Savannah’s Bonaventure Cemetery

Lined with live oaks draped with Spanish moss and filled with beautiful statuary, Bonaventure Cemetery is a destination graveyard filled with fascinating stories that reveal the unique character of Savannah, Georgia.

Savannah’s Bonaventure Cemetery is one of the most beautiful graveyards in the world. (Bob Sessions photo)

As a fan of graveyards, I’ve long wanted to visit Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah, Georgia, which gained international fame after being featured in John Berendt’s best-selling book (and later a film) Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. After I visited, I can say with confidence that Bonaventure is one of the most gorgeous cemeteries in the world, so much so that I’m tempted to move to Savannah just so I can hang around in it regularly.

Even before the attention brought by Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Bonaventure had long been a tourist attraction. It’s the quintessential Southern Victorian graveyard, filled with beautiful statuary, plantings, and decorative flourishes. While it’s worth visiting at any time of year, it’s at its best In the spring, when blooming azaleas and camellias add splashes of color to its lush landscape.

And the trees! Live oak trees draped with slivery gray Spanish moss line its avenues. After naturalist John Muir visited Bonaventure in 1867, he called them “the most magnificent planted trees I have ever seen.” When he saw them they were already a century old—and they’re even more beautiful today.

Live oak trees hung with Spanish moss line the avenues at Bonaventure Cemetery. (Bob Sessions photo)

While visitors can wander the 100-acre property on their own, I highly recommend taking a guided tour. On a rainy March morning I was fortunate to be part of a tour given by Dawn Martin of Bonaventure Cemetery Tours, a locally owned company that specializes in cemetery and ghost tours of Savannah.

A former social worker, Dawn’s fascination with Bonaventure led her to become a full-time guide (she even met her husband, a funeral director, while wandering in the cemetery). Her obvious love for Bonaventure is a big reason why my tour was so enjoyable.

Dawn began by talking about the history of the land. Located three miles from downtown Savannah on the Wilmington River, the property was purchased by John Mullryne in 1762. He named it Bonaventure Plantation, meaning “good fortune” in French.

The 600-acre property went through various owners before it became a private cemetery in 1846 known as Evergreen Cemetery. In 1907 the city of Savannah purchased the property and renamed it Bonaventure. Two years later, a Jewish cemetery was added on an adjacent piece of land.

Bonaventure is a prime example of a Victorian garden cemetery, a style of graveyard that became popular during a period when most cities were congested and polluted. The first garden cemetery in the U.S. was Mount Auburn Cemetery near Cambridge, Massachusetts, created in 1831, setting a fashion that was emulated in places that included Laurel Hill in Philadelphia, Bellefontaine in St. Louis, and Graceland in Chicago. These park-like cemeteries were filled with trees, ornamental shrubs, and benches, giving people a place to stroll and picnic as well as honor their dead loved ones.

Bonaventure Cemetery is a showcase of Victorian funerary art. (Bob Sessions photo)

As we walked through Bonaventure, Dawn gave us a lesson in the symbolism of Victorian grave markers. A pillar marks the remains of a man who was a pillar of his community, for example, while lambs indicate a child that died young. A figure pointing upward showed that the deceased was on his way to heaven, and roses often adorn the graves of young women.

“Even if you don’t know who is buried underneath a marker, you can often figure out a great deal about their life if you know these symbols,” said Dawn.

As we walked farther into the cemetery, Dawn pointed out the graves of some of its most famous residents, including Savannah native and Grammy Award-winning musician Johnny Mercer. One of my favorite moments of our tour came when Dawn sang a medley of some of his hits, from “Moon River” and “Accentuate the Positive” to “Days of Wine and Roses.” Her lovely voice drifted among the gravestones as we stood enthralled.

Another well-known grave in Bonaventure is that of Little Gracie. Gracie Watson was the only child of the manager at one of the leading hotels in Savannah. She had an engaging personality that charmed everyone, but in 1889 tragically died of pneumonia at the age of six.

Little Gracie is the most-visited grave in Bonaventure Cemetery. (photo by Minipaula/Creative Commons)

As a tribute to his beautiful daughter, Gracie’s heartbroken father hired sculptor John Walz to create a monument. Using a photograph for reference, Walz crafted a life-size monument said to be a perfect likeness of the little girl.

“Gracie’s parents eventually moved back to New England, but Gracie remained here,” said Dawn. “Her grave is the most-visited site in Bonaventure. People leave offerings for her, often toys or flowers.”

As we approached the bank of the Wilmington River, Dawn went further back in history to the time when Bonaventure was still a plantation. One year its owner threw a large Christmas party, with guests invited from all the surrounding area. In the middle of the party, the upstairs caught on fire.

“The owner just shooed everyone outside and had the party continue on the front lawn,” Dawn said. “He knew there was nothing that could be done to save the house, and in Savannah you have to have a very good reason to shut down a party early.”

One thing that’s missing from Bonaventure Cemetery is the famous statue pictured on the cover of the book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Though the haunting Bird Girl once graced Bonaventure, it’s now on display at Savannah’s Telfair Museums to protect it from too much tourist traffic.

While many have waxed eloquent about Bonaventure’s charms, the best description of its beauties remains that of John Muir. In his A Thousand Mile Walk To The Gulf, he wrote: “I gazed awe-stricken as one new-arrived from another world. Bonaventure is called a graveyard, a town of the dead, but the few graves are powerless in such a depth of life. The rippling of living waters, the song of birds, the joyous confidence of flowers, the calm, undisturbable grandeur of the oaks, mark this place of graves as one of the Lord’s most favored abodes of life and light.”

If You Go: The entrance to Bonaventure Cemetery is at 330 Bonaventure Road. It is open daily from 8 am to 5 pm.

In addition to offering tours, Bonaventure Cemetery Tours has a Welcome Center & Gift Shop at 415 Bonaventure Road that has maps, books, and resources for learning about the cemetery. For general tourism information on Savannah and Tybee Island (Savannah’s Beach), see Visit Savannah.

Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She’s the author of the Near the Exit: Travels With the Not-So-Grim Reaper and Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God. Her website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world.

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