November 16, 2016

Oconee Hill Cemetery: Resting Place for Everyone From Factory Workers to Athens' Elite

Photo Credit: Joshua L. Jones

Historian Charlotte Thomas Marshall, author of Oconee Hill Cemetery in Athens, Georgia, has a seemingly infinite knowledge of Athens society in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and the Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation’s third Heritage Walk of the season gave Athenians an opportunity to witness her historical prowess during a tour of Oconee Hill Cemetery Nov. 5.

Marshall, the first female trustee of the cemetery, came to Athens in 1966, and has done impressive research and writing on the site since then. She unearthed for the crowd a history of Athens that was both somber and spectacular.

The tour kicked off with a view inside the 1880s Georgian cottage that was the sexton’s house, where the Bisson family lived for 86 years keeping watch over the cemetery, as well as sculpting tombstones for many of the graves on Oconee Hill. The house was renovated in 2007 by the Friends of Oconee Hill Cemetery. Claire James, a caretaker of the house, pointed out interesting tidbits like the burial location of the Bissons’ dog. An old stone water trough by the entrance reads, “A righteous man regardeth the life of his beast.”

Established in 1856, Oconee Hill Cemetery is actually a combination of three. The first part was the City of Athens’ cemetery. Later came the Factory Burying Ground, which was owned by the Athens Manufacturing Company as a place for employees and their families to be buried, and the Congregation Children of Israel Cemetery, established after the Civil War.

The City of Athens’ cemetery was the original and remains the largest, as well as, to many, the most widely known. It contains two small graveyards at the bottom of the back side of the first hill that lack any of the pomp the resting receive farther uphill. The first lay forgotten and nearly lost until a curious Marshall and a supportive friend waded through waist-deep piles of tree cuttings that had been discarded atop the grounds. There, she found depressions in the ground, arranged just so. She knew immediately that she had found the “paupers’” burial ground. Similarly out-of-sight and neglected is the “colored” burial ground, though much of it was built over to make way for the train tracks or dug through for city infrastructure such as sewage lines. Though a few tombstones apparently remain, the exclusively white tour didn’t make its way down the path to these two sites.

Along the rolling hills of the main cemetery are family plots of the Athens elite. Famous Georgia names to note include Cobb, Hull, Conner, Nicholson, Clayton and more. Three UGA presidents are also buried there: Frederick Davison, Walter Hill and Alonzo Church.

While the affluent have a beautifully serene resting place, time will wear anything down, and those 100-or-more-year-old monuments have suffered. From elaborate carved monuments to draping Victorian chain fences, much of the funerary art has seen better days. The commonly seen Carrara marble’s peach-and-white coloration has been partly covered in a layer of black; noses and other small parts of statues have been shot off for target practice; and in the days when the train still rumbled through the yard leading up to the cemetery, the vibrations caused a lot of damage “to the fabric of the cemetery,” Marshall said, which can be witnessed in some of the tipping monuments and undulating ground.  

“I don’t want to be buried in a treeless place,” said Marshall as she guided the tour through the first hill, replete with large, broad trees. The cemetery was built in a park-like manner, in a time when cemeteries were a family affair. Often, families would picnic near their relatives’ resting places, telling stories of the deceased to their children. But in light of several large trees that fell, wiping out whole parts of some monuments, only some of which could be restored, Marshall warned, “Trees are also the greatest threat to a cemetery.”

Marshall’s knowledge of the cemetery extended beyond those buried there. She pointed out carvings and their meanings. Ivy is representative of clinging to memory, anchors of Christian hope, crosses of faith, acorns of new life. Angels are everywhere, the figure the surviving family hoped their loved one was assuming after death.

Strikingly simple yet poignant, however, were the found objects used on the graves in the factory and Jewish burial grounds. A common practice among factory workers was to line the graves of their relatives with bricks because they couldn't afford gravestones.

In the Jewish section, monuments similar in size and detail to those of the wealthy Athenians in the original cemetery can be found, but more intriguing are the small stones placed atop the graves. “After Schindler's List came out, this phenomenon started,” Marshall said. She explained that the movie reignited the Jewish tradition of placing stones on the graves they visited, a sign that someone had been there, and the dead had not been forgotten. Though largely a Jewish custom, people not associated with the faith have also adopted the practice.

You might be tempted to think that once you’re in the ground, you’ve reached your final resting place. Marshall will toss that idea from your mind. She wrote an essay in The Tangible Past in Athens, Georgia entitled “All the Places They’ll Go,” which goes into detail about the process of moving graves that many have undertaken to lay their loved ones elsewhere. “Even when you’re buried, you don’t know where you’ll land,” she said.