Tag Archives: Georgia cemetery

The Symbols of Oakland Cemetery

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 a_G9B5906 pag 2

All the cemetery photos in this article are by Dinny Harper Addison. Used by permission.

“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.

mcnamara angel_MG_2641 page 3

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.

neal 100 slides of oakland024 page 4

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.

niobe_MG_2666 page 5

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.

lion_G9B8092 page 6

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 page 7Richard 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.


Death's Garden001About 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.

Cemetery as garden and vice versa

Gardens and Graveyards of the Southeastern Seaboard: A Photographic JourneyGardens and Graveyards of the Southeastern Seaboard: A Photographic Journey by Henry Clay Childs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“The lure of silent places — gardens can be as tranquil as graveyards — leads each of us more easily to reflection and remembrance, revelation and joy.” That sentiment inspires this gorgeous full-color photo book. Every page is graced by a 7 x 9-inch photo, which reproduces a rainbow of greens and grays, highlighted with bright flowers.

On his travels between Popes Creek, Virginia and Cumberland Island, Georgia, Henry Clay Childs stopped off to visit the only unaltered American colonial church, graves of the earliest European settlers as well as George Washington’s ancestors, graveyards of villages abandoned after the Civil War, and the elegant cemeteries of Savannah.

Childs saw a graveyard anywhere dreams were buried and a garden wherever flowers bloomed, so there’s a great deal of fluidity in this definitions. This book will delight anyone who takes pleasure in beauty, whether they’ve previously been cemetery aficionados or not.

Even your mom might like these beautiful photographs.

These books are going for a song on Amazon.

View all my reviews on Goodreads.

Historic Bonaventure Cemetery

Historic Bonaventure Cemetery:: Photographs from the Collection of the Georgia Historical SocietyHistoric Bonaventure Cemetery:: Photographs from the Collection of the Georgia Historical Society by Historical Society Georgia

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another in the series of books which collect historic photographs of America, Historic Bonaventure Cemetery, like Images of America: New Orleans Cemeteries, contains hundreds of black-and-white photographs, all concentrated on the lovely moss-draped graveyard in Savannah, Georgia.

Bonaventure began life as a plantation three miles east of downtown Savannah. During the American Revolution, the original owners backed the wrong side and were exiled when their lands were seized for treason. One of the sons bought the land back in 1785 and was eventually elected governor of Georgia. His wife and four infant children were buried on the plantation, where their graves survive today. In June 1868, the plantation was landscaped by a cemetery company in the style of the picturesque northern garden cemeteries—accent, here, on garden.

The book’s illustrations are primarily drawn from the collection of the Georgia Historical Society, augmented with the authors’ modern photos. Some of my favorite images are the picture postcards so common from the Victorian era. Unfortunately, the writing on the backs of the cards is not reproduced; I missed being able to read, “Visited this cemetery, thought of you, wish you were here, etc.” In the spirit of souvenirs are the stereopticon cards (here represented by a single photo) of corseted young women seated along the roadside, awaiting their carriage home, or the picnickers seated before the tombstone over which they’ve flung a blanket—so not to be troubled in the graveyard by the ominous reminder of mortality?

In fact, for a book about a cemetery, Historic Bonaventure Cemetery stints on the photos of monuments. There are some beauts: the angel cradling the scallop shell birdbath in her arms, the exquisite floral wreath executed in marble by an Italian craftsman, the life-sized sculpture of Little Gracie with her nautical dress and button boots. I would have preferred if the book had showcased more of these artworks and fewer vistas of moss-swathed trees. Still, I find I cannot be disappointed when faced with so much melancholy loveliness. If anything, Historic Bonaventure Cemetery makes me yearn to see the place for myself.

You can get your own copy of the book from Amazon.

View all my reviews on Goodreads.

Cemetery of the Week #131: Bonaventure Cemetery

Promenading at Bonaventure. Vintage postcard with undivided back, pre-1907.

Promenading at Bonaventure. Vintage postcard with undivided back, pre-1907.

Bonaventure Cemetery
330 Bonaventure Road
Thunderbolt, Georgia 31404
Telephone: (912) 651-6843
Founded: 1802
Size: nearly 100 acres
Number of interments: more than 30,000
Open: Daily 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

2017 Update:  the cemetery offers a free tour at 2 pm on the Saturday preceding the second Sunday of each month. (More information and the schedule are here.)  They also offer a smartphone app that replicates the tour. Of the $4.99 cost, $3.50 goes toward the restoration fund.  You can find out more about it here.


In Colonial-era Georgia, John Mullryne and his son-in-law Josiah Tattnall owned around 10,000 acres. Their holdings included 600 acres on St. Augustine Creek, three miles outside of Savannah. This is where they built the family plantation, which they called Bonaventure, or “good fortune” in French.

Unfortunately, both Mullryne and Tattnall were British loyalists and were banished during the Revolutionary War. During the Siege of Savannah, French and Haitian troops landed at Bonaventure, which overlooks a bend in the Wilmington River. The house was used as a hospital. Given the state of medicine at the time, it’s likely that Revolution-era soldiers were buried on the property. Their graves are no longer marked, if they ever were.

In 1782, Georgia nationalized the property of loyalists and Bonaventure was sold at auction. It took until 1788 for Josiah Tattnall Jr. to regain the plantation.

As most rural families did, the Mullrynes and Tattnalls set aside a small plot for a family burial ground. In 1802, Harriet Fenwick Tattnall was the first adult known to be interred there. The next year, Josiah was buried next to her. Of their nine children, six are buried nearby.

In 1846, the Tattnall family sold the plantation to a prominent Savannah hotelier named Wiltberger, with the provision that he would continue to care for the family plot. The following year, Wiltberger incorporated 70 acres as the Evergreen Cemetery of Bonaventure. Two years later, Wiltberger joined the Tattnalls as one of the first new permanent residents.

Modern postcard of Bonaventure Cemetery on top and Forsyth Park below

Modern postcard of Bonaventure Cemetery on top and Forsyth Park below

The City of Savannah website boasts, “This charming site has been a world-famous tourist destination for more than 150 years, due to the old tree-lined roadways, the many notable persons interred, the unique cemetery sculpture and architecture, and the folklore associated with the site and the people.”

In fact, John Muir camped in the cemetery in September 1867 and fell in love with the wildlife, birds, and the oaks draped with Spanish moss. The cemetery was, he wrote, “so beautiful that almost any sensible person would choose to dwell here with the dead.”

The city of Savannah bought the Evergreen Cemetery in 1907 and changed its name to Bonaventure Cemetery. It was placed on the National Registry of Historic Places in 2001. The American Resting Place reports that the garden cemetery is “considered by many to be the most beautiful and romantic in the entire South.” Marilyn Yalom, author of the book, says that the best time to visit Bonaventure Cemetery is at the end of March, when “you will be dazzled by the profusion of pink, red, and white azaleas.”

Vintage postcard of Live Oak Drive

Vintage postcard of Live Oak Drive

Confederate generals Claudius Charles Wilson and Hugh W. Mercer are buried here. Great grandson Johnny Mercer, who crooned “Moon River,” is also here, beside his mother who was murdered by his father when Johnny was a child. Their plot has a curved white marble bench inscribed with some of his song lyrics. Also here is Conrad Aiken, a poet who wrote more than 50 books, but may be best known for editing a collection of Emily Dickinson’s poetry and introducing her work to the world. His grave also has a bench, where poets can sit and have a drink.

The most widely known monument in Bonaventure was the Bird Girl, which was featured on the cover of the 1994 novel Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. It was one of a set of four bronze statues made by sculptor Sylvia Shaw Judson in 1936. The Trousdal family bought one of them to adorn their family plot. After the success of the novel, the statue drew so many visitors to the graveyard that tourists disturbed the adjacent graves. The stature was moved to the Telfair Museum of Art for its own protection. It’s on long-term loan from the family. John David “Jack” Leigh II, photographer of the iconic photograph, also rests in Bonaventure Cemetery.

The Bonaventure Historical Society strongly recommends a stop at the Visitors Center, located in the lobby of the Administration Building at the entrance to Bonaventure. There you can pick up a copy of their 16-page guide.

If you visit on the weekend of the second Sunday of the month, the Bonaventure Historical Society offers free walking tours, starting at the intersection of Mullryne and Wiltberger Ways. On that Saturday, guides leave at 2 p.m. On Sunday, guides will depart at 2, 2:30, and 3 p.m. A typical tour lasts about an hour. No reservations are necessary. They advise you to bring water and sunscreen.

Useful links:

Bonaventure Historical Society’s history page

City of Savannah site for Bonaventure, with maps and directions

Trip Advisor has more than 600 photographs of Bonaventure

More photos and some ghost stories

A reasonably-priced, downloadable walking tour of Bonaventure, Laurel Grove Cemetery, and Colonial Cemetery:

Cemetery of the Week #46: the Martin Luther King Jr. gravesite

A vintage postcard of Martin Luther King Jr.’s grave, before Mrs. King joined him.

The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change
450 Auburn Avenue NE
Atlanta, Georgia 30312
Telephone: (404) 893-9882
Moved to current location: 1970
Number of interments: 2
Open: The tomb is outdoors and open all year.

After his assassination in Memphis by James Earl Ray in April 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s body was brought home to Atlanta. A farm wagon, drawn by mules, carried his coffin to Atlanta’s South-View Cemetery, where his parents would later be buried.

South-View Cemetery was founded in 1886 by nine former slaves who were barred from the whites-only graveyards. Because of this, South-View is the oldest African-American not-for profit corporation in the United States. It serves as the final resting place for over 70,000 African-Americans and others, regardless of race or religion.

Dr. King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, opened the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in the basement of the couple’s home in June 1968. In 1970, she had his body moved to a new tomb on a cleared lot east of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Dr. King had preached. The tomb was faced with Georgia marble, in order to “acknowledge his southern roots.”

The grave site has evolved over time. Originally, it held only the white marble crypt with an epitaph taken from his I Have a Dream speech: “Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, I’m free at last.” In 1976, a memorial park was built around the marble crypt. It consisted of a brick and concrete plaza ringed by an arch-covered walkway. In time, the raked gravel directly around the sarcophagus was replaced by a reflecting pool, with King’s crypt on a raised pedestal in the middle.

An Eternal Flame was added in 1977. It symbolizes the continuing effort to realize Dr. King’s dream of the “Beloved Community”: his vision for a world of justice, peace, and equality for all mankind.

Coretta Scott King died in January 2006 from a stroke and complications of ovarian cancer. She was initially interred in a smaller white tomb near Dr. King’s grave until a sarcophagus to match his could be constructed. She joined her husband, from whom she had been separated for almost 40 years, on February 7, 2006. Her epitaph comes from I Corinthians: “And now abide Faith, Hope, Love, these three; but the greatest of these is Love.”

Mrs. King worked tirelessly to establish Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a national holiday. She spoke before Congress many times and continued her husband’s work through the Center in his name that she had founded.

News photo of laying flowers at MLK’s original gravesite

A full schedule of events to celebrate Dr. King’s 83rd birthday, observed next Monday, is available here.

Useful links:

The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change Museum & Archive

The National Park Service National Historic Site

Yelp reviews of visits to King’s grave

South-View Cemetery’s website

Other Civil Rights sites on Cemetery Travel:

Cemetery of the Week #50: Gravesite of Sojourner Truth, Oak Hill Cemetery, Battle Creek, Michigan

Cemetery of the Week #65: African Burial Ground National Monument, New York City