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Symbolism at Oakland Cemetery: Victorian Symbology

Oakland Cemetery has a rich array of Victorian symbols on gravestones, crypts, and mausoleums throughout its 48 acres. From very simple ones like the dove — which represents peace from God — to very complex ones with many symbols. An example of this can be found on the Neal family monument, which depicts a wife and daughter. The monument includes a wreath (eternity), a palm branch (spiritual victory over death), and books (a Bible or some other religious text).

Oakland Cemetery was established during the era when England’s Queen Victoria ruled from 1837-1901 and influenced culture worldwide. As such, there are three reasons why there are so many Victorian symbols in Oakland:

Christian Interpretation of Death: Christian Victorians believed that death was very peaceful and calming and believed in life after death. Actually, the word cemetery means “sleeping place” and many symbols in Oakland refer to that sleep. Some graves look like beds, and some monuments feature pillows and blankets.

Rural Garden Cemetery Movement: At the beginning of the 19th century, the rural garden cemetery movement began. Atlanta’s city fathers were trying to combat disease in city cemeteries — which were crammed full of bodies — by moving the cemeteries outside the city. Oakland was designed to be a beautiful park with flowers, plants and trees, and artwork. Many of the artwork in Oakland included symbols scoured from the third source of symbolic inspiration:

Great Archaeological Digs: The Victorians were fascinated by the past and studied it obsessively, borrowing symbols that they learned about from the great archaeological digs taking place at the time in Egypt, Greece, Israel, and Turkey. In many cases, the symbols were originally secular but some were changed to religious. Because of this reason, a symbol may mean one thing during the early Christian period and totally different in the Victorian period.
Here are five examples of stunning monuments at Oakland Cemetery that have symbols as part of their message:

“Our Thomas” was placed in 1870 as a memorial for a child who died way too young. Thomas has turned into a baby angel, a guardian and messenger from God. He kneels on a pillow, which suggests sleeping, because the Christian Victorians believed that death was a resting place before the Second Coming. Next to this monument is a broken column covered with a mantle. A broken column signifies that the life of the person buried there was cut short. The mantle symbolizes the area between life and death. If you are on one side of the mantle, you are alive. On the other side, you are dead.

Sculptures like “Our Thomas” were originally designed without wings to grace English gardens. Wings were added later, designed for cemeteries to convey how many children died so young from diphtheria, smallpox, and influenza because vaccinations were not available. These child angels appear in Victorian cemeteries throughout the United States.

The McNamara angel was completed around 1901. Angels act as guardians, messengers, and protectors of the dead. The Latin cross implies resurrection, referring to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Notice the “IHS” on the cross, the first three letters, transliterated, of “Jesus” in Greek. On the angel’s brow sits a five-pointed star, which indicates heavenly wisdom. She holds a utensil to write down the good deeds of the person buried below so that he or she can have eternal life.
During World War I, Atlanta’s Irish immigrants buried their dead in this part of the cemetery. Since they did not have permanent homes, male immigrants of draft age listed Oakland as their residence. The Atlanta War Office could not understand why so many men listed one place as their residence.

On March 14, 2008, the cemetery was hit by a major tornado. Even though the cross behind her toppled the angel remained standing, despite losing a few fingers. What remains of her hand points towards heaven, guiding souls upward. If you have visited Victorian cemeteries throughout the United States, you have seen many statues pointing towards heaven, including obelisks.

The Neal Monument is one of the more prominent monuments on Oakland’s “Sights, Symbols & Stories” overview tour. It was completed in 1874 and shows the rich array of symbols the Victorians used to commemorate the dead.
The Celtic cross stands for eternal life and Christ sacrificing himself. The books are probably Bibles. The closed one suggests a life guided to completion by the Scriptures; the open one illustrates the spiritual wisdom that leads to an eternal life heavenward, the direction of the statue’s gaze. The laurel wreath and palm branch signify victory over death and the triumph of eternal life.

The Gray lot’s “Weeping Woman” was completed in 1917 and tells a story inherited from classical Greek mythology about Niobe, Queen of Thebes. Like most proud mothers, Niobe talked incessantly about her many children. Because she was supposed to be worshipping the goddess Leto, this bragging did not go over very well. Leto had her very powerful children Artemis and Apollo kill Niobe’s children.
In Victorian cemeteries, Niobe is portrayed as the eternally grieving mother. The legend of this particular monument is that, on a full moon night, you can see tears streaming down her face. The wreath of laurel represents immortality, since laurel leaves never wilt or fade. Chiefly a symbol of victory, however, the wreath emanates a somber ambiguity when Niobe’s defeat is remembered.

The Lion of Atlanta was completed in 1894. The Atlanta Ladies Memorial erected the statue to honor approximately 3,000 unknown Confederate dead buried in this area. The marble came from Tate, Ga., and was the largest piece quarried in the United States at the time. The sculpture by Canton, Ga., artist T.M Brady (1849-1907) portrays a lion lying on a Confederate battle flag. The lion embodies courage, majesty, strength, and valor. The foundation of the rock the lion lies upon suggests that the soldiers died for a cause they believed in.
The power and grandeur of the symbols of Oakland Cemetery can be captured in the five images portrayed in this blog, but they are not a substitute for an actual visit to this extraordinary outdoor museum.

Richard Waterhouse has led tours at Oakland Cemetery since 1989. In 2000, he designed an Oakland “ramble” that spotlighted symbols found in the cemetery, and 2006 he founded Waterhouse Symbolism to research and document gravestone symbols and internationally. As part of the organization, Richard sends out a monthly e-newsletter on symbols throughout the world. If you want to subscribe, send him an email at Richard currently serves as Manager of Leadership Giving for Georgia Public Broadcasting Media, in Atlanta, Georgia.

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