An ill-timed school break … A cancelled camping trip … An inscrutable government shutdown …
Such phrases incite more terror in the hearts of working parents than any horror flick. No malevolent being could match the bitter moan of boredom emanating from troubled tykes, much less the piercing shriek of a Scout hearing all National Parks are closed. Sorry Shakespeare, but now is the weekend of our discontent. Lest we be doomed to writhe in agony with these restless souls, we conjured last-minute schemes for entertainment to soothe our angry mob and their activity demands for “something cool, different, outside, and, maybe, Halloween-y.” My own requirements–low-cost, close-by, and no reservation required–allowed our family the prime opportunity to act as tourists in our own city, exploring sites overlooked during our regularly-scheduled programming. Oakland Cemetery surfaced on the short list as a place we’d heard about for years, yet never visited. The online discovery their annual Victorian Street Festival coincided with our wide-open agenda, setting our course.
Strolling through the gates of Oakland rewarded our endeavor with an unforgettable dose of history and the discovery of a new favorite spot downtown. The burial place for famous locals, from Confederate leaders, to Margaret Mitchell and Bobby Jones, to trailblazers like Maynard Jackson, Oakland originated with 6 acres of private land purchased in 1850 by city leaders. The Civil War obviously necessitated huge expansion of the grounds, reaching current size of 48 acres by 1867. In 1976, the cemetery earned recognition on the National Register of Historic Places and the Historic Oakland Foundation was established to preserve this hauntingly beautiful landmark, where 70,000 “residents” echo their stories.
Civil War History
About 7000 soldiers rest at Oakland after sacrificing their lives during the Civil War. Many perished in local military hospitals, others died during the Atlanta Campaign, and still more were relocated or memorialized here after falling on some distant battleground. The towering Confederate Obelisk stands sentry to these honored souls, while nearby, the famed Lion of Atlanta mourns 3000 unknown Confederate dead buried in anonymity. The Battle of Atlanta raged just east of the current Oakland boundaries, and spies were hung from gallows in the far corner. From generals to infantrymen to brave civilians, the markers read like a catalogue of characters straight out of Gone with the Wind, with author Margaret Mitchell interred fittingly among them.
Sculpture and Monuments
Rising all around, intricate stoneworks tell those tales of triumph and tragedy that link each of us on this human journey. Many display grand examples of art and architecture–Neoclassical, Greek & Egyptian Revival, Gothic, and Victorian, authentic Tiffany-stained glass. Others impress historical significance, whether by intent, such as the Confederate Obelisk, or merely by presence alone. The Ladies Memorial Section, Slave Square, Jewish Hill, Potters Field … just reading the map sets the course for a walk through the past. How poignant to view the family plots cradling rows of tiny markers for infants and children succumbing to common illnesses that, now, are simply treated with antibiotics today; or the jubilant inscriptions of those born into slavery who died free citizens.
Gardens and Botanical Preservation
Oakland’s importance resonates not only from its inhabitants and artistry, but also as the city’s oldest formal cemetery and one of its largest greenspaces. The Victorian era carried with it a “garden-cemetery” movement felt at Oakland. Disease and death, so pervasive during this period, stirred the elevation of memorial to an art form. While it may seem macabre, the tradition of adorning gravesites grew from a desire to celebrate the lives of those lost and provide a peaceful place for mourners to visit. As such, plots were truly cultivated and planted with favored flowers or sentimental botanicals, or seedlings shared with other families and tended for years. Those efforts developed a lush landscape of heirloom and heritage plants, many no longer commercially available. In addition to the flowers and shrubs, Oakland’s acres are shaded by an arborteum of over 1000 trees. Again, many of these speak of long-forgotten symbolism, some chosen for their branches weeping toward the ground and others stretching upward to heaven. All contribute to the tangible tranquility, encouraging quiet moments of reflection while nestled beneath ample boughs.
Tours and Events
Distinctive tours by educated guides enlighten visitors with rich details and expert storytelling. General tours run on a regular schedule, and specialty tours rotate through the calendar exploring over a dozen different themes. There are even some self-guided tour apps available for download, steering listeners through the park with GPS. For a limited time each October, the gates stay open late for the Capturing the Spirit of Oakland Halloween Tours, amping up the creep factor with “character” narration and candlelit mausoleums. (These regularly sell out, so reserve tickets online at oaklandcemetery.com; beer and wine are available for sale, and kids should be over 8 for this one!)
Other events showcase the treasures of Oakland throughout the year. In October, the annual Run Like Hell 5K winds through the cemetery and into Grant Park with a costume contest following the race. The Victorian Street Festival, held since 1979, invites participants to enjoy tours, music, food vendors, and historical tableaux, encouraging period dress. Summertime brings the popular Tunes from the Tombs music festival. The Historic Oakland Foundation also allows venue rental for private use.
Whether history buff, garden enthusiast, local-culture connoisseur, or curious soul, a visit to Oakland exceeds any possible expectation. Plan an excursion long enough to catch the full spirit … or spirits.
Tips for a Day Trip:
- Take a tour or two.
- Download a podcast or purchase a detailed map for a self-guided stroll.
- Explore each path winding through the gardens.
- Peruse the many books and resources at the Visitors Center.
- Read under the trees, picnic in Potters Field or …
- Cross the street to grab a beer and po-boy at Six Feet Under Pub & Fish House — Sit up on the roof deck for a spectacular view of the entire cemetery.