book, “The Last Great Necessity,” David Sloane tells of an extraordinary event one evening in 1780. Three residents in an apartment building next to a centuries-old graveyard in downtown Paris called the Cimetière des Innocents “were overwhelmed by a stench rising from below, and several became seriously ill from mephitic gas.” The overcrowded graveyard had “broken down the basement walls and sent over 2,000 partially decomposed bodies into basements.”

This dismal episode helped spur the founding of France’s famous Père Lachais Cemetery in 1804. Père Lachais was the first of the great rural cemeteries, the funerary answer to the burgeoning Romantic movement. Unlike plain old graveyards, which were like landfills for bodies, rural cemeteries were designed to be visited by the living. Like the popular public parks that were being established at the same time, rural cemeteries were restful, reflective places of tamed nature. Families were encouraged to stroll along the new, winding pathways, to plant greenery and place pretty monuments on their loved ones’ plots.

As a cultural movement, Romanticism was obsessed with nature and questions of the life/death divide. In the rural cemetery movement, this focus translated to an environment that would inspire reflection about both. Within three decades the trend had hopped the Atlantic, and rural cemeteries began to spring up along the East Coast.

As in a lot of other towns, the public graveyard that Oakland replaced was located in Atlanta’s center, and city leaders were concerned about the possibility of nearby residents becoming ill from corpse-tainted soil and groundwater. The city purchased a remote, pastoral property for the new cemetery primarily because of its perch high on a hill east of the city (almost a full mile!).

It hasn’t been 10 minutes and already the cemetery is working its glamour on us. It has beguiled me out of my straightforward quasi-academic mission. Jon has disappeared several blocks away behind a thicket of taller monuments, and several more minutes go by before he calls out, “Dr. James Nissan?”

“That’s it!” I click on my audio recorder and rush over to record my observations. Looking at Dr. Nissan’s headstone, there’s frankly not much to remark upon. Despite the ostensible glory of being No. 1, his headstone is small and blank. The first person to be buried in Atlanta’s oldest cemetery is no town native. Instead, Dr. N was just passing through from parts unknown when he died of a mysterious illness. Like so many people of his time, he had a tremendous fear of being buried alive and asked the attending doctor to cut his jugular vein after he was pronounced dead. At least that’s how the story goes, according to the bronze plaque sitting in front of the old headstone, its five lines the sum total record of what is known about Dr. Nissan’s existence here on Earth.

For all the 67 entries in the walking tour, a handful of stories like this one are all that’s known about most of the people Mary Woodlan endearingly calls “our residents.”

From the beginning, the city had no caretaker role over Oakland’s plots, but instead sold them outright. People bought them and then held complete responsibility for tending to their upkeep forever. This was common practice all over the country before the late 19th century, when the process of death was taken over by professionals like landscapers and embalmers. Even after the notion of perpetual care was introduced and other cemeteries began to establish funds for maintaining the grounds and historical records, Oakland kept doing things the old way. Some families established trusts with local banks or the City of Atlanta for upkeep of their family plots, but many of those have long since run dry.

“Oakland is essentially unknowable,” said Kevin Kuharic, the cemetery’s landscaping and restoration director. For a long time there was a dispute over the number of Atlanta mayors buried at Oakland — was it 25 or 26? (At the time of this printing, Oakland has placed the official number at 27. Former Mayor Ivan Allen was moved here from another cemetery in 2009.)

What is known about Oakland is just as compelling: It’s the final resting ground of five Confederate generals and six Georgia governors. Author Margaret Mitchell and golfer Bobby Jones are buried here, too. There is no special section for celebrities or politicians; they’re mingled in with some 70,000 others.

As we walk along the southern edge, the cemetery blocks soon grow thick with showy monuments. We negotiate obelisks, statues and mausoleums, and soon we’re standing at the foot of an imposing arch, seven feet high and emblazoned with the name “Kontz” in heavy block lettering, above which flies the spread-winged sun god Ra. A pair of carved lotus plants blossom on the arch’s two legs. Egyptian Revival architecture was all the rage in the mid-1800s, when Christian Kontz was hard at work designing his family’s death monument.

As status symbols, showy grave markers like this one were hot items in the 1800s, an era when people were spending a lot more time at cemeteries than generations who came before or after. Cemeteries grew to be popular weekend haunts for courting couples and picnicking families, just like the new public parks that were sprouting up at the time.

All over the country, rural cemeteries had become so heavily trafficked with pedestrians that newspapers ran opinion pieces about them, such as this wry 1861 take on Mount Hope Cemetery: “Drinking saloons are being erected in the vicinity of the Cemetery and dance houses were (sic) expected to soon be seen there. The time will soon come when painted harlots will revel with freedom in the grounds.”

Of course, the newspaperman who wrote that opinion didn’t know it, but the popularity of the cemetery had reached its height. And since the people who bought the plots held carte blanche in terms of their appearance, it made for a bold, anything-goes period in cemetery development. As a result, many old cemeteries like this one resemble competitive sculpture gardens, with one family’s intricately carved mausoleum dwarfed by another family’s angel with outstretched arms, both of these surrounded by soaring obelisks built 10 or 20 years later as the industrial age steamed ahead. Christian Kontz wanted a monument that would stand out, one that would last for the ages, like the Egyptian pyramids that inspired him. If the 100-plus years between Kontz’s death and this moment is any measure, the man succeeded. Any time you drive by the cemetery and glance up, the Kontz arch is the first monument you’ll notice.

To say that the Kontz arch stands apart is not to say that it stands alone, not in terms of elaborate design. The Victorians developed their own language of death symbols. For example, in this section of Oakland, tall angels grasp long torches. These translate to a life snuffed out too soon. Two clasped hands on a headstone mean the deceased are a set of parents. Meanwhile, the founding fathers’ obelisks and columns, vying for attention with their impressive heights and girths, stand for “abiding life,” which, when looking up at one, reads rather like a euphemism for something more anatomical.

Small sculptures of cradles or lambs mark the graves of infants — except in the case of Ms. Molly Weimer’s mockingbird, named Tweet. When Tweet flew on to the next life in August 1874, Ms. Weimer requested that the sculptor carve his likeness to perch on his plot. The stonecutter, however, did not know how to make birds, only lambs; so a lamb is what Tweet got.

Nine or 10 burials still take place in Oakland each year, and the old Victorian policy holds: People are responsible for their own burial plots, forever, period. While paid contractors mow the grass, pick up leaves, and empty trashcans, families are supposed to take care of everything else. In reality, most upkeep is done by the Historic Oakland Foundation, which runs overwhelmingly on volunteer power. Restoration director Kevin Kuharic calls the issue of maintenance at Oakland “the problem that never goes away.” The city still operates the cemetery at a financial loss, and now that all the grave spaces have been bought, burials will decline year by year, and conditions will continue to deteriorate. The only hope for the place is the tourists.

A lot of tourists come to see the cemetery’s next section. Jon and I are heady with Victorian flamboyance, drunk on angels and flowers and finery, so when we round the next bend, I’m taken off guard. There’s something of a visual stun when we reach the Confederate Memorial. Small plain markers of white march on, row upon endless row. This section was modeled after Arlington National Cemetery, and though it’s smaller, the effect still astonishes: Between where we stand and the next ridge, the arrangement of 3,900 evenly spaced graves lobs a sucker punch at one’s perspective.

At the foot of the hill, the markers surround a three-story obelisk, which remained the city’s tallest structure for years after it was dedicated by the Atlanta Ladies’ Memorial Association (ALMA) in 1874.

The Battle of Atlanta, in which General Sherman burned a wide swath of utter ruin to the sea, went right through this neighborhood. Spent minié balls and Confederate coins still pop up in nearby backyards. The farming fields, woods and railroads surrounding this spot were war zone, and at the time a lot more than coins were turning up in people’s yards.

The principal task taken up by ALMA was to give out boot-sized shoeboxes to people so they could collect soldiers’ remains from fields and woodlands. The boxes were so diminutive because there wasn’t much left of the bodies found years after the war’s end.

“We actually have a reproduction box somewhere here in the office, and it’s quite small, basically just long enough for a femur bone to lie in,” said Kevin.

ALMA buried 3,000 boxes around a huge sculpture of a dying lion with a look of convulsed grief frozen in its face. It’s a replica of Switzerland’s Lion of Lucerne. Looking at it now, and at the smooth lawn surrounding it, I think about all those small boxes buried below. We are both very quiet. I think of Kevin’s story of the little boxes of bones. The small scraps of paper that soldiers would pin to their deceased comrades’ blankets, in hope that the men and boys might be found before those scraps disintegrated. How they did disintegrate as the weeks wore on into months, and longer. Some combination of these things, and also Jon’s old story about finding two buttons from Civil War uniforms in his own backyard, all work on me. For just a moment, time accordions in on itself. The reason we’re here and the moment become one, and my heart is in my mouth for it.

♦ ♦ ♦

By the summer of 1864, many of Atlanta’s inhabitants had fled the city to escape the violent ruination that war would bring. Just six years later, in the thick of Reconstruction, the population had shot up to 21,000, more than twice what it had been just a decade prior.

Atlanta was a hive of industry, its red mud streets “alive from morning to night with carts, barrows and wagonloads of timber, brick and sand,” according to “The Reconstruction of Georgia” by Alan Conway. It was a boomtown, and it developed both the squalor and the lawlessness associated with boomtowns. Many white and recently freed black families lived in government camps. The number of homeless and destitute residents grew, and when they died they landed in Potters’ Field, their grave markers crafted from fugitive materials: plywood or stones or whatever else people had on hand. Today Potters’ Field looks like a triangle of rolling parkland, but it’s probably safe to say this was not the cemetery section visited by all those young couples and families in the cemetery’s romantic heyday.

In this way, Oakland Cemetery resembles nothing so much as a city complete with its own class system. In one neighborhood, you’ve got the beautiful and tacky high-rise statuary of the wealthy and climbing. You have a whole lot of average middle-class headstones, and then you have spaces like one we ran across in the old African-American section: a dingy patch of dirt, with tiny brown rock markers jutting up like broken teeth. And then there are those who get nothing.

The oldest cemetery tells the story of its city in more ways than one. It is significant, for example, that the first body interred here was that of Dr. Nissan the Unknown Transient. When Oakland was founded in 1850, Atlanta was little more than a brash railroad hub. The surge in railroad routes had rapidly populated the city with people hoping to improve their lot: Business impresarios. Railroad men. Prostitutes. For years, Atlanta had a lot more in common with the town of Deadwood than with the town of Savannah.

We start back toward the car. A stiff breeze blows across the lawns as we pass the Kiser statue, an eight-foot Romanesque lady who points ominously up at the dark clouds now rolling through the sky. The rain predicted all afternoon feels close, and we pick up our pace.

The cemetery is one of those subjects that divide people into ideological camps. Some people hate today’s memorial parks with the markers made flat so maintenance workers can easily mow right over them. Or they hate mausoleums, or they reserve a special dislike for cremation.

And then there are people like Mary Woodlan, who, at one point in conversation, used the word “love” to describe her feelings for Oakland no fewer than five times in five minutes. There are societies and websites and publications like Epitaphs magazine, created by and for rabid fans of old boneyards.

It’s ironic that Oakland’s future means more to the preservationists of today than it did to the people who buried their dead here while the cemetery was in its prime. The cemetery was in decay back in 1976 when the Historic Oakland Foundation commenced its restoration efforts. Its primary goal was to preserve Oakland, not to attract new burials. And I think this is one reason we can stand to visit. Instead of reminding us too much of our own mortality, Oakland makes us think mostly of mythic anecdotes, of history.

And frankly, we like the decay. We enjoy the sense of historical connection here, but we’re also attracted to how decrepit it all feels. We like the feeling that we’re seeing an endangered piece of the past. How long will that crumbling arch remain that crumbling arch? Lucky we caught it before it became just a pile of rubble. A week after my visit to Oakland, a tornado blew through Atlanta and it gutted Oakland. Fallen trees and broken monuments crowded walkways and cemetery blocks for weeks after, and the place was closed to visitors for months. The rebuilding process took more than a year. “Rebuilding” means restoring what can be restored, but what’s gone is irreparably lost.

As the first drops of rain begin to fall, Jon and I rush past the marker for Atlanta’s first baby (Julia Carlyle Withers, 1842–1919) and the one for Confederate captain William Fuller (1836–1905), who led the capture of the Yankee spies who had absconded with The General, a Confederate locomotive. We pass a sign pointing the way to Margaret Mitchell’s grave and to that of former Atlanta mayor Maynard Jackson, and we almost — but don’t quite—miss a nondescript flat marker that I beg Jon to photograph since the battery on my camera’s almost dead. The marble stone, small and flush with the weeds and the browning grass on the leaf-littered ground, reads only “This Man Lived.”

This excerpt from “American Afterlife: Encounters in the Customs of Mourning” by Kate Sweeney was published courtesy of the University of Georgia Press.

Oakland Cemetery

Open dawn-dusk daily. Visitor’s Center and Museum Shop is open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, 9 a.m.-dusk Saturdays-Sundays. Free. 248 Oakland Ave, SEAtlanta. 404-688-2107,

About the author

Kate Sweeney is a reporter and producer at NPR affiliate WABE in Atlanta. She has won three Edward R. Murrow awards and a number of Associated Press awards for her reporting. She is also co-founder of the nonfiction reading series, True Story!

About the photographer

Curtis Compton joined the AJC as a photo editor in 1993 before returning to the field as a staff photographer. He previously worked for the Gwinnett Daily News, United Press International and the Marietta Daily Journal. He has a bachelor's degree from the University of Georgia and won a World Hunger Award for his coverage of the famine in Sudan.

Next week: Charles Gibson couldn’t wait to leave Lumpkin after high school, but family brought him back.  Now he’s set his sights on reviving the south Georgia town.