by Richard Waterhouse
We all have quiet, calm places that we go to during times of transition. Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery has always been that place for me.
My first encounter with the cemetery was in 1988, when I was at Georgia State (campus is a short walk). I had the opportunity to be in the Georgia State Players production of Our Town. I played the character who comes back after being gone for many years and strikes up a conversation with the gravedigger. The person playing the gravedigger and I decided to come out to Oakland Cemetery and practice our parts there to give us the authenticity of a cemetery.
In 1989, I was looking for a place to become a tour guide. The Atlanta Preservation Center was looking for guides, so I began my lifelong love of and dedication to the cemetery. When I first started doing tours, there were just 15 of us. Now, there are over 145 guides and gift shop volunteers. At the beginning, we each did tours every three weeks; now we do one about every two months.
I started leading tours before the bell tower was opened as the gift shop, with refreshments and bathroom facilities. Back in the beginning, you brought your own water for the tour. On one of my first tours, I parked the car halfway along the tour route. On that incredibly hot summer day, we all hovered around the car and drank water at the mid-point of the tour.
In the early 1990s, I became friends with the sexton of the cemetery. He let me know of a couple grave plots for sale near the grave of Bobby Jones, who won the grand slam of golf in 1930: the U.S. Amateur, the U.S. Open, the British Amateur, and the British Open. I purchased the plots, but since I am not a golfer myself, I will probably spend eternity chasing golf balls for Bobby Jones.
The two most-visited graves in Oakland are Bobby Jones (1902-1971) and Margaret Mitchell (1900-1949), author of Gone with the Wind. That book has been translated into over 40 languages. In 1939, the movie premiered in Atlanta. You can still visit the Georgian Terrace, the hotel where Clark Gable (Rhett Butler) and Vivian Leigh (Scarlet O’Hara) stayed during the premiere. I just recently had lunch there and could still feel the ambiance of the Gone with the Wind days.
I became fascinated by the Victorian symbols throughout Oakland Cemetery and put together a special Victorian Symbolism Tour in 2000. (When I created it, there were only 4 special tours offered. Now there are more than 15.) In 2010, I turned that tour into a book called Sacred Symbols of Oakland: A Guide to the Many Sacred Symbols of Atlanta’s Oldest Public Cemetery, which is still for sale in the Oakland gift shop. (Ed. note: And on Amazon!)
Because I’ve spent so much time in Oakland, I thought it might be fun to share my 5 favorite monuments.
“Our Thomas” was placed in 1870, a memorial for a child who died way too young. Thomas has turned into a baby angel, a guardian and messenger from God. He kneels on a pillow, which suggests sleeping, because the Christian Victorians believed that death was a resting place before the Second Coming. Next to this monument is a broken column covered with a mantle. A broken column signifies that the life of the person buried there was cut short. The mantle symbolizes the area between life and death. If you are on one side of the mantle, you are alive. On the other side, you are dead.
Sculptures like “Our Thomas” were originally designed without wings to grace English gardens. Wings were added later, designed for cemeteries to convey how many children died so young from diphtheria, smallpox, and influenza because vaccinations were not available. These child angels appear in Victorian cemeteries throughout the United States.
Notice the skyline of Atlanta in the background of the photograph. One of the stunning juxtapositions in Oakland is the old historical part of the cemetery against the vista of contemporary buildings outside its walls. At night, when all the buildings are lit, they cast an eerie glow on the monuments.
The McNamara angel was completed around 1901. Angels act as guardians, messengers, and protectors of the dead. The Latin cross implies resurrection, referring to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross for our sins. Notice the “IHS” on the cross, the first three letters, transliterated, of “Jesus” in Greek. On the angel’s brow sits a five-pointed star, which indicates heavenly wisdom. She holds a utensil to write down the good deeds of the person buried below so that he or she can have eternal life.
On March 14, 2008, the cemetery was hit by a major tornado. Even though the cross behind her toppled, our angel remained standing, protecting the area around her.
During World War I, Atlanta Irish immigrants buried their dead in this part of the cemetery. Since they did not have permanent homes, male immigrants of draft age listed Oakland as their residence. The Atlanta War Office could not understand why so many men listed one place as their residence.
The angel, minus a few fingers because of the tornado, points towards heaven, guiding souls. If you have visited Victorian cemeteries throughout the United States, you have seen many things point towards heaven, including obelisks.
This is the Wife and Daughter Neal Monument, one of the prominent monuments on the Oakland Cemetery Overview Tour. It was completed in 1874 and shows the rich array of symbols the Victorians used to commemorate the dead.
The Celtic cross stands for eternal life and Christ sacrificing himself for our sins. The books are probably bibles: the closed one suggests a life guided to completion by the Scriptures; the open one illustrates the spiritual wisdom that leads to an eternal life heavenward, the direction of the statue’s gaze. The laurel wreath and palm branch signify victory over death and the triumph of eternal life.
This was the first gravesite to be part of Oakland’s Adopt-A-Plot Program, for which individuals and businesses volunteer to preserve and maintain designated monuments and their immediate surroundings.
The Gray Weeping Woman, completed in 1917, tells a story inherited from classical Greek mythology about Niobe, Queen of Thebes. Like most proud mothers, Niobe talked incessantly about her many children. Because she was supposed to be worshipping the goddess Leto, this bragging did not go over very well. Leto had her very powerful children Artemis and Apollo kill Niobe’s children.
In Victorian cemeteries, Niobe is portrayed as the eternally grieving mother. The legend of this particular monument is that, on a full moon night, you can see tears streaming down her face.
The wreath of laurel represents immortality, since the leaves never wilt or fade. Chiefly a symbol of victory, however, the wreath emanates a somber ambiguity when Niobe’s defeat is remembered.
This is the Lion of Atlanta, completed in 1894.The Atlanta Ladies Memorial erected “Lion of Atlanta” to honor approximately three thousand unknown Confederate dead buried in this area. The marble came from Tate, Georgia and was the largest piece quarried in the United States at the time.The sculpture by Canton, Georgia artist T.M Brady (1849-1907) portrays a lion lying on a Confederate battle flag. The lion embodies courage, majesty, strength, and valor. The firm foundation of the rock it lies on suggests that the soldiers died for a cause they believed in. The flag illustrates unity and the rifle indicates the power of the confederacy.
The Confederate lion is modeled after the Lion of Lucerne in Switzerland by Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770-1844). That sculpture was completed in 1819 as a memorial to Swiss Army Guards slain protecting Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI during the French Revolution.
The power and grandeur of Oakland Cemetery can be captured in the five images portrayed in this article, but they are not a substitute for an actual visit to this extraordinary outdoor museum. I have been very lucky that I found Oakland in 1988. I continue to learn new facts about the cemetery every time I visit.
Richard Waterhouse has led tours of Oakland Cemetery since 1989. In 2000, he designed an Oakland “ramble” that spotlighted its symbols. In 2006, he founded Waterhouse Symbolism to research and document gravestone symbols internationally. As part of the organization, Richard sends out a monthly e-newsletter on symbols throughout the world. If you want to subscribe, send him an email at rwsymbolism at gmail dot com.
Richard currently serves as Manager of Leadership Giving of Georgia Public Broadcasting Media in Atlanta, Georgia.
About the Death’s Garden project:
For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation. The submissions guidelines are here.