For the first 46 years of its existence, Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery had no walls. Nothing divided the city’s dead from its living. It wasn’t until 1896, more than a decade after all of the plots inside the property had been sold, that the area was enclosed, demarcating the location as a space you might be either inside or outside of. The walls it has now are made of brick; at night, they chain the fences, locking the landmark in silence to itself near the center of the city, while just outside the walls the world goes on, surrounded on all sides by traffic, nightlife, thousands of renovated loft apartment homes.
The cemetery, as a landscape, is alive. In comparison to other major cities, Atlanta is green almost throughout; in fact, with more than 36% of its area covered in trees, it is the most densely forested urban location of its size, to the extent it’s often referred to as “a city in a forest.” And yet, to enter the grounds of Oakland — so named for its abundance of oaks and magnolias — feels like entering another world, or at least a world within a world, a limning space wherein time rolls back, revives a prior era, a feeling at once sublime and, just underneath that, horribly scarred.
In some ways, this transportative feeling must be derived from the age of the area compared to everything around it. The Union’s historic march under Sherman in the November of 1864 left most of the downtown area in rubble or flames; the cemetery and its neighborhood is one of the oldest remaining locations inside city lines, a rare physical relic among so much else reduced to ash. As a result, the cemetery acts as a kind of historical index to its surroundings; countless names of parks, schools, streets, and other landmarks find their name chiseled into family headstones and mausoleums. Nowhere could it be more clear that the ground we walk on is crowded with the legacy of those who came before us, for better and for worse.
A significant number of the headstones, particularly those on the original six acres of Oakland, are all but illegible, their namesakes and dedications worn to blur. Faint traces of engravings float over the flat of the stone like someday soon they might disappear altogether. Some of the inscriptions seem to weep, the water running for decades between the nubs of relieved language. Others, set face up in the ground, have turned a darker color, or stand speckled, whorled, pockmarked in wholly arbitrary patterns dictated by the weather, the light.
Other inscriptions, perhaps often by those who could afford more hardy arrangements, remain bold despite the visible wear of their cut stone, enduring their erosion, at least for now. “HOME AT LAST,” one headstone reads, formalizing the interred’s place below as if he was always meant to be there. Most tributary fragments speak grandly and say absolutely nothing at all, a pastiche of hyperbole and prayer. “Asleep in Jesus” is at least as popular around here as “Rest in Peace.” Others extend their metaphors still further, as if trying to command their direction in death by will alone: “Made perfect through suffering.” “Peace to his ashes.” “Passed through death into life.” “I died the death of the righteous.” “One more in heaven.” Then there are the more plainspoken, open inscriptions: one says, just, “Passed.” Another plot lies marked only with the title “Mrs. Duffy,” all other details buried like her body beneath a plot itself completely overrun with wilding ferns and rising weeds.
This state of unkemptness is not uncommon at Oakland; in fact, part of its charm is its status as a non-perpetual care facility, leaving the bulk of maintenance to the survivors of the interred. Correspondingly, the upkeep of plots varies greatly from one to the next, ranging from rigorously landscaped to so overgrown it’s hard to tell where any marker actually is. Some choose to provide benches so that those who come to visit might have a place to sit and stay awhile, if not forever.
The earth seems to want to take the dedicatory monuments back, bury them too: crabgrass grows over brick; weeds push through gravel; fallen leaves obscure cracked slabs of damaged headstones left in splay. Somewhere there is a half a stairwell that leads to nothing but an empty plot, more dirt. I will never forget, almost a decade ago now, finding one woman’s plot completely overrun with sunflowers risen so high they were over my head, impossible to see anything beyond them. In vast contrast to that memory, I now watch a small crew of maintenance workers struggle to start a Weed Eater, and then take it to mow down the dandelions strewn in improbably across another site on the far side of the graveyard, doing whatever they can to keep the general incursion of natural proclivity at bay.
One thing I never can remember is if you’re not supposed to walk across the graves. Doing so feels strange, regardless, as if the soil is more tender, aware. As a younger person, I was careful to move around the lines where the bodies might be, as if they could feel my footsteps, but over years my reverence has loosened; today, I step wherever, taking pictures of the headstones with only a pinch of liability for how the shutter of the lens might feel to a spirit. Most other people don’t seem to consider such distinctions. One of Oakland’s more obvious features is its use by locals as a site of recreation; joggers regularly pass along the paved aisles between the plots. The site is also regularly used to host public events: festivals, weddings, concerts, even parades. Much of the site is treated like a park, underlining some peculiar mode of common comfort that seems innate to Southern living: How dead are the dead really? Where does the end actually end? There is a depth about the air here, especially in summer, as if the whole mass of the land is already underwater, the humidity so heavy you might forget how to breathe.
As if to reinforce the presence of the living in the presence of the dead, along the wall lining the perimeter, the living world waits looming in relief. A commercial district spans the whole southern wall, including a tattoo parlor, a mechanic, several restaurants and bars. A sign proffering COLD BEER and CATFISH stands in plain view of at least a couple hundred plots, overlooked by a rooftop patio, which on nice nights is full of people drinking, buzzing. Beyond other lengths of wall, railcars pass less than a couple hundred feet from children buried beside their mothers. The marks of gentrification in an area that has seen countless projects torn down for loft apartment homes mirrors the flow of continuous infiltration of marring time, the shiny and new cropping in over its more vulnerable foundation. There were times when walking down the wrong street near here could end you up in a plot of your own; now, there are several places to get a boutique bowl of grits or drink craft beer. Oakland remains.
Still, despite the continuous mutation just beyond it, Oakland is calming, almost peculiarly so; there is a sense of goodwill in being so casual around the dead. The landscape seems to continue in all directions, the walls on each side like the end of a soundstage, somehow, as if the world beyond the graves is not what it seems. Likewise, the longer you spend in Oakland, and the closer you look at what it reveals, the more disconcertingly its cultural record resonates. Beneath the shiny surface incurred in the ongoing commemoration of the once living and the dead, there is an even more emphatic phantomic underbelly to what the Cemetery manages to preserve.
Amongst the florid partitions and romantic overtones, you might not even notice the sign set at the far back corner of the original cemetery grounds, one demarcating a nearly 2000 square foot quadrant with its title: ‘Slave Square.’ Such a name immediately brings one back to Oakland’s very origin, as a place designed and operated during slavery, and afterward, throughout the struggle for — and against — civil rights. And yet, ‘Slave Square’ is not a site filled with the segregated graves of persons kept as slaves, though it was until the Atlanta City Council ordered them moved, and replaced them with white families. In 1866, when the acreage of the cemetery expanded from 6 acres to 48 acres on new land, the previously least desirable location, once reserved for slaves, became a coveted one; thus, the city mandated the relocation of more than 800 black dead to a new, less central part of the grounds. It’s a fact you don’t quite gather walking among them, at least unless you happen to run into a placard, about as wide as a human chest. Even in death, the very prejudice that had ended with much of the city set to flames could not be stricken from the hearts and minds of the oppressors. To stand in ‘Slave Square’ and read the names of those white dead who’d forced the displacement of the black dead makes the whole light around the mausoleums seem to sting with shame.
But this isn’t the only feature of Oakland that stands in evidence of the gross complexion of Southern history. Others are much more explicit; for instance, if you didn’t catch the actual context of ‘Slave Square,’ you will most certainly notice the features of the Confederate Memorial Grounds right behind it, probably evoking several modes of feeling depending on who you are. Unfortunately, the obscene nature of the Confederacy and its legacy isn’t as obvious to every person as it should be.
Atlanta served as hub of transportation and medical treatment for the Southern states during the Civil War, so no short supply of bodies needed burying. In total, there are more than 6,900 soldiers buried in Oakland, with nearly 3,000 of their identities unknown. Those who do have names are demarcated on their headstones simply with their first initials and last name, each in slightly smaller font than the inscription CONFEDERATE STATES ARMY. Crowning the inscription is an engraved Confederate iron cross. These graves, unlike the wide variety of designs in other sections, are uniform and squat, set equidistant from another upon the pale green grass of the wide fields like a battalion poised to attack. These are many people’s ancestors, having in service believed themselves to be rebels, if ones fighting for the right to continue to own slaves. Because of that closeness, perhaps a source of funding for the cemetery’s upkeep, the context you must derive from what the South fought for can only be processed through common sense; the memorials in Oakland are reverent, even glorious.
Towering at the center of it all is the Confederate Obelisk, a 65-foot granite structure that for some years was the tallest structure in the city. It’s worth noting that the marble used to build the structure was quarried from nearby Stone Mountain, a long controversial landmark in Atlanta, having once been the site of the founding ceremony of the KKK’s rebirth in 1915. Just beside the central feature is a flagpole running several colors in no wind, tellingly omitting the Confederate flag itself. Nearby, another memorial structure, a massive sculpted lion sleeping with its head caressing a Confederate flag, guards the remains of the Unknown Confederate Dead, on a field that, unusually, includes Union and Confederate soldiers buried side by side. Perhaps to preserve it against vandalism, or perhaps for symbolic effect, a black iron fence surrounds the lion to keep the common viewer at a distance, its sharpened points aiming at the sky as if to stab it.
In this section, I keep my eyes to the ground when passing others, embarrassed by what these icons memorializing the Confederacy mean even today, what was done to try to extend its reign of cruelty, and what continues to be done. I try to look neutrally at the grave of a Confederate solider and see the relic of a person who perhaps did not understand the sum of what they’d been invoked to defend, or perhaps who acted out of good faith against the facts, or who themselves had been impoverished into action by necessity or fear. I try not to judge, but I can’t help myself. I want to flee this area as quickly as possible, while also forcing myself to remember the blight, the forces of injustice, now dead as any, and how the echoes of that machinery still threaten the world today.
The fact that the Confederate section abuts one end of the African American Grounds could be seen as adding insult to injury, evidence of the oppressors’ small-minded social barriers extended into death so as in flesh. There’s a clear emotional shift in the feeling of open air as one moves out from the district of Confederate graves into the zone of plots of those they’d fought to keep as property; the feeling changes from aversion to remorse. Many of the headstones in the Black section have long worn away, the wooden and biodegradable nature of their material returning as would flesh to soil. Thus, many of the plots remain unnamed and unmarked, blank squares of earth. The gaps between the graves become much wider, less rigid, open.
Though more recently the site has come to embody post-Jim Crow ethics — a shift symbolized by the burial of African American Atlanta mayor Maynard Jackson in Oakland’s original six acres — it’s hard not to stand on the still-segregated ground as a white person and not feel ashamed for what had been done in your skin’s name, a looming regret laced with fury. How could someone see another person as so much lesser that their corpses couldn’t even share the same ground? You begin to wish there were more clear markings of wrongdoing, insisting that every passerby stop and look and think, apply the lesson to what remainder of those mechanisms still work now. Any informality in reverence for the dead seems to be erased here, evoking both in presence and thereafter associatively a humbling of spirit, an intense awareness that makes the ground you walk on seem somehow shook, despite the cemetery’s natural beauty, its default to reverence for all dead in the wake of injustice.
The chance to experience such a range of feelings all in on place, to stand amidst such clear lines drawn by history, is also the reason why Oakland is so vital: to be given a chance to remember so clearly, to reflect, and to leave more aware of history, of others, of all, than you were when you came in. There are few places that can evoke such stark evidence so concretely.
On the land flanking the north end of the African American Grounds, the cemetery takes another eerie turn, one that I only noticed after years of visiting the place. Spanning the back wall for nearly an eighth of the property is Potter’s Field, a 7.5-acre area that appears to be an empty field, perhaps still waiting to be used. Green grass and flourishing trees obscure the area before it opens up into rolling space that the Cemetery encourages its visitors to use for picnics, recreation. Beneath this ground are more than 17,000 unidentified bodies, interred together, all unmarked. Because the cemetery’s traditional space was all sold out by 1884, people who could not afford to buy plots from private owners, or their own space on land elsewhere, could opt to be included in this incorporated group-plot.
Walking across the grass of the long wide park-like area gives me chills. The ground seems puffy, somehow, not at rest, a fact contrasting with how placid it feels, how in moving between the trees the space seems to continue to open up before you, waking new land. There isn’t even a memorial placard anywhere along the long perimeter of the section to call awareness to the dead and designate it as more than empty soil, which feels like intentional erasure, omission. There is, however, a dispenser for baggies for dog shit, which helps distinguish the lower classes in contrast with those a hundred yards away commemorating their own memory with massive mausoleums, whole growing gardens, paragraphs of scripture, dedication.
While wandering back out the way I’d come, through the original six acres, I notice a middle-aged man circling a new construction of rosy marble, a glyphic eyesore in comparison to the memorial structures of a prior century it stands surrounded by. We are not in the past now, one eventually remembers; time has continued moving throughout; there are others here who are also living. There are more bodies. There will always be more bodies, until there are not.
The man, who even in casual summer clothing seems obviously well off, circles the structure for more than twenty minutes with his smartphone camera, taking pictures from every angle, as if testing out how his afterlife will look for those who come to visit his remains. We might not be able to control with such authority how others see us in daily action, but we can control the shell left after to verify our last remains; we can leave something that says I was here, this was my name, these were the years I lived, and someone wanted to remember that, someone who wasn’t only me.
There are certainly those we want to remember. For many who visit Oakland, it is a golfer, Bobby Jones, whose presence amongst the other concepts of history here feels much less menacing, complicated, though also not without its own odd foothold in the doors of death. His plot is scattered with dozens of old tees and balls, many signed by visitors. Alongside the memorial, several balls have been stuffed into a cup, the kind that you would find on a putting green, some last ditch effort in expiration to commemorate sinking the putt in for the win. You’re still a winner in our hearts, Bobby. And thank goodness, to have a sense of humor in the end. One wonders what every other person’s grave might look like if the tools of their life’s trade were brought en masse to congregate upon them.
In the end, you can only stick around for so long. Not unlike the eventual fatigue accrued in observing paintings in a museum, there’s a weight within the body that takes hold, gradually aggregating until suddenly you feel it is time to head back out the way you came; you are still a living person, after all, one who can actively affect the world that waits beyond the walls. The gated entrance seems rather different from the reverse side on the way out, holding something in from which you are, for now, allowed to pass. Maybe you notice no one seems to look you in the eye here, usually a way of Southern life. Maybe you don’t recognize, like so many, the street just outside the gate is only one-way, forming a blind corner onto Memorial Drive, at which an accident might be only a momentary lapse of foresight away. Maybe you can’t remember where else you were supposed to be today, among the living.