Calling them gravestones simply does not do them justice. Many of the grave markers at Bonaventure Cemetery are true works of art. Sculptors worked for untold hours creating these beautiful statues and monuments. Bonaventure is more than a simple cemetery; it is an outdoor sculpture garden that has few rivals in the country.
Settled by Colonel Mylryne about 1760, he built a red brick plantation house on the land and named the place Bonaventure, which means “good fortune” in French. Bonaventure Cemetery lies along the Wilmington River, a short distance from Savannah’s “historic district,” but no less historically significant.
Bonaventure Plantation was a significant site during the American Revolution. In 1776 Royal Governor James Wright, escaped Revolutionary captors via Bonaventure. The estate on St. Augustine Creek became a landing for French and Haitian troops under Count Charles d’Estaing in October 1779, and the mansion was used as a hospital during the Siege of Savannah Georgia.
The cemetery has captured the imaginations of writers, poets, naturalists, photographers and filmmakers for more than 150 years. Part natural cathedral, part sculptural garden, Bonaventure transcends time. Confined within its boundaries and enclosed within its vaults, crypts and plots are a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, politicians, plantation proprietors, publishers, soldiers and a songwriter.
There are a number of well-known individuals laid to rest inside the walls of Bonaventure Cemetery. Perhaps the most well know is Johnny Mercer. The famous American songwriter is laid to rest in a part of the cemetery close to the Bull River. His grave is one of the most visited graves in Bonaventure Cemetery. Another well-known person to be buried in Bonaventure is Conrad Aiken. Aiken grew up in Savannah where he wrote some of his novels and poems.
In recent years, Bonaventure Cemetery has become one of Savannah’s most popular tourist attractions, primarily due to its role in Berendt’s best-selling book, “In The Midnight of Good and Evil.” The cover of the book features the “Bird Girl” which used to reside in the cemetery. The sculpture has since been moved to the Telfair Museum of Art.
In a cemetery of many unusual tombstones, perhaps one of the most unique is one in the shape of a piano. The interesting tombstones and vaults, the colorful camellias and azaleas, and the wonderful old live oak, dogwood and magnolia trees have made the cemetery one of the most photographed in the country.
The grounds are widely considered to be one of the most beautiful cemeteries in all of our country. The old growth oaks covered in Spanish moss, and the Victorian grave markers contribute to Bonaventure’s beauty. You will walk down dusty lanes, the dead buried on either side of you. It can be overwhelming at times.
The Live Oak Trees of Bonaventure
Bonaventure has long been known for the massive live oak trees, arched limbs covered in Spanish moss overhanging her roadways. Historical documentation has proved that many of the live oak trees in Bonaventure today are nearly 250 years old.
Those monuments alone make it hard for me to imagine camping out at Bonaventure overnight, Muir-style. In 1867 the place may have seemed alive, but in 2017 it feels frozen in time and covered with a thick layer of Victorian era dust. The overgrown live oaks and all of the Spanish moss make Bonaventure seem dark, and the humidity in the air—heavy enough in town—is even heavier in the cemetery by the river. Even after 250 years, those great live oaks still have the power to startle.
The cemetery is said to be the home of many haunts, including a pack of ghost dogs and the spirit of a little girl, Gracie Watkins. Gracie is buried here, and folks who visit often pay their respects by placing money, flowers or trinkets in the hands of her life-size statue. It is said that the statue cries tears of blood if any of her gifts are removed from her hands. (Statue can be found in Section E, Lot 98)
Open from dusk to dawn
Tours available through the Bonaventure Historical Society
Tour director: (912) 897-3313
Bonaventure Historical Society Visitor’s Center on site
Open weekends and holidays: 10am-4pm
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