Symbolism at Oakland Cemetery: From the Cradle to the Grave

by Ashley Shares, Preservation Specialist

An example of a cradle-style grave at Oakland Cemetery.

An example of a cradle-style grave at Oakland Cemetery.

Bedstead monuments were very popular grave markers in the 19th and early 20th century. A bedstead is composed of a headstone, footstone, and cradling. These elements represent the headboard, footboard, and bed rails on a bedframe. This style of grave marker appealed to Victorian-era sentiments for three reasons.

First, heaven was likened to “returning home,” which was comforting to loved ones left behind because they could hope for a future where they were eternally reunited. A bed is a natural symbol of home. Second, the 19th century witnessed a phenomenon referred to by historians as the “feminization of death.” Public displays of mourning became fashionable, as did more beautiful, peaceful, and pleasant monuments and iconography. The bed is not only a symbol of the home, but of femininity and domesticity.  The third — and the most frequently cited — reason for the bedstead’s popularity is that it likens death to sleep, a notion that undoubtedly eased the sorrows of many mourners.

Bedsteads come in several forms and are made from a variety of materials, depending usually on the purchaser’s economic means, available stone, and current fashions. Headstones may be quite elaborate, often featuring iconography such as lambs or lilies, symbolizing purity and innocence. Most bedsteads at Oakland Cemetery are made of marble, the most popular material for monuments during the Victorian era in Georgia. However, a stroll through the grounds will reveal cast concrete and brick also used to make the cradling portion of a bedstead. 

Recently, Historic Oakland Foundation’s Preservation, Restoration, and Operations (PRO) Team found two very small and unique bedsteads, which were completely buried under six inches of soil in a lot near the cemetery’s pedestrian entrance on Memorial Drive.

The recently-uncovered brick cradles of two unknown infants.

The recently-uncovered brick cradles of two unknown infants.

These two features, which mark the burial location of two unnamed infants, are both made up of small un-engraved marble headstones and footstones and brick cradling. The discovery of these grave markers is very exciting because only a handful of burials at Oakland Cemetery are marked by bricks. Preserving these sites is extremely important because they represent a folk tradition that is rare in Victorian cemeteries.