One of the things I love about the Halloween season is the way cemeteries open up to the public. While the Victorian cemeteries were parks for playing in, and other cultures gather as a group in cemeteries, most Americans only visit cemeteries when someone dies. That’s a mistake. There’s a huge amount of history and some great stories to be found. As a bonus, cemeteries tend to be a green space even in very urban areas.
That’s definitely the case in Atlanta, where the “in town” neighborhoods with their small parks are nothing compared to the 48 acres of pleasure gardens and trees that comprise Oakland Cemetery. The space is a certified wildlife habitat, with special bird friendly and butterfly friendly designations. On top of that it’s rather people-friendly with benches, level walking spaces, and very well kept gardens.
Not to mention some interesting headstones.
Rosemary bushes and pomegranate trees heavy with fruit were planted by cemetery volunteers who recreated the Victorian look from the cemetery’s first years. While there are always tours, Halloween season brings a special batch. Careful planning netted me tickets to the sold out Capturing the Spirit tours, but some beautiful weather last weekend meant I took the tour of the day. It happened to be right up my alley: “Murder, Mysteries and Mayhem”.
Some stories were not so mysterious but definitely sad, like the playhouse fire that killed several young performers acting as angels. Their paper wings caused the conflagration, so they remained angels forever.
Others lived up to the title, like the grave of a maiden aunt who dreamed she would drown the night before taking a boat tour. She claimed to have written a will in her sleep, but insisted on going out on the boat. There was indeed an accident, and her family buried her dress, the only remains ever found, in Oakland. The promotion seems a little suspect, and finding another dress makes me wonder – the garments of the 1890s weren’t exactly easy to get out of. It’s easy to imagine the aunt running away with a lover under the cover of an elaborate plot.
A less elaborate but equally mysterious burial was an unnamed man found after a tornado hit the cemetery in 2008. While his body was found in an above ground vault filled with members of the Holland family, he wasn’t a Holland. No records existed of him ever being buried, and his clothes were modern. More telling of hasty burial, his shoes were facing west. In Christian cemeteries, bodies are almost always buried facing east so they can rise up on Judgment Day. The cemetery sexton is still hoping someone will claim the poor fellow.
The tour ended with a few short ghost stories. There’s a shadowy visage who haunts the bell tower. Maybe he’s waiting for the bell ring again? In days gone past, cemeteries rang the bell to chase away the sins of the dead. Twelve rings for men, eight for women, and only six for children, who were presumed least sinful of all. Down another path over three thousand unnamed soldiers from the Civil War supposedly rise up to a ghostly roll call each Confederate Memorial day.
I’ll be back to Oakland for another tour or two at least. The 5k “Run like Hell” sounds like fun too. If you get a chance, take a walk through your local cemetery this fall. I’m sure the folks there would love a visit.