Some people may find this odd but I like to visit cemeteries. On a personal level, one of my fondest memories with cemeteries was discovering the graves of my paternal great-grandparents. One time, my dad and I along with his sister went to the cemetery where my aunt believed my great-grandparents were buried (she couldn’t remember the name of it, she just knew that it was a Ukrainian cemetery and its approximate location). Thankfully we did succeed in finding the cemetery as well as their graves (just like with the Philadelphia phone book, my great-grandparents appeared to be the only ones in the St. Josaphat Cemetery with the Tulba surname.
So yes, I enjoy visiting cemeteries for family connections but I also like going to those that I have no ties to. As you know I am a history lover and there is no better place to “see the past” than at a historic cemetery, one whose origins go back centuries. Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery can definitely be included in this.
As was the case with many cities during this time, Oakland Cemetery came about because by the mid-19th century, the city of Atlanta had outgrown its downtown municipal cemetery. (Remember, at this time mortality rates were significantly higher than they are today so the dying business was always a busy one.) Oakland was created to take that place, and in 1850, six acres of farmland on the edge of the city were purchased. Oakland grew to what it is today (48 acres) after Atlanta became THE economic powerhouse of the South in addition to needing to bury the remains of thousands of soldiers from the Civil War.
What makes Oakland Cemetery so unique is that it is one of the rare “rural garden cemeteries,” a style that was “in” during the Victorian era and was marked by elaborate mausoleums, striking monuments, and a garden landscape that looks straight out of a Renoir painting. But as I would learn, Oakland Cemetery wasn’t just home to the well-off demographic, it was also the final resting place for indigent people.
And even a cemetery was not exempt” from the evils of segregation. Until 1963, the only area African Americans could be buried in Oakland was in the African American burial ground. According to cemetery records, it’s believed that 12,000 African Americans are buried in Oakland since its founding in 1850.
Another thing I found particularly fascinating about Oakland was that it is also home to a Jewish section. Seeing graves with Hebrew lettering right in the thick of one of the American South’s most famous cemeteries was a sight I wouldn’t think one would see too often.
You can also find the grave of the woman who wrote that epic novel that only a few people ever read…
(Surprisingly, there was nothing on her grave. I thought for sure there would be something left behind by an ardent fan.)
And one of the main reasons I wanted to go was for its Civil War ties. It’s home to 7,000 soldiers that died in the Civil War as well as some notable generals. I was more interested in paying my respects to the row after row of “average” soldiers, those who didn’t have a prestigious family name or extreme wealth, they just fought for their country because that’s what they believed in, a trait that has been the case since the beginning of mankind.
I’ve been to some pretty well-known cemeteries over the years but this might just be my favorite one. It was a beautiful place to explore, a neat way to learn about history, and the perfect spot for a peaceful outing.
Tips for visiting!
Open: From dawn until dusk, 365 days a year
248 Oakland Avenue, SEAtlanta, GA 30312
Pubic transportation: Take the MARTA (the blue or green line) to the King Memorial station. It’s a five minute walk to the cemetery then.
Bring water and be sure to apply sunblock before going (there are plenty of shady areas
but there are also many areas where there is no protection from the sun).
I recommend purchasing the $4 Self-Guided Tour and Map from the Visitor’s Center. It was invaluable in locating certain graves and sections.