Long before Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil made its debut, the Bonaventure Cemetery has been the final resting place for notable residents of Savannah.
Located on the outskirts of the city, Bonaventure Cemetery rests on 100 acres on a bluff overlooking the Wilmington River at the site of the former Evergreen Plantation.
In 1762, the site was settled by Claudia Catell Mullryne and her husband, Colonel John Mullryne. The colonel planted oaks trees every 15 feet on each side of the roadways within his 600-acre estate. Today, some of the large oaks that are draped with Spanish moss are around 250 years old.
In 1846, the property was purchased for a private cemetery. In 1907, the city bought the property making it a public cemetery.
It’s free to visit the cemetery and 1-hour long free tours are offered by the Bonaventure Historical Society.
If you are staying in Savannah and did not bring your car with you, then you will have to arrange transportation to and from the cemetery. Or, you can do what I did and that is book a tour of Bonaventure Cemetery.
I booked a tour with Dash Tours through GetYourGuide.com and am glad that I did. The owner, Timmy, provided round-trip transportation from the hotel where I stayed. Along the way, we heard stories about Savannah and Bonaventure, passed by a tiny home community for veterans, and learned about cemeteries and symbolism.
If you take more than one of the many tours offered in Savannah, you are likely to hear similar stories with a spin. It will make you wonder what really happened.
Timmy is a 6th-generation Savannahan and was able to point out facts from fiction. His degree in history is an asset for this profession.
Case-in-point. See that picture of Jesus at the gate above? That’s Alexander Lawton’s grave. Pictured below is the grave of his daughter, Corrine Elliott Lawton, and it to the left of Alexander’s grave. It appears that she has her back to Jesus. Some might tell you stories as to why she has turned her back on Christ.
Stories are told about how she died, such as that she committed suicide because she was not allowed to marry the man that she wanted. The reality is that she was sick for 10 days before (likely) dying from pneumonia in 1877. Timmy pointed out that she preceded her father in death (1896) and her memorial was created before her father’s.
You will likely notice a lot of “bathtub” or “cradle” graves around Bonaventure. What appears to be a bathtub extending from a headstone is actually a planter.
Speaking of cradles, there are a lot of small graves for infants at the cemetery. The infant mortality rate was high in the 1800s. In fact, in 1800, only 54% of babies lived to see their fifth birthday. Thankfully, by 1900 the survival rate improved to 83.5%.
Notice that small rock on top of the planter at the left-hand side? There is a Jewish tradition of leaving small rocks or pebbles at a gravesite. Two of the possible reasons as to why: 1) pebbles and rocks last longer than flowers, and 2) “putting stones on a grave keeps the soul down in this world.”
There are four people named Hugh Mercer buried in the plot pictured above. The original ancestor was a doctor from Aberdeen, Scotland and was a general during the Revolutionary War for the Continental Army.
The cross at the foot of this grave indicates that the deceased fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War.
The relocated grave of John Mongin, owner of one of the first steamboats operating between Savannah, Charleston and plantations on coastal waterways. He was originally interred at Daufauskie Island, South Carolina.
Everywhere you look, history abounds at the cemetery, along with beauty and life.
“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.”
A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf, John Muir
Familiar with the idiom, “Saved by the bell?” The origin of the saying comes from the fact that years ago some people were unintentionally buried alive. Coffins that had been dug up had scratch marks in them from the undead trying to claw their way out.
In an effort to prevent that from happening, the allegedly deceased would be buried with a string connected to a bell outside the grave. Should he or she wake up and move, the bell would ring.
General Robert Anderson was a Confederate Brigadier General who fought on through the March to the Sea and the Carolinas Campaign. After the war, he served as Savannah’s chief of police from 1867 until his death.
The grave of Gracie Watson is allegedly haunted by the ghost of the 6-year old who died of pneumonia. It is a popular graveside destination for visitors to the cemetery.
Coins are left at the graveside and folklore has it that if you take any of the gifts left for Gracie, the statue will cry tears of blood.
Another famous resident at Bonaventure is Johnny Mercer, famed American lyricist, songwriter, and singer.
Johnny was born November 18, 1909 in Savannah and eventually made his way to New York where he eventually joined Paul Whiteman’s orchestra. He wrote lyrics for broadway musicals and motion pictures and founded Captial Records in 1942.
Some of his more popular works include “Jeepers Creepers,” “Hooray for Hollywood,” “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby,” “Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive,” and “Moon River.”
Mercer died died June 25, 1976, in Bel Air, California and was buried in his family’s plot at Bonaventure.
Another famous resident is the writer and poet Conrad Aiken.
Born in Savannah in 1889, he spent the first 11 years of his life at 228 Oglethorpe Street. He moved away after his father shot and killed his mother and then turned the gun on himself, committing suicide.
Aiken’s work would naturally be affected by the tragic loss of both of his parents. It is said that he they were influenced by early psychoanalytic theory and are concerned largely with the human need for self-awareness and a sense of identity.
Conrad won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1930 and he served as the poetry consultant to the Library of Congress (poet laureate) from 1950 to 1952.
He returned to Savannah in 1962 and lived at 230 Oglethorpe Street – the house next door to where he grew up, for the final 11 years of his life.
Symbolism at Cemeteries
Throughout the ages, memorials have been created to honor the deceased. Around the cemetery, you will no doubt see symbols that speak about the deceased. Here is a brief guide to some of the symbols you will see and what they represent:
- Arches – Gateway to Heaven
- Key – entrance to Heaven
- Lambs – innocence, purity
- Oak leaf – strength
- Obelisk – Eternal life, heaven, or rays of the sun shining down on the deceased forever
- Rose – motherhood
- Rose bud – purity; a youthful death
- Shoes – loss of a child
- Tree stump – a life cut short
- Urn – death of the flesh
Bonaventure is first and foremost a cemetery and many people still visit to pay respects to deceased family members.
When visiting, be sure to wear comfortable walking shoes. If you are prone to getting bug bites, consider bringing bug spray with you.
Looking for a specific grave of someone interred at Bonaventure? Head over to Find A Grave and input their information.
Heading to Savannah? Be sure to check out these other posts before you go: