One Hundred Three. Art in the Cemetery.

July 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

Earlier this year I purchased a Groupon for an Oakland Cemetery tour. They have all different themed excursions each weekend day throughout the year, from tours of the Jewish cemetery to Women in Oakland to the Leo Frank story. I decided to take the “Art and Architecture of Death” excursion, mostly because both Patrick and I had the evening off and that was the tour offered, so on Day One Hundred Three we decided to take the tour.

We met the group at the museum shop/bell tower just before the 6pm scheduled start. I was surprised to learn that Oakland is actually a City of Atlanta park. You can walk, jog, and even bring your dog to visit the 40 plus acre graveyard. Our guide began with a little history of the cemetery, and then we progressed to the first architectural example: a pyramid. Many of the statues and markers were reflections of the time period and the aesthetic influences of the era. The Grants (not of Grant Park, of Grant Field) who built this mausoleum were into Egyptian Revival.

We were also encouraged to look inside the free standing building where a small window lit the tombs. Many of the mausoleums included stained glass features and windows to allow light into their depths. We waited for several minutes as a tour group member took his time sticking his nose through the bars until his wife gently pulled him away. I was only able to get a quick glimpse. The cool air and soft light inside was beautiful.

As we walked along the brick paved path our leader pointed out the buried tombs with carved pillows at the head. Apparently Victorians were into figurative symbolism, letting the world know that this is where the dead laid their heads. Very subtle.

As we walked along, I noticed a few gravestone markers that looked much different than the previously seen Victorian style. These markers had a wooden or stone texture to their limbs. Our guide explained that after the neoclassical movement of the first markers we saw people started to look more to nature, peppering their carvings with natural material instead of ancient Greek or Egyptian symbols. And the headstones with a branch or limb cut off usually symbolized the death of a teenager or young person. Literally it was saying, “a life cut short.”

Children who died would have a gravestone with an angel protecting them.

There were also headstones with carvings of saints, some based on their profession.

The two most prominent mausoleums in Oakland were the partners who founded a major bank in Atlanta, which was then sold until it merged with Wachovia and now Wells Fargo. The Richards mausoleum holds the second highest point in the cemetery and looks like a mini mansion striking tall against the sky.

The Austells (of Austell, GA) purchased the highest land among the graves. Theirs is a testament to all different kinds of architecture, from Victorian symbolism to ancient Greek and Roman features.

The end of the tour found us walking by the Confederate cemetery while a small boy joined the group. He father trailed behind several hundred feet as the youngster interrupted our guide with crazy exclamations and an endless barrage of questions. The leader was becoming visibly annoyed (especially since the small child had not purchased a ticket to participate), but Patrick and I had a hard time stifling our chuckles. The boy was much more engaged than the rest of the group and his energy was refreshing. Finally his dad scooped him up and took him along a different path. Probably just in time.

In the late 1800’s families would go to church and then bring a picnic lunch to dine on the grave site of their passed loved ones, as though they were sharing a meal with those long gone. I don’t think I would care to lounge above a dead body, but there are plenty of green spaces for a nice afternoon chillout.

Overall the tour was quite enlightening. I would certainly recommend one of the outings to anyone visiting or living in the area. I would love to go back for the Leo Frank tour.

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