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Saving Graves is a Family Affair

Historic Oakland Foundation’s preservation, restoration, and operations (PRO) team is conducting more family lot improvements than ever these days. These family-funded projects are a crucial part of the Foundation’s mission to restore, preserve, enhance, and share at Oakland Cemetery.

When a family decides to pursue a restoration project at Oakland, they get a peek behind the scenes of the efforts we take to make sure a project is conducted safely and to the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards and Guidelines for Historic Preservation. These behind-the-scenes tasks can include researching materials, investigating the burial site, addressing current and future environmental factors, putting together maintenance plans, and of course, managing the budget.

To offer an outside perspective, we’ve asked a few of the people who have supported restoration efforts here at Oakland about their experiences and their view of cemetery preservation:

I first met Harry Covington in 2018 when he traveled to Oakland from Florida to clean his grandmother’s headstone. While cleaning, we discussed his personal connections and relationships with loved ones, his plans for one day calling Oakland his eternal home, and potential work on the lot. He explains:

“My family plot was looking bad when I first saw it a few years ago. Since then, a number of things have been done to improve its looks. Having the wall fixed was big. A headstone for me will be placed when it is completed. You do good work. Thanks for being there.”

The Covington Lot restoration comprised minor headstone resting by the PRO Team and sensitive wall work by contractors for which we specified materials and the joint profiles.

The Covington lot


If you ever find yourself at Oakland in the early morning, you may have seen Mike Tanner, an Atlanta native and longtime visitor to Oakland, walking around sweeping the leaves from steps and picking up trash. For years, Mr. Tanner has supported Historic Oakland Foundation and the PRO Team, often being the first person to alert us to a fallen monument or precarious tree. Mr. Tanner also provides us with valuable insight into Oakland’s grounds. He may clue us in, for example, on various family histories or provide information on the physical history of a site and improvements made to it. He is a vigilant and knowledgeable member of the Oakland Cemetery family who has helped us get to where we are now.

When his mother passed, members of the PRO team were honored that Mr. Tanner wanted us to assist in moving and resetting the family marker. Since then, we have restored and cleaned the family’s lot, and the gardens team has planted new greenery. When we catch each other on the grounds, Mr. Tanner is always appreciative of the work we’ve done not only on his lot but also throughout the grounds.

The Tanner lot


Since the restoration and beautification of a family’s lot often coincide with the death of a loved one, our work allows us to honor those who have passed. Mrs. Leslie Willingham explains:

“In our 38 years together, Barry often spoke about wanting to get his parents their headstone. When Barry and his brother both died in the same year and I needed to bury both of them, I knew on the day of burial I was going to work on refurbishing the Willingham site and adding  Barry’s favorite trees, bushes, and plants.”

The Willingham lot is also noteworthy because it was one of the first lots restored near the new East Gate and the family’s eagerness to beautify not just their lot but the larger block as well helped us kick off the East Hill restoration project and show others what we can do.

The Willingham lot


In a thank you letter to our staff, Mrs. Blanchette Maier describes how the restoration of the family lot provides a place for her to reminisce with her late husband, Francis, and how she has “a lot of wonderful memories including those from our many trips to Oakland.” She continues by saying, ” I look forward to planting the sod and am planning on installing Georgia native perennials and bushes to make this space an inviting place to stop, sit and reflect.” Again, in working with these families we learned new interesting stories, took steps to better memorialize those who have passed, and made stronger connections with talented contractors.  We are so happy to see that our restoration and preservation efforts have such deep meaning for others, and we are looking forward to continuing the hard work for families and the public alike.

The Maier lot


The PRO team and the rest of Historic Oakland Foundation have a lot to be excited about, and it is easy to lose oneself in the beauty of what’s already been done. As we celebrate Preservation Month this May, I find myself reflecting, however, not so much on the final product, but on the immense support that is required to complete these projects and the meaning that they have to the families who have a stake in them.

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