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Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Oakland Cemetery

The main object of a burial-ground is…the disposal of the remains of the dead in such a manner as that their decomposition, and return to the earth from which they sprung, shall not prove injurious to the living; either by affecting their health or shocking their feelings, opinions, or prejudices.
--Such was the opinion of John C. Loudon (1783-1843), a Scottish botanist and cemetery designer who helped the first garden cemeteries flourish. 

The Age of Queen Victoria

            Alexandrina Victoria was born May 24, 1819, a time when Britain was established as a Constitutional Monarchy, and as such, royalty tended to act freely with regards to morality and prudence. Victoria’s mother made sure that the heiress presumptive understood the scandal and widespread public contempt that such immoral behavior caused. Therefore, once the young Victoria became queen in June of 1837, she started a Victorian Era of morality that popularized social codes of conduct lasting until her death in 1901.
            Morality was not the only social trend Victoria was to set. In 1851, Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert helped organize the Great Exhibition, the first of several World’s Fairs to model new cultural and industrial developments.  Taking place in Hyde Park, London, England, The Exhibition was a grand opportunity for England to present the grandeur of its’ public gardens, for Hyde Park was, and still is, one of the largest public parks in London. Half a century earlier, what is generally accepted to be the first garden cemetery, Père Lachaise was established by Napoleon I.
            Prior to the establishment of the rural cemetery, it was customary to bury the dead in church graveyards located within city boundaries.  However, by the 18th century, these were beginning to fill, and the overwhelming amount of rotting corpses was starting to spread diseases such as gastroenteritis and tuberculosis.  Some cities, such as Paris, France, began removing corpses and placing them underground in catacombs. However, steps were also made to establish new burial grounds, outside of the city in order to prevent overcrowding and disease. This was the driving force behind the rural cemetery movement.
Oakland Cemetery
In the United States, the garden cemetery movement had its start in 1831 with the establishment of Mount Auburn Cemetery in Watertown, Massachusetts.  Many garden cemeteries were to follow, though mostly found in the northern United States. There are no official garden cemeteries in Georgia, although there are several near established cities with garden elements. During the reign of Queen Victoria, Atlanta was the transportation hub for the south. There were immigrants from Eastern and Western Europe, and a relatively large African American population. With the amount of people living in Atlanta in 1850, and with the deaths from the civil war a decade later, Oakland Cemetery, originally named Atlanta City Cemetery, was established and nearly filled within 30 years.

When the land for Atlanta City Cemetery was first purchased, it consisted of only six acres, but the land was quickly used. The first burial in Atlanta City Cemetery in 1850 was Agnes Wooding, whose body was moved to the cemetery from its original resting place, with James Nissen being the second burial, but the first original internment. Of course, 1850 was 13 years into Queen Victoria’s reign, and a high point in the Victorian Age. However, the Victorian cemetery features were most notably allotted after the death of the Queen’s husband in 1861, and she went into a state of perpetual mourning, which would last until her death in 1901.
As such, the landscape and grave marker decorum in Oakland Cemetery (renamed in 1972) during this time reflect the symbolic nature of the day, and is still evident. These elements are listed and described further with the subsequent images.

Iconography found in the Original Six Acres

The willow tree is a popular gravestone decoration, as can be seen here: Mrs. Sallie Geurin, Consort of John Geurin.

The Willow Tree

            Early colonial gravestones were adorned with frightening carvings of death heads and skulls, which certainly added to the dreadful nature of early graveyards.  However, with the Age of Enlightenment, and the rise of the belief in death as an eternal rest, the iconography began to change. The death heads turned to cherubs, and eventually to urns, an ancient Greek and Roman symbol. Eventually, natural elements such as trees and flowers began to adorn gravestones, one of the more prominent being the Weeping Willow tree. However, the willow tree also has ties to the ancient Greeks as it was the symbol of the underworld goddess Persephone, and Orpheus carried with him a branch of the willow tree into the underworld, which helped him obtain his gift of speech.

This stone, close to the front gates at Oakland, has a multitude of Victorian symbols. There are Easter lilies in the cavity, surrounding the cross, and a string of ivy bordering the base.  There is a tasseled funerary shroud with more lilies at the top.  The cross within the crown symbolizes victory in Christianity. It is also a symbol of the York Rite Masons, who associate themselves with the order of the Knights Templar.

This is a detail of the lettering in the center of the cross. It says “IHS”, which stands for the first three letters of the Greek name of Jesus, Iota Eta Sigma. It is sometimes erroneously representative of the latin In Hoc Signo meaning “with this as your standard you shall have victory”. This, however is a bacronym, a phrase created after the fact to give meaning to an
existing acronym.

The Meyerhardt memorial is in the form of an archway, symbolic of the gateway to heaven.  Another symbolic element is the clasped hands, symbolic of unity (applicable on a married couple’s grave). Topping the memorial are three urns, one wrapped in a garland, meaning victory in death, and covered in a funerary shroud.

The Urn

The urn is another classical Greek and Roman symbol, as both groups would cremate their dead, and store their ashes in funerary urns.  As Victorian symbols, they were sometimes adorned as seen above with a death shroud. The urn is also seen as a chamber in which to store the soul. Ancient Egyptians used a type of urn called a canopic jar to store organs for the dead.

This is a cast iron urn in the Greek Phial shape (instead of the more popular Greek Krater).  This particular urn is fitted with a large hole in the bottom, with a cover that has holes in it, presumably to hold fresh cut flowers, or as drainage for a plant. 

This urn is probably made of bronze and is currently a beautiful oxidized green color. It has several Greek elements, including the key pattern toward the top, and the distinctive Lekythos shape.

The Popularity of Cast Iron

Prior to the Victorian era, cemetery ornamentation was simple, and usually made of stone or wrought iron, both of which were relatively hermetic. However, with the Industrial revolution making cast iron a commodity in mass production, the detailed and complex adornments could be adapted for use in garden and cemetery ornamentation.

Garden benches were important as a resting place, a conversation seat, and a focal point both accessorizing the garden, and giving it a utilitarian element.

This is a page from the diyexport website, from Shijiazhuang City Fushi, exporters dealing in cast iron reproductions.  However, it is an example of the styles of garden furniture available with the use of cast iron. There are two styles seen above, FS1050 and FS1054 that are both represented in true form at Oakland Cemetery.


This is a cast iron medallion bench available for purchase in the 1850’s. The central medallion depicts the popular “lady and bird” relief, a popular bench adornment during the Victorian era. The accompanying backless bench does not match the pattern of the larger bench; the pattern of scrolls appears more modern.

This is another very popular design for garden benches. It has a natural form, attempting to imitate natural branches, but is in fact made of cast iron. It is referred to as the "Twig and Serpent" bench in reference to it's motif of oak branches and twigs, and the intertwined snake motif on the legs.

Here is a photo of the same style of bench found in a section of Oakland that has not been restored. You can clearly see the damage from rusting and weather deterioration.

This bench, which can be found adjacent to the Meyerhardt tomb near the Jewish grounds, has a very stylized grape vine pattern. You can see grape bunches in the center of the back, and on the legs, but most of the pattern is made up of vine scrolls. This was made popular by Parisian architecture in the Louis XVI style.

This is a Coalbrookdale-style cast iron bench, with a fern pattern, and a Celtic scroll seat pattern, which is a non-Coalbrookdale element. This is a very popular motif, and exemplifies the art nouveau naturalistic taste.

This is a cast iron garden chair with a cross hatch and lattice work design. The back also has stylized leaves. It is located adjacent to the on Vernon Howard grave.

This is the cast iron gazebo at Oakland. It is octagonal, and has a wooden roof. There are benches with wooden seats built into the structure. In the above detailed photograph, you can see stylized passion flowers and leafy scrolls in the cast ironwork. The passion flower, which was popular in Victorian times, represents the passion for Christ.


This is a rather simple wrought iron fence enclosing the Drennan Family graves. The post caps are probably cast iron, however, though also simple in design.

This fence is a bit more complex, with round bars and a detailed top rail and finials. The finials look like a very stylized fleur-de-lis, so stylized that the resemblance to the iris is absent.

The finials on this fence are stylized lotus flowers, an Egyptian motif symbolizing creation and rebirth.

This fence has a circle pattern with fleur-de-lis finials, and a rose-like central medallion.  The circle represents life as having no beginning and no end, and the fleur-de-lis represents the Holy Trinity, with it’s three petals.

This gate is to the John A. Doame grave. It has stylized leafy scrolls, and a central wreath topped by three wild roses. The five petals of the rose represent the five wounds of Christ.

On the top, a piece of cast iron with decorative scrolls attached to the ground. The photo on the bottom, taken by Righard McBrayer, is what the grave cover used to look like. The top portion was probably pilfered, or given as scrap metal to the war effort.


*all photos taken by the author unless otherwise noted.

Curl, James Stevens. The Victorian Celebration of Death. Phoenix Mill: Sutton
Publishing, LTD, 2000.

Rutherford, Sarah. The Victorian Cemetery. Oxford, UK: Shire Publications LTD, 2008.

Santore, Beth. “Gravestone Symbolism”. 2003.

Scarisbrick, Diana. Tiara. Boston: The Museum of Fine Arts, 2000.

Snyder, Ellen Marie. Victory over Nature: Victorian Cast-Iron Seating Furniture
Winterthur Portfolio, Vol. 20, No. 4 (Winter, 1985), pp. 221-242

1 comment:

  1. Love this content!
    I have been having dreams about older cemeteries featuring structures similar to the ones displayed here. Oddly, I had no prior knowledge of such structures. The dreams I have been having revealed them to me and I assumed it was a fictional grave yard style.
    What do these dreams mean? It's a bit scary to learn this types of graves are real...