Gravestones are doorways opening to the past and those that lived there. Through them we learn who was before us, when they came and when they crossed into the next life, the symbols that had particular significance to them, and often what they and their people believed about life and death. The cold stones warm as they tell about mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, children, the beloved and missed of a time gone by and the world they lived in along with their strong belief in a place they were going to when they departed.
Clay Cemetery’s conventional gravestones are almost all marble, with only one or two reflecting the historically later use of granite. Alternative materials include two homemade gravestones of box cast concrete with the names written by fingertip while still wet and another more formally cast in cement with embossed lettering and decoration (commonly used as temporary markers by African American funeral homes, this one from a nearby Stocks Funeral Home). Oral history from the 1930’s reports wooden markers for Jesse and Green Clay. The smallest gravestones are single box pieces 6-8 inches high while the two largest are near 8 feet tall and composed of as many as 12 parts. Many styles of gravestones are represented including simple tablets, obelisks, pulpit markers, bedsteads, and complex die, base, and cap grave markers.
Symbols and images on Clay Cemetery gravestones reflect a great deal of how the Clay Family and other Kirkwood residents felt about religion, the afterlife, and the departed. Their documented Baptist faith is repeatedly illustrated by open bibles, biblical robes, gates opening to heaven, and crosses. The great variety of carved plant life illustrates both the deep feelings held about the deceased and faith based plant symbology. Clay Cemetery’s garden of stone contains rose, tulip, Easter palm, fern, oak leaf, magnolia, maple, ivy, and daisies… all accented by hearts, fraternal symbols, and carved verses speaking to love for the departed and a sure knowledge of their eternal life. These feelings and beliefs are deeply articulated in the gravestone verses for Claudia Elise Wood and her newborn son Earnest Howard Wood, who died within hours of each other after his birth:
A ray of sunshine she ever was
Though saddened with worldly cares
She’s gone to the mighty maker above
Who shares all our toils and cares.
A flower plucked from our midst
As it were by God’s omnipotent hand
To grace the mighty throne on high
Of the new Jerusalem.
Clay Cemetery’s conventional gravestones also illustrate the economic and social path of the Clay Family, Kirkwood, and Atlanta in DeKalb County during the 19th and early 20th centuries from the earliest settlers clearing and farming the land, to their land rich and upper class children, followed by comfortably middle class children and grandchildren, to the generation of grandchildren and great grandchildren devastated and set adrift by the Great Depression. These changes are represented by a shift in markers from long gone wooden materials, to simple tablet stones, to expensive and complex Victorian and Edwardian gravestones followed by a return to simpler forms ultimately replaced from economic necessity by homemade cement gravestones. The cemetery’s history accurately illustrates the economic and social path of Kirkwood and Atlanta in DeKalb during the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Gravestones are part of the growing evidence that Clay Cemetery evolved from a pioneer family cemetery to become a white upper middle class neighborhood cemetery, later becoming a cemetery defined more by income than geography during the depression.