Oakland Tours in Focus: Poetry in the Cemetery

by Andrew Fowler, Education Program Intern

April is National Poetry Month, and we recognize one form of poetry that can be found throughout Oakland Cemetery – epitaphs. Epitaphs are short inscriptions found on the grave markers of the deceased, and their utility and purpose has evolved over time. Epitaphs can provide biographical information, words of comfort to friends and family, and general observations and remarks on the concept of death. Epitaphs can contain poetic phrases or be poems in themselves. The wide range of styles is fitting for Oakland, which is the final home of one of the most well-known literary figures of the 20th century, Margaret Mitchell. By approaching an epitaph as a form of poetry, we can appreciate these lasting words for their own inherent artistic and linguistic beauty – a beauty that can meet or exceed the physical beauty of the monuments and mausoleums upon which they are engraved. By studying epitaphs, we can also learn how poetry was used to convey emotions, mourning, and attitudes about death.

During the Victorian era, mass production, rising education levels, and the standardization of work schedules allowed for increased leisure time for both the working and growing middle classes. In this environment, poetry cemented itself as an increasingly popular form of media and entertainment. Romantic poetry, which emerged in the early 19th century as a reaction against the rules and conventions of The Enlightenment, became one of the Victorian era’s most popular genres of poetry. Romantic poems were often emotional and had overtly sentimental tones. Popular themes included: the supernatural world, the power of the imagination, the sublime, and a love of nature or returning to a natural state. Some of the poetic epitaphs found at Oakland explore these themes in conjunction with death.

The epitaph of George Kershaw (d. April 4, 1882) demonstrates the romantic connotations of both the tranquility of nature and death in an 1857 poem by Nancy Woodbury Priest:

“I shall find the loved ones who have gone before
And joyfully sweet will our meeting be
When over the River, the peaceful river
The Angel of Death shall carry me.”

Although just at the end of the Victorian era, a similar romantic characterization and connection to nature can be found in the epitaph of Captain Augustus Harrison Benning (d. November 29, 1904):

“The sailor has returned home, from over life’s sea, and entered his last port, heaven.”

The use of the word “home” implies and demonstrates a level of sentimentality and intimacy, as death is viewed as a place of comfort. This particular epitaph also represents how epitaphs can serve many purposes. It identifies Benning as a sailor who captained several ships in the Pacific Ocean.

Epitaph for Capt. A.H. Benning at Oakland Cemetery

Epitaph for Capt. A.H. Benning at Oakland Cemetery

Oakland is a Victorian cemetery, but it is also an inherently Southern cemetery. The epitaphs found here can provide a window into the themes, styles, and conventions that make Southern literature unique.

Adrienne Moore Bond (1933-1996), a mentor to dozens of Georgia poets and a founder of the Georgia Poetry Circuit, once remarked that “Southern poets tend to focus on place, and they often see place as informed by time, by history, and by memory. Southern poets tend to use concrete details and to approach abstraction cautiously through explorations of the natural world.”

A family epitaph found on the O’Keefe/Powers lot near the Bell Tower demonstrates the use of physical details to identify a place, while still allowing space for interpretation:

“Warm Southern sun / shine brightly here
Warm Southern wind / blow softly here
Green sod above / lie light, lie light
Good night, dear heart / Good Night
Good night ‘til the morn / when we meet again
In God’s Heaven.”

southern sun

This epitaph is derived from an 1893 poem by Robert Richardson, and is sometimes misattributed to Mark Twain because he used it on the gravestone of his daughter Olivia Susan Clemens. Oakland Cemetery’s role as a tangible narrative of Southern history is reinforced by the significance of place represented by epitaphs similar to the O’Keefe and Powers family epitaph.

Similar to poetry, epitaphs employ the literary device of metaphor to convey meaning. Metaphoric epitaphs can be subjective and leave different, sometimes conflicting, meanings in the minds of individuals. Dr. Manel Herat, a scholar who specializes in studying the development of the English language, notes: “Gravestones are like photographs of the day which are left behind for future generations to interpret.”

By identifying changes in tone and language within these poetic epitaphs and analyzing the different meanings each metaphor conveys about death, we can understand how cultures perceive life and death.

By looking at epitaphs over time, we can understand how cultural attitudes towards death have changed. For example, the Civil War normalized violent and youthful deaths and forged an intimacy between mourning and culture. As mortality rates continue to decrease through improvements in health and disease management, there has been a growing estrangement between death and culture. Untimely deaths are viewed as unfortunate and calamitous events, and death is considered a topic to avoid. The metaphoric nature of these epitaphs also lends itself to interpretation for those to come, which challenges us to investigate the differences and similarities between the past and our own age.

You can discover and learn more about Oakland Cemetery’s many epitaphic tributes on our special topic tour, “Epitaphs: The Immortality of Words” on Sunday, April 23 at 6:30 p.m. The tour begins at the Bell Tower and no reservations are required.