"Pay attention to the world." -- Susan Sontag

Exploring Place: Oakland Cemetery, Part One

My Exploring Place: History class wrapped up at the end of December, and I’ve started sketching out a series of articles about my research on Oakland Cemetery. You can read my first two articles, written during the early days of the class when I had just started exploring the Cemetery, here. I have to say that when I originally decided that Oakland would be my research topic for the class, I really had no idea how I’d go about the research and writing. By the time I was about five or six weeks into it, however, it seemed like the opposite had occurred: it became a real challenge to pare things down to reasonable levels for the class, because my exploration took on a pretty complicated life of its own, leading me in all sorts of unexpected directions.

I ended out writing three research papers (in addition to a proposal) on the Cemetery, and one final paper where I explained how the theoretical ideas embodied in our course reading assignments guided me and affected my research and writing. I considered posting the papers in their entirety here, but have decided against it — opting instead to excerpt or adapt them for the more conversational tone of a weblog. I also still have a large number of photographs from two final visits there — that I haven’t reviewed yet or posted anywhere — photographs taken when my research pointed me to something specific about the Cemetery that I wanted to capture in images. In many cases, the photographs related to the stories of particular people or events, so I’ll include them here as I write about those particulars. I thought I would break ground, however, by describing some of the resources I used to complement the tours and events I attended, and my frequent photo-walking trips to the Cemetery itself.

The background for the class came from Robert Archibald’s A Place to Remember: Using History to Build Community. Archibald uses a visit to his hometown to begin his thoughtful analysis of the relationships among place, history, and memory, and he explains how our thinking about these things intersects with our ideas about the kinds of cultural and social structures we build into (or fail to build into) our communities. He expands from there into discussions about the roles of public and academic historians in the community, advocating for an approach that combines social and cultural activism with the work of the historian. His ideas about historians engaging with their communities and involving themselves in decisions about such things as urban design and the use of public spaces struck me as a very unique perspective — something I, at least, had not previously encountered. Archibald has a lot to say about why we study history, and I’ll write a good bit more about his book shortly.

About ten years ago, maybe longer, I bought Franklin Garrett’s Atlanta and Environs: A Chronicle of its People and Events, a two-volume history of Atlanta that, I’ve heard, Garrett started by creating a necrology of everyone buried at Oakland Cemetery.  I had never read these books before, but ended out using them constantly throughout the project. You can read a little more about Garrett here. Garrett’s coverage of Oakland Cemetery in the two volumes is extensive; his profiles of the people of Atlanta often conclude with a statement that they’re buried at Oakland — and Garrett, too, is buried at Oakland, under a prominent headstone near the entrance to the cemetery in a plot that he shares with his wife.

There were two books that I turned to repeatedly throughout the project, that I initially used to develop an understanding of Oakland’s physical and geographic characteristics: Historic Oakland Cemetery by Tevi Taliaferro and The Historic Oakland Cemetery of Atlanta: Speaking Stones by Cathy Kaemmerlen. Both books discuss the history of the Cemetery and some of the notable people buried there, with Kaemmerlen’s book exploring the stories of some of those people in greater detail. I had the good fortune of meeting Kaemmerlen at Oakland’s Sunday in the Park Victorian Festival in October, where she engaged audiences with storytelling then signed copies of her book afterward. You can read more about Kaemmerlen at her Tattling Tales website, here.

It was from Kaemmerlen’s book that I learned that Oakland was among numerous American cemeteries that could be classified as Victorian Garden Cemeteries, created during the American Victorian era and embodying that period’s unique architectural, symbolic, and metaphorical characteristics, as well as Victorian ideas about the relationship between life and death. Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts (founded in 1831) was the first such cemetery. You can read more about the history of Mount Auburn here, and see some photos (where the similarities to Oakland are very apparent) here.

I used Thomas J. Schlereth’s Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life, 1876-1915 to help me get a better grasp on how Victorian beliefs were reflected in cemeteries like Oakland. Schlereth’s book is one of the best I’ve read about Victorian America, covering everything from the details of ordinary daily life through Victorian anxieties about modern culture through, of course, how the Victorians embraced a unique and new approach to memorializing those who passed away through elaborate funeral processions and cemetery architecture.

My exposure to some of the stories of Oakland started with Kaemmerlen then continued with the masterful book about the Leo Frank case by Steve Oney, And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank. From Oney’s book, I excerpted his evocative description of the  surreptitious Oakland burial of the ashes of Frank’s wife Lucy by her nephews in 1946, six years after she died and six months after one of her nephews had been given ashes — the long time period between her death and the secret burial of her ashes stemming from the controversy over the case and the strong current of anti-Jewish sentiment that existed in Atlanta in the 1940s. Lucy’s ashes were buried between the headstones of her parents (Emil and Josephine) with no marker — though, as Kaemmerlen notes, someone has placed a small porcelain angel marking the location of the ashes.

That small angel, between the tall gray headstones, is one of the Oakland images that will stick with me forever.

You can read more about Mary Phagan’s murder — it occurred on Confederate Memorial Day (which used to be celebrated on April 26) in 1913 — and some details about the Frank case here. I’ll come back to it in a later article also; I’m still reading Oney’s book and hope to finish it before I attend an exhibition about the case at the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum in February.

The final topic that I began to examine in the first research paper had to do with memory and memorializing — specifically, southern memorializing of the Confederacy in the post-Civil War period. To ground me in some of the theory about southern identity and southern memory, I read The Southern Past: A Clash of Race and Memory by W. Fitzhugh Brundage. Brundage does an excellent job describing southern identity in its cultural and social contexts, and his explanation of the role of women in trying to rebuild southern identity through memorials at places like Oakland was especially useful.

Hmmmmmm… I had intended to describe nearly all the resources I used in this single article, but it seems to be getting waaaaaayy too long. Since the second and third papers — where I looked at the history of Oakland’s neighborhood and how the Cemetery reflected race and class issues — brought me into contact with a very large number of books, articles, and web sites … I think I’ll clip this post here and pick up where I left off later in the week.

Thanks for reading!


  1. EHT,

    Thanks for the good words … you know, I’ve been planning for a while to do occasional retrospective articles on some of the classes I already completed … especially those that really surprised me or changed my thinking somehow … two constitutional history survey courses I took, for example, were among the toughest I ever took, but I learned so much I felt like a different person by the time I was done…. Anyway, I may take a crack at that over the next few weeks; look out for some articles called “Excerpts From My Education.” All I have is a title so far, but, hey, gotta start somewhere!

    Thanks again,


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