A Review of Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery: An Illustrated History and Guide

Photo by Heather Dobson

Did you know that most of what we know about the Etruscan civilization comes from its cemeteries and funerary practices? No, really. The ancient Etruscans were eventually absorbed by other conquering peoples (ROME!) and after houses and towns were built over, all that was left were the tombs.

Knowing that, what do our modern-day cemeteries say about us? Flat, small headstones, with room for a name, birth and death dates, and maybe a short sentiment, but flat nonetheless so that our cemetery caretakers can easily mow the grass. What does this say about 21st century American civilization? It says we don’t really care about our dead.

Two weeks ago, PGI received an email from the University of Georgia Press regarding the publication of a new book called Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery: An Illustrated History and Guide by Ren and Helen Davis. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m a sucker for cemeteries. In fact, I’ve spent many an hour roaming the paths, headstones, and mausoleums of Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery, taking pictures, enjoying the quiet (until a police siren screams in the distance), and wondering where I would put my mausoleum.

I’m not kidding. I’ve been trying to get several friends to participate in the building of a gawdy, gargoyle-encrusted, art deco, Egyptian hieroglyph monstrosity of a mausoleum for several years now. Unfortunately, the Dobson-Livingston-Sammons-Brown-Iacozza-Garner mausoleum has yet to be built, but I have high hopes.

Old, grand cemeteries such as Oakland are locations where we can, simultaneously, contemplate our death and yet also appreciate our lives. I find that my fear of death dissipates when I’m walking among those people whom I will someday follow. And that’s why I jumped at the chance to review this wonderful book by Ren and Helen Davis.

I love this book because it covers everything you wanted to know about Atlanta’s historical cemetery landmark. Historically, cemeteries were thought of as rural gardens. In the industrial age of the late-19th, early-20th centuries, it was hard to find trees or fresh air in large towns or cities and with many people using only their feet for transportation they couldn’t travel far. Following in the footsteps of Boston and NYC, Atlanta made Oakland into a rural garden. You could walk amongst deceased loved ones and neighbors while also wooing your sweetheart along wooded and floral paths. I know that in today’s society, the last place you would want to spend your Sunday afternoon would be near great-grandpa’s headstone, but that’s what families did, particularly after the Civil War. So many young men died from 1861 through 1865 that many families would spend their Sunday afternoons spreading food and drink over a young son’s or husband’s grave. This was as close as the family could get to their deceased loved ones. Pictures were scarce and video cameras were non-existent. Sometimes, all the family had was a headstone to help remember their relative.

In Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery: An Illustrated History and Guide, Ren and Helen Davis take you on a tour of Oakland. They point out the different sections of the cemetery, explaining their histories and locations, making sure to note Oakland’s most famous “residents” as well as the most interesting and well-known funerary architecture. They also explain, in depth, the rural garden cemetery movement of the 19th century, discuss the founding and importance of the Confederate Memorial Grounds, and talk about how vital a role Oakland played in Atlanta’s community spirit (pun very much intended).

Not only is this a gorgeous book (color, pictures everywhere, notes, maps, and well-explained captions), but Ren and Helen Davis explain everything. For example, I knew that there were black and Jewish sections of Oakland. What I didn’t know was that the first black person to be buried outside the black section of the cemetery (without retaining special permission from a white family to use their plot) was Atlanta’s own Mayor Maynard H. Jackson, Jr., in 2003. Wow. It took until the 21st century for this tradition to be broken. At last. I also had no idea how instrumental the women of Atlanta were in making sure the dead Confederate soldiers were properly buried and memorialized in Oakland in the Confederate Memorial Grounds. One of my favorite sculptures, Lion of Atlanta, resides in the Confederate section of Oakland.

The part of the book that held most of my attention was the appendix on funerary symbols. I have always been fascinated by the symbolism found on old headstones and mausoleums. I think it’s sad that modern-day headstone carvers have lost the artistry of the 19th century. I think a headstone, carved to look as though it’s draped in a mourning cloth, covered in granite lilies with a stone butterfly alight on one of the flowers is far prettier and leaves a more lasting message than “John Smith b. 1931 d. 1998” on a tiny headstone easily walked on and ignored. If you want to see funerary art at its finest? Check out Oakland Cemetery.

Or, if you can’t go to Oakland, then definitely invest in your own copy of Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery: An Illustrated History and Guide. It’s a wonderful journey through Atlanta’s history and you won’t regret educating yourself about Atlanta’s rural cemetery garden. You can purchase the book directly from the University of Georgia Press by clicking here.

Note: Paranormal Georgia Investigations is not the author of this book. We are simply humble book reviewers. Also, this blogger and paranormal investigator received a free copy Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery: An Illustrated History and Guide as compensation for review of said book. This in no way influenced my review, but it did influence my decision to return to Oakland soon for more contemplative walks! And now my FTC disclosure of compensation requirement is done!

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About Heather Scarbro Dobson

I wish I was Wonder Woman, but I'm actually a wife, mother of three, author, paranormal investigator, and a stay-at-home astronaut. When I'm not terrorizing the Bible Belt PTA with my purple hair and "Hail Satan" shirt, you can find me at home, binge-watching "Charlie's Angels."
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