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While I knew I would need to wisely choose how to spend my limited time in Savannah, Bonaventure Cemetery was at the top of my list of places to visit. And even though it is located outside of the city, I wasn’t about to skip it although from a logistics standpoint, it would have made sense. However, I simply adore visiting cemeteries because as a history lover, there’s no greater place to experience it.
Although Bonaventure Cemetery may not be as famous on a global recognition scale as Paris’ Pere la Chaise or Prague’s Jewish Cemetery, in the American South, and most especially the state of Georgia, Bonaventure Cemetery is quite the impressive spot.
I ended up booking a guided tour of Bonaventure Cemetery. This was mainly to cover transportation since we didn’t have a car in Savannah and I had read that public transportation to the cemetery is basically non-existent and taxis, expensive and difficult to arrange for the way back. So having a bus pick us up right outside of our hotel and take us there was terrific. But what was more terrific was the guided tour part. While I greatly enjoyed my visit to Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery, it was just D and me walking around with a guided map we purchased so although we found the graves I wanted to see and enjoyed stumbling across plenty of other unknown ones, I missed out on a lot of local history. Having a native son deliver the tour made the world of difference.
While it’s not the oldest cemetery in Savannah (that honor would go to Colonial Park Cemetery, which can be found right in Savannah’s historic district), it certainly is one of the most beautiful and features a setting like no other. Situated on a scenic bluff of the Wilmington River, to me it resembled something from another time, not surprising since its origins date back to the mid-19th century.
When you enter the cemetery, you hear nothing but the sounds of nature. You see nothing but trees that are bountifully draped with the Spanish moss that is found all over in Savannah. And if you visit in summer, you feel nothing but the heat and humidity (make sure you bring lots of sun block and bug spray to apply). Although the city of Savannah is on the smaller side, visiting the historic section of the cemetery, you are transported to another time between the centuries old graves and the lack of anything modern around you.
Bonvanture is actually located on the site of a former plantation. Nothing of the plantation remains except the its private cemetery, which is where our tour began. Bonvanture began as a private cemetery in 1868; however, it ended up being purchased by the City of Savannah in 1907 and was made public. It then became known as Bonaventure.
Being as a old as it is, it’s home to several famous individuals, including the notable Savannah son-the singer, songwriter, and lyricist Johnny Mercer. His family went back generations in the city and we saw numerous graves of his relatives. His grave site was particularly memorable-a bench featuring the names of many of the songs he wrote.
If you’ve read the book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, you’ll of course know that the cemetery played a small role in Chapter 2 when the author heads out there with a local resident who fills him in on all of the Savannah gossip. They enjoy martinis while sitting on the tombstone of local author Conrad Potter Aiken. Aiken specifically had his tombstone designed in the form of a bench so people could come and enjoy the views of the river, relax, all from his grave, just like he had once done himself.
But as always, I most enjoyed hearing the stories of individuals I never would have known about not growing up in the area. Like the one of “Little Gracie,” a child whose life was tragically cut short from illness. Her parents ended up leaving Savannah shortly after her death as they couldn’t bear to live someplace where she wasn’t. With no one around to tend to her grave, it started being looked after by the whole city and visitors alike. As such hers is one of the most visited graves at the cemetery.
Or hearing the story of the man who literally saved Savannah during the Civil War. While popular legend has it that Union Army General W.T. Sherman “gifted” the city as a Christmas present to President Abraham Lincoln, there apparently was nothing to gift. With the Union Army basically upon Savannah’s doorstep, the mayor at the time, Dr. Richard Arnold, rode to the army to surrender the city rather than have it suffer the same fate befallen upon much of the South during Sherman’s destruction. As such, the city neither burned nor was destroyed. Arnold was also a highly respected physician. While he requested a simple grave, the city ended up bestowing a much larger and more elaborate memorial next to it as he had done so much for the city.
And then of course being a historical cemetery, there were countless graves of children. One of the saddest ones was seeing a family plot in which four smaller tombstones were all laid side by side. A vivid reminder of how fleeting life once was.
There’s nothing morbid about “visiting” the dead. Rather, it’s one of the most respectful ways of honoring both them and the past. There’s so much more I could say about Bonaventure, but take my word by going there someday. It’s one of the most unique places you could ever visit.
Note: I booked our tour with Savannah Bonaventure Dash Tours and I can’t highly recommend them enough. Tours are limited to just 12 people, pick up and drop off is at a location of your choosing in the historic part of Savannah. I learned so much and for only $25, it truly is some of the best money you’ll spend.
Have you ever visited a cemetery on your travels?