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Bringing Grave Mounds back to Oakland

Although Oakland Cemetery is known for its historic headstones and grave markers, many graves in the Cemetery are unmarked and are not easily identifiable. In the broader Southeastern United States, especially in the Appalachian region, graves (both marked and unmarked) were historically denoted with mounding, a practice that used packed dirt and gravel to clearly communicate the spot in which a person was buried. At one time, Oakland also utilized these practices. In 1937, at the height of the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), worked within the Cemetery to identify, catalog, and mark burial sites. By looking at abstracts of burial plots that are based on these 1937 WPA maps, it is evident that mounding was a common practice that had documented use throughout the entirety of the Cemetery.

To restore a group of plots to their original historic state, Historic Oakland Foundation’s preservation team began a mounding project on plots located near the greenhouse. Although some of these plots did have physical headstones, many consisted of all or mostly unmarked graves. Additionally, many of these unmarked graves were for infants or young children. One family in particular, the Garrison family, had five children and infants buried in unmarked graves on their plot. In the late 1800s, infant death was very common. In the Garrison plot, there are two children listed as stillborn and one listed as dying after one day. Although it is unclear if the Garrisons had children that lived into adulthood, we do know that the family experienced a tragedy that was pretty typical of the time: all three listed deaths occurred one year apart from each other.

To determine where these graves were located on the plots, we consulted historic abstracts and measured out each burial space. Next, we placed a wooden frame over each grave, filled it with dirt, and then removed it to create distinct mounds on the plots for both adults and infants. Later, we seeded each plot with a mix of white Dutch clover, buffalo grass, and creeping red fescue. These will provide a natural green cover for the dirt mounds, making them feel more established. However, this gound cover is not only for aesthetic purposes: white Dutch clover is a nitrogen fixer, which means it fertilizes itself by converting atmospheric nitrogen into more usable forms. Additionally, all types of planted grass require very little maintenance and mowing once they are fully established.

Although we planted the grass and clover very recently, we are already beginning to see growth on the plots, and the mounds are covered nicely. Still, this mounding project is just a trial run. Based on the success of this initial experiment, we hope to replicate its results on family lots across the cemetery. By constructing these mounds, we are able to more accurately represent historic burial practices that would have been commonly seen at Oakland in the 19th century, and we are able to physically mark the graves that go unnoticed.

Grave mound project in progress
Grave mound project in progress
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