Oakland was founded in 1850, during the height of the rural or garden cemetery movement. Prior to this time small urban churchyards were the norm but the rural cemetery movement promoted larger, park-like spaces on the outskirts of town. These cemeteries were planned as public spaces from their inception and provided a place for all citizens to enjoy refined outdoor recreation amidst art and sculpture. Elaborate gardens were planted and family outings to the cemetery became popular social activities.
World War I and the following years brought much change to Oakland. Families moved away or no longer visited regularly. Younger generations lost touch and Oakland, never planned as a perpetual care cemetery, slipped into decline.
The years following World War I brought many changes and by the mid-1970s Oakland had lost much of her glory. Her gardens were largely gone and theft and vandalism had become serious problems. It was at this point that a group of concerned families formed what would become the Historic Oakland Foundation, with the goal of partnering with the City of Atlanta to restore, preserve, enhance, and share this wonderful jewel in our city. Through these efforts the first two phases of restoration have been completed and Phase III is currently underway.
Oakland’s grounds are made up of hundreds of individual lots, each belonging to individual families. Though little more than cleared farmland in the beginning, early photographs show that many hedges were installed to delineate these property lines and young trees were quickly planted to break the heat of the summer sun. Today these saplings are towering giants that pay homage to all who have passed beneath them.
The families continued developing their lots and pictures from the turn of the century show the refinement that had occurred. Walls, fountains and ornate iron fences had been added to grace the gardens.
The Victorian period brought with it a fascination with the natural world and a keen interest in plants was an integral part of this passion. Plant collectors explored remote parts of the world to bring back new and exotic specimens. It became quite fashionable to decorate your home with exotic, often tropical, plants. Atlanta’s first greenhouse was built to grow flowers for the cemetery but it was also used to overwinter these tender plants.
Symbolism and the Language of Flowers
Many plants and flowers were symbolic to the Victorians, either through their ‘language of flowers’ or religious beliefs. Lilies, symbolizing resurrection, weeping willows for sorrow and palm fronds to indicate triumph of the soul are frequently seen on grave markers. You will often see these plants growing nearby. The many Victorian era books on the ‘Language of Flowers’ gave meaning to each flower and a bouquet could be used to send a private message telling of one’s love, or hate. Such bouquets can also be seen carved on the stones.