Tag Archives: Oakland cemetery

Cemetery of the Week #162: Oakland Cemetery

Black Angel damage

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Oakland Cemetery
1000 Brown Street, Iowa City, Iowa 52245
Founded: 1843
Size: 40 acres
Number of interments: at least 13500

In February 1843, the Iowa territorial legislature deeded one square block of land to the people of Iowa City for a public cemetery. Iowa itself didn’t attain statehood until December 28, 1846.

Since that initial city block, the cemetery has grown to forty acres. Unlike most modern cemeteries, which rely on the dividends from their perpetual care fund to pay for maintenance, Oakland Cemetery is a non-perpetual care cemetery, supported by city taxes. It’s overseen by the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.

Among the people buried beneath the oak trees are Robert E. Lucas, first governor of the Iowa territory, who served from 1838-1841; Samuel J. Kirkwood, Iowa’s two-time governor who served during the Civil War before going on to become a US senator, secretary of the interior, and then minister to Spain; several presidents of the Univerity of Iowa; and Mauricio Lasansky, an Argentine-born artist and printmaker.

Oakland Cemetery is most widely known for the supposedly cursed eight-and-a-half-foot-tall bronze angel standing over the Feldevert grave.

Born in 1836, Teresa Dolezal worked as a physician in Bohemia. After she immigrated to Iowa City with her son Eddie, she wasn’t allowed to work as a doctor, so she became a midwife.

In 1891, meningitis (an infection of the membrane around the brain) killed 18-year-old Eddie. Teresa buried him in Oakland Cemetery. To mark his grave, she chose a tree stump monument, to symbolize life cut off in its prime.

Teresa moved to Oregon and married Nicholas Feldevert. When he died in 1911, she returned to Iowa City so she could bury her husband’s ashes near her son. Teresa purchased a larger plot in Oakland Cemetery, buried her husband’s ashes there, then had her son’s remains transferred to it. Eddie’s tree stump monument was also moved to the new plot.

Teresa hired Mario Korbel, a Bohemian artist in Chicago, to mark their graves. His remarkable bronze angel arrived via the railroad in November 1912.

Twelve years later, Teresa succumbed to cancer in November 1924. Her ashes were buried in the family plot.

The bronze angel began to oxidize. Instead of taking on a green patina, as one might expect, the angel turned black. At that point, urban legends grew up around the angel.

Some say the angel was struck by lightning the night after Teresa’s funeral. Some say Teresa had vowed to remain faithful to her husband and the angel’s color revealed her infidelity. Others claim the blackened angel was evidence that Teresa had been a witch.

Urban legends swirl surround the Black Angel: if you kiss it, you could be struck dead. Pregnant women had to avoid its shadow or risk miscarriage. Only if a virgin was ever kissed in front of the statue could the curse be broken.

It’s harder to test that theory these days. Vandals have broken the angel’s fingers, so cemetery security watches visitors closely.

To be honest, the weather in Iowa is hard on bronze angels. In Council Bluffs, almost 250 miles away, a second black angel marks the grave of Ruth Ann Dodge, spiritualist wife of General Grenville M. Dodge, a Civil War veteran who became the chief engineer of the Transcontinental Railroad.

Black Angel 2

Vintage postcard from the author’s collection.


That angel, sculpted by Daniel Chester French, was created as a fountain, spilling the water of life from a basin in her hand. The figure was inspired by a dream Ruth had: a woman in a shining white gown appeared to her three times, urging her to drink from the vessel she carried. During the third time, Ruth drank — and she died a few days later. She was buried in Fairview Cemetery in 1916.

Oakland Cemetery is included in 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die.

Useful links:
Oakland Cemetery’s homepage: https://www.icgov.org/city-government/departments-and-divisions/oakland-cemetery

Prairie Ghosts report on the Black Angels

A more sensational report on the legends, which some pretty photos of the cemetery

A paranormal team’s investigation in the Press-Citizen

Findagrave listing for Ruth Ann Dodge


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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Color

St. Mary's Cemetery, Oakland, California

St. Mary’s Cemetery, Oakland, California

Tonight is my mom’s last night in San Francisco, so I’m going to hold off on writing this week’s Cemetery of the Week until tomorrow.  I have a plan, but it requires research to do it justice.

Instead, I offer this photo, taken last January, while I roamed around Oakland, California with my friend Dorian.  The picture serves as my desktop background.  I love it because it combines the complicated blue of the sky with many shades of green and the various colors of stone.

Of all the elements in a graveyard, I’d say the colors are my favorite.  There is something so restful about the combination of sky and foliage, whether it’s the deep verdant lawns in Michigan or the golden meadows of the California coast beneath the spectrum of white that makes up clouds or the unbroken cerulean of sky that stretches from horizon to horizon.  Sky blue is my favorite color, but emerald green is a very close second.

Of course, I love this photo because it captures the steepness of St. Mary’s Cemetery and the crazy lean of the old stones.  It’s not often that I can sum a cemetery up in one photograph, but this one does a good job of capturing St. Mary’s, which lies beside the wealthier and better known Mountain View Cemetery at the end of Piedmont Avenue.

Some cemeteries don’t need their own Cemetery of the Week to be enjoyable.  This one is lovely and worth a visit, if only to absorb the colors of sun and sky and stone.

Cemetery of the Week #56: Chapel of the Chimes

Interior view of the Chapel of the Chimes

Chapel of the Chimes
Also known as California Memorial Crematorium and Columbarium
4499 Piedmont Avenue, Oakland, California 94611
Telephone: 510-654-0123
Founded: 1909
Size: One and a half city blocks
Number of burials/inurnments: more than 200,000
Open: Daily, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

THIS WEEKEND: Chapel of the Chimes offers a Historical Tour on Saturday, April 21, 2012 at 10 a.m. Please RSVP to lcharles@lifemarkgroup.com.

The earliest section of the Chapel of the Chimes

The land where Oakland’s lovely Chapel of the Chimes now stands was originally the site of a trolley car station delivering people to the gates of Mountain View Cemetery (Cemetery of the Week #35). The California Crematorium Association purchased the old station in 1902 and turned it into a chapel for funeral services. Using the talents of architects Cunningham and Politeo, the Association built the first crematory on the east side of San Francisco Bay in 1909 and then added a columbarium.

The name Chapel of the Chimes is misleading. While there are several lovely chapels inside the building, its name refers to it as a place of peace and tranquility, a building of light and beauty rather than of darkness and death. The “chimes” are a carillon, installed in the building’s tower, which were repaired in 2008 after many years of disuse.

The original chapel of the columbarium still has trains schedules on the wall. The original niches are sealed by metal plaques that convey very little information, often only a last name. The second section of the columbarium began to use glass, which was brought about the Horn or shipped cross-country on trains, to protect the urns inside those niches. By the time the third section opened, the niches were left open to display the urns inside.

At Chapel of the Chimes, the niches are property sold in perpetuity to one member of a family, who can will space to only one subsequent family member. The niches are not family-owned. The standard-sized niche holds the remains of two people.

View of Morgan’s design work

In the 1920s, prominent Bay Area architect Julia Morgan (the first woman to graduate from the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris) was hired to design the magnificent Moorish Gothic addition, which includes gardens, alcoves, cloisters, fountains, and chapels. Morgan included stained glass, mosaics, European statuary, tile floors, and California faience to decorate the walls. One of her additions is a balustrade now in the cloister. She had intended the piece for Hearst Castle, but William Randolph Hearst rejected it, so it ended up here.

As you enter the Chapel of the Chimes through its ornate Gothic walkway, you pass a deMedici marble table, purchased by Morgan. Beyond that stands the Bible Cloister, which antique bibles are displayed beneath calligraphed verses. The highlight of the collection is a page from an original Gutenberg Bible.

Beyond the cloister, a breathtaking series of short stairways lead upward to fountain terraces. The eight-pointed star that recurs throughout the design is the mourning star. These hillside gardens are patterened after the Alhambra in Spain. In Moorish décor, blue tile represents water and signifies life.

Ruth Cravath’s Angel Gabriel in Repose

In the past, the gardens had their own flock of caged birds and fish swam in the ponds. Now light pours in through skylights that crank open to admit fresh air. Birds of paradise and ferns grow in the gardens. The building is unheated in the winter, so purely tropical plants wouldn’t survive. Even so, the prehistoric cycad trees are second generation. The originals broke through the glass roof and had to be replaced. In another room, the banana palms are seven years old and grow actual bananas.

In 1959, Aaron Green (a student of Frank Lloyd Wright) added the mausoleum behind the columbarium, allowing for full body interment. Chapel of the Chimes was the first space in the world to be both columbarium and mausoleum.

John Lee Hooker’s grave

The most famous resident of the Chapel of the Chimes is bluesman John Lee Hooker, King of the Boogie. To find him, you take the stairs upward from the Bible Cloister, winding through the Garden of Memory, the Garden of Promise, the Garden of Prayer, the Garden of Supplication, up to the Garden of Revelation, turn left, and take the elevator up to the third floor. Up there, turn left again and pass through the Sanctuary of Dawn and the Court of Commitment into the Court of Affirmation. Once you step beyond the confines of the map, you can’t miss John Lee Hooker’s grave on the outer wall of the newest addition to the Chapel of the Chimes.

The Chapel was granted landmark status by the City of Oakland on March 30, 1999.

Every summer solstice, the Chapel hosts a huge performance of eclectic, avant garde music. Performances rang from hand-cranked hurdy-gurdies, a cappella choirs, didgeridoo, noise music, sound experiments, and everything in between. The music ranges from challenging to meditative. Musicians perform in shifts, tucked into every nook and garden of the columbarium. It’s a wonder to behold. This year’s Garden of Memories concert is scheduled for June 21, from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tickets are required, but aren’t on sale yet.

Useful links:

The Chapel of the Chimes website

The Chapel’s events newsletter and calendar, as a .pdf download

Last year’s Soltice Concert program

Pictures of Julia Morgan’s contributions to the Chapel of the Chimes

Related burial grounds on Cemetery Travel:

Week #30: the The Neptune Society Columbarium in San Francisco

Week #35: Mountain View Cemetery, Oakland, California

A Guide to Mountain View Cemetery

Mountain View CemeteryMountain View Cemetery by Dennis Evanosky

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Dennis Evanosky is a docent at Mountain View Cemetery. I’ve taken one of his tours and heard him speak passionately about the work he’s done researching and caring for the Grand Army of the Republic plot in the cemetery. He’s extremely committed to his subject.

This book, unfortunately, skims along the depth of his knowledge. Almost every section could be longer. Each of the local personages he mentions rates a page of his or her own, rather than the paragraph they receive. Worse, the chief disappointment is that photos are not well reproduced. They tend to be muddy and gray, without much artistry or contrast. This beautiful place deserves better.

That said, I like the way Evanosky combined a portrait of the person, a photo of the grave monument, and other historical material, whether a photo of the person’s home or business or perhaps an advertisement. Reading this book, I get a sense of the city Oakland once was.

I also like the section toward the back where Evanosky uses the monuments in Mountain View to illustrate mortuary symbolism. That’s really nicely done.

I waver between 3 stars and 4 for this book. I learned a fair amount, but I wished for more. In fact, I wish that Mountain View Cemetery had a lovely full-color guide like Cypress Lawn: Guardian of California’s Heritage.

The Mountain View Cemetery book isn’t listed on Amazon, but you can order a copy direct from the author here.

View all my reviews on Goodreads.

Cemetery of the Week #35: Mountain View Cemetery