Wait, you work at a cemetery? What it’s Like to Intern at Oakland
“Wait, you work at a cemetery?”
For the past year and a half, I have been asked this question at least once a week, usually because I am covered in dirt. After responding yes, the next string of questions and answers usually follows the same pattern: Yes, I work as a preservation intern at a cemetery. The cemetery that I intern at is Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta. Yes, I do like it a lot. No, I do not dig graves.
It involved a lot of hard work, early mornings, and resulted in a lot of dirt on my clothes, but it was worth it not only to learn how to take care of historic cemeteries like Oakland but also to see the impact that my, and the rest of the team’s, efforts made.
I’ve never minded answering these questions. In fact, I have been excited to tell strangers, family members, and anyone who will listen about Historic Oakland Foundation and the work that I’ve done as an intern with its preservation team. It is always a delight to see how excited and interested people who had never heard of Oakland or historic preservation become as I tell them about my time at Oakland and answer their questions.
My internship at Oakland Cemetery began in August 2019, at the start of my first semester of graduate school at Georgia State University in the Heritage Preservation Program. I was a GRA, or a graduate research assistant, and prior to my start date at Oakland (when I was still a naïve undergrad) I had assumed that all GRA positions consisted of filing papers, sorting emails, and maybe grabbing the occasional coffee if asked. About two hours into my first day at Oakland, and after my first meeting with Director of Preservation Ashley Shares, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that my internship would be far more active and hands-on.
I hit the ground running, helping the preservation team with the various projects while learning how to use tools and equipment that I never really used before. The preservation team, which includes Ashley, Preservation Specialist Sean, and Preservation Technicians Mike, Brent, and Reggie, were always there to teach me how to work without harming monuments, markers, or myself. Thanks to them, I have learned so much. I have also kept all my fingers.
Some of the earliest assignments that I assisted the team with were masonry projects, including re-pointing, or “tuck-pointing,” the outer brick of the restored Women’s Comfort Station and re-building and tuck-pointing a brick burial vault located in the Original Six Acres. Later, as the team began to work on the East Hill section of the cemetery, I learned how to repair and reset headstones, footstones, and cradling using shovels, pry bars, and (although my fear of heights detested it) scaffolding. All of this work was done to help monuments that needed care, prevent future damage to the monuments that were at risk, and to preserve the burial sites of Oakland as they were intended to be. It involved a lot of hard work, early mornings, and resulted in a lot of dirt on my clothes, but it was worth it not only to learn how to take care of historic cemeteries like Oakland but also to see the impact that my, and the rest of the team’s, efforts made.
If I wasn’t on-site (which unfortunately was the case for the majority of 2020 thanks to a certain pandemic), I was able to conduct research for the preservation team using the cemetery’s burial records — a history nerd’s dream come true. I was able to help the team find information on possible descendants or contacts for lots on East Hill, find out more about Oakland’s residents, and for my final project at Oakland, create a preservation plan for block 392 of the cemetery. In addition to my work with the preservation team over the course of my internship, I assisted the Foundation’s education team, led by Marcy Breffle, with research for some of HOF’s programs. Special Events Manager Mary Fernandez also allowed me to help out with some of the cemetery’s events, including Capturing the Spirit of Oakland and Sunday in the Park.
My tenure as an intern for Historic Oakland Foundation has been educational, informative, and most importantly, memorable. Although I will need to find a new excuse for why I am covered in dirt, I will always look forward to coming back for a visit.