I’m going to be studying Atlanta’s historic Oakland Cemetery for my Exploring Place: History class. I had planned to do something similar for a couple of my past classes, but ended out choosing other topics that at the time were more in tune with the course material. Now, however, with the class focused on the significance of a historical or community place, research on Oakland was an excellent fit. I’ll be doing a three-part paper, with one part focusing on the cemetery’s history, one part discussing the cemetery’s art, symbolism, and architecture, and one part assessing the meaning of the its role as a significant place in the community.
Until two weekends ago — despite living less than a mile away from the cemetery for just about three years — I had not been on the property, and had only once or twice peeked over the brick walls that surround the entire 88 acres.
The walls themselves are about five feet high, higher in some places or at least so constructed to contour with hills on the property that they seem higher. As soon as you pass through the gate, you can’t help but get the feeling — as the streets, cars, and pedestrians all disappear from view — that you’ve left your whole world outside. And despite the freight trains just beyond the walls, and the occasional Marta train passing through the air nearby, silence follows you in.
As you walk forward, you pass a guardhouse (I should get a picture of that), and you’re usually greeted if not by a person then at least by the muffled sounds of a radio transmission: a baseball game or a bit of music. You imagine, even though you don’t see it, that it’s an old radio, one of the first ones ever made, and you somehow know exactly what it looks like. By the time you walk a few more feet to the Welcome to Oakland sign, you’re very nearly disoriented: there’s something slightly disconcerting about passing dozens of headstones and a few mausoleums then coming in contact with a welcome sign. Yet that’s one of the most fascinating things about being there: the slightly edgy sense that you’re disconnected from the place as you visit it, and the sense that memory, history, architecture, art, beauty, sadness, and grief are all juxtaposed there — and that once you see it, you can’t possibly forget what you’ve seen.
I really had no idea what to expect, and that’s what has hit me from attending just one guided tour and from my three solitary visits to take pictures: I had no idea what to expect. I’m not sure I know what else to expect, either; which, in case you haven’t figured it out, is my reason for writing this piece.
On my very first visit there, I paid for my spot on the tour, then sat outside the visitor center, since I was a few minutes early. I turned my head to the left….
… and I suspect that for the rest of my life, this image will coincide with the word “gray” whenever I see it, say it, hear it, or write it. Who is this “Gray” who’s buried beneath this stone’s frozen grief? I have no idea; but believe me, by the time I’m done, I’ll know.
The tour guide took us through nearly the entire property; I had thought it might take an hour or so, but took well over two. By the time we were finished, I had a pretty good sense of the layout of the grounds and about the key historical figures who are buried or entombed there, and left with at least a smattering of knowledge about how the the cemetery fit into Atlanta’s history. The rest of my research will take place around a half-dozen more tours, each of which focuses on one aspect of the cemetery and its history, or on its architecture and symbolism.
It’s hard to imagine what I’ll think of this place by the time I’m done. There’s so much more than any one thing to think about that it’s almost overwhelming, and I feel like I’ll become (if I’ve not already become) immersed in it and obsessed with it. It has objective significance as a place of history; it has subjective significance as a place of emotion and memory. It’s crowded and hard to navigate in some areas; in others — like where 17,000 unidentified people are buried in an area called Potter’s field — the space is so wide and open it leaves you breathless. The sights and scenes are sometimes difficult to photograph, yet at the same time thrilling to photograph — as you watch how the magnolias and oaks, green lawns, stone, and light all interact, changing by the second, becoming especially beautiful as the sun sets and evening folds in. It’s life and death, moving and still.
There’s so much to see, so much to contemplate and wonder about. I still have tons yet to learn, and of course in addition to the tours I have a foot-high stack of books and articles to wade through. So for now, I can only write from what I feel about it, from my reaction to what I’ve seen so far, and from the images I’ve accumulated with my camera and inside my head.
As you might expect from a cemetery in the South, there are monuments to the Civil War, Confederate soldiers, and the Confederacy, such as this one:
And there’s this one, the “Lion of Atlanta” that memorializes the thousands of unknown southern soldiers — and parts of soldiers — buried in one section of the cemetery:
But there are also angels:
and sights very beautiful:
and sights that are almost too difficult to contemplate or see…
… all reminding you that — after all — it’s a cemetery … where the living and the dead, where the present and the past, where our love of life and our acceptance of how short it is … all, somehow, converge.